The audience’s reserve during New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) matches is striking. During large shows, the thousands of fans in attendance go long stretches without making a peep. Individual voices (often the high-pitched screams of women trying to embolden their favored fighter) can be made out, ringing through the otherwise silent arena. It’s not that the crowd is disinterested in the action. It’s the contrary: They’re attentive, drinking in every detail of the wrestlers’ performances. Soon enough, after an especially stiff slap or a chain of reversals and dodges ending in a stalemate, the crowd will come to life, letting out a collective “Ooh” and a round of respectful applause. Then it’s back to near silence as they wait for the next praiseworthy moment. As a match wears on and intensifies, those quiet stretches become shorter and eventually disappear, with the audience now loudly behind the performers’ every move.
Therein lies the biggest difference between Japanese pro wrestling (often referred to as “puroresu” or “puro” by foreign fans) and the World Wrestling Entertainment-approved kind that most Americans would recognize. There’s an intense mutual respect between the audiences and the companies. NJPW, the top wrestling company in Japan and the second most successful in the world, trusts its audiences to pay attention, to appreciate the emotion on a wrestler’s face or subtle callbacks to past contests between bitter rivals. They do pay attention, and their reward is the best pro wrestling on the planet: dramatic, realistic matches worthy of scrutiny and even quiet observation.
With its dedication to nuance, physicality, and above all else, unadulterated wrestling, NJPW has been building a small but rabid fan base outside its home country, and it now seems poised to capitalize on it. Starting in 2011, when NJPW entered into its current golden age, the company began airing its biggest shows live online. Then, earlier this month, it launched NJPW World, its own streaming service where subscribers can watch live events and a catalog of matches dating back to 1973. Even though the site is in Japanese entirely, it too is accessible globally. (Google Chrome’s instant translations are a godsend.)
And starting in January 2015, New Japan is riding that momentum all the way to its first appearances on American television. AXS TV, the cable station formerly known as HDNet, is producing a weekly NJPW show with English commentary over major matches from 2012 and 2013. Bigger still, on January 4, NJPW will be airing live on pay-per-view when Global Force Wrestling, an ill-defined wrestling venture headed up by Jeff Jarrett, presents Wrestle Kingdom. Emanating from the Tokyo Dome in front of 35,000 fans, Wrestle Kingdom is NJPW’s biggest production—four hours of athletic spectacle and the culmination of a year’s worth of stories. Global Force is pulling out all the stops for its presentation, hiring the world’s most famous wrestling announcer, Jim “Good Ol’ JR” Ross, to call the show from ringside and fill in new viewers on the fighters and their stories.
With New Japan available more easily (and legally) than ever before and its attempt to make a foothold abroad, now’s the perfect time to talk about this storied and overlooked corner of Japanese culture. In addition to everything we’ve already covered in this beginner’s guide, we’ll take a closer look at the company’s more realistic style, a few of its stars, and quickly run down the Wrestle Kingdom show and its two main event matches.
NJPW’s commitment to a genuine and grounded brand of professional wrestling goes back to the legacy of its founder. Antonio Inoki started the company in 1972. He was trained in both traditional wrestling and mixed martial arts and took elements from each to develop a method of fighting called “strong style,” which defines much of NJPW’s wrestling to this day. It’s meant to make the wrestling look as real as possible, emphasizing hard-hitting chops and martial arts kicks alongside submission holds where wrestlers wrench on arms, legs, and necks. Inoki saw it as a viable fighting style and competed in matches against top competitors from other combat sports to prove its effectiveness. (However, most of those were as predetermined as any other pro wrestling match. One exception was his 60-minute draw against Muhammad Ali, a debacle from which Ali’s legs never fully recovered.)
Inoki was a superstar and proud champion of pro wrestling, promoting it as a legitimate sport with NJPW’s slogans “King Of Sports” and “Civil rights for puroresu.” This idea of puro as sport trickled down to the matches, which were and still are brutal affairs with full-blown strikes. It’s not uncommon to see two NJPW bulls standing in the middle of the ring slamming their forearms against each other’s welted chests until one finally collapses in pain or is knocked to the mat. Like boxing or MMA, wrestlers are divided into two weight classes with separate championship belts, heavyweight and junior heavyweight. (The distinction is largely arbitrary, though, and more indicative of a difference in wrestling styles with the junior heavyweights integrating more Mexican lucha-libre-inspired acrobatics and intricate submission holds.)
The surrounding presentation of an NJPW show is more sports-like as well, with post-match press conferences and elaborate photo-op-ready trophy ceremonies. Inoki’s plan to win over audiences worked, and puroresu, especially NJPW and its primary competitors like All Japan Pro Wrestling, were covered by the media and consumed by fans like a real sport ever since.
That’s not to say NJPW isn’t a carefully constructed piece of scripted entertainment. It still is, but the stories it tells aren’t based on soapy melodrama outside the ring and, beyond the occasional masked luchador or anime character come to life (Tiger Mask, Jushin Thunder Liger), its fighters aren’t caricatures or superheroes. Things don’t always boil down to “good guy vs. bad guy.” Many perform under their real names, and their motivations hardly ever go beyond “I would like to have your championship belt” or “I want to prove I’m better than you,” just as they would in any other sporting event.
As with all the best professional wrestling, NJPW’s real storytelling happens inside the ring. It comes from the strategies and mannerisms of the wrestlers: the subtle disdain with which a fan-favorite might treat a rival in order to encourage the ever-attentive crowd to turn on them; an aggressive combatant slapping their opponent when the referee calls for them to separate cleanly. (That one always gets a big “Ohhhh” out of the fans.) Matches hardly ever end in disqualifications or involve outside interference or other hackneyed chicanery. These are real bouts and wins and losses matter. They’re written into the New Japan history books, along with memorable details from each high-profile encounter, to be referenced and played upon in later matches.
Hiroshi Tanahashi (IWGP Heavyweight Champion, seventh reign): It’s with good reason that Tanahashi is Japan’s biggest puro star and has been at the top of the game for years. He’s one of the world’s most respected active professional wrestlers, a 15-year veteran whose ring acumen could get an entertaining, well-paced match out of anybody. He does it all: slow but intricate submission-based wrestling; lightning-quick exchanges where kicks miss heads by inches; and he loves to fly from the top rope, connecting scary leaps with pinpoint accuracy multiple times per match. Tanahashi’s also a charismatic master of crowd manipulation, able to believably flip the switch between squeaky-clean boy scout and snobby asshole instantly. He’s held the IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix, the faux governing body that runs New Japan) Heavyweight Championship, NJPW’s top prize, more than any other performer and is currently amid his record-breaking seventh reign.
Shinsuke Nakamura (IWGP Intercontinental Champion, fourth reign): Nakamura is the oddest, most immediately lovable member of the New Japan roster. He’s a flamboyant, short-tempered gangster who struts to the ring in red leather pants and a drum major jacket, flapping his arms every which way and batting away the hands of adoring fans. Equal parts goofball and brutal tough guy, Nakamura infuses his character into every movement and expression in the ring. One second he might be holding his boot to a grounded opponent’s neck and ineffectually convulsing, the next he’s repeatedly and viciously kneeing them in the gut. He’s both a gifted actor and mixed martial artist, a combination that makes him a pleasure to watch whether he’s believably selling an injury or believably beating the snot out of someone.
Kazuchika Okada: Many would call Okada the future star of New Japan, and while that’s entirely true, given his age—27—it discounts the impact he’s already made. Okada returned to NJPW from his nearly two-year sojourn in America’s TNA wrestling in January 2012, and was immediately elevated to the top of the roster. The next month, he beat Tanahashi for the Heavyweight Championship. At that point, he was the cocky upstart, an identity reflected in his new character—a bleach-blond playboy nicknamed “The Rainmaker,” complete with a money shower for the crowd during his entrances. After a series of lauded matches with Tanahashi (more on that later), Okada became a beloved star in his on right. The future’s already arrived, and it’s going to stick around for a long time.
The Bullet Club: This faction within NJPW is made up of most of the company’s non-Japanese wrestlers (plus one Japanese turncoat). It’s a post-modern sendup of similar groups from American wrestling in the ’90s, reappropriating the look, mannerisms, and unsportsmanlike antics of WCW’s NWO and WWE’s D-Generation X. With nostalgia and a kickass T-shirt on their side, the Bullet Club has become one of the most popular aspects of New Japan overseas. (Seriously, you can’t go to a small wrestling show in America without seeing dozens of those shirts.) They introduced some very un-NJPW wrestling tropes from America, with their members capturing championships through outside interference and referee distractions. At one point in 2014, they held all but two of the company’s titles simultaneously, with American star AJ Styles coming in and winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship off of Okada in his first-ever match. They’ve since dropped all but one of their belts (the heavyweight tag team championship, which seems poised for a change of hands at Wrestle Kingdom), and toned down their shenanigans.
Every year since 1992, New Japan’s biggest show has taken place on January 4 in the Tokyo Dome. It had a different name each year until 2007 when it was permanently titled Wrestle Kingdom. It’s New Japan’s Wrestlemania, an absolute blowout complete with lengthy theatrical entrances. (Last year featured a Back To The Future-inspired tag team arriving in a DeLorean, a live performance from Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, and a man painted up like Carnage from Spider-Man busting out of a coffin.) Despite the pomp, it follows the same general structure as other New Japan shows:
The first match is for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship. This is pro wrestling at its most acrobatic, a violent Cirque Du Soleil that demands an awe-inspiring amount of synchronicity between the wrestlers and is meant to get the crowd hyped up with jaw-dropping leaps of faith. Just like 2014’s show, Wrestle Kingdom 9’s opening match will involve four teams (that’s eight wrestlers) and somewhere around 12 minutes of all-out gravity-defying carnage.
After that, there’ll be a couple of less interesting large (six- and eight-man) tag team matches thrown together with some otherwise unoccupied wrestlers. Then, things start popping off again with lesser title defenses and marquis singles match-ups. Finally, we reach the end of the night with two sure-to-be classic main events.
Shinsuke Nakamura (champion) vs. Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Nakamura might only be two years his elder, but Kota Ibushi is playing the role of the rising star in this match. He’s a popular former junior heavyweight champion and, upon losing that title, announced that it was time for him to take a shot at the big leagues. This match against Nakamura is his first opportunity at one of the company’s two biggest prizes. The two have only faced off one previous time when they put on one of NJPW’s best matches of 2013, with Nakamura barely pulling out the victory after a savage battle where it took four of Nakamura’s signature flying knees-to-the-head to put Ibushi away. It was a showcase for Ibushi, one of the world’s greatest high-flying wrestlers, and after that barnburner, the expectations for this rematch are astronomical. Still, they’re somehow not as high as the final match of the night:
Hiroshi Tanahashi (champion) vs. Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship: The rivalry between these men is one for the ages. It made Okada a star and carried NJPW into its current era, often deemed one of the greatest runs of all time. They clashed in five championship matches across 2012 and 2013, trading the title three times. The bouts became more ferocious and emotional with each successive match. They learned the ins and outs of each other’s repertoires, leading to incredible strings of reversals and both men scrambling to innovate mid-match. Tanahashi developed a vicious mean streak, doing his damnedest to damage Okada’s right arm in order to thwart the upstart’s finishing move. He stomped on it. He slammed it against the mat with all his might and hatred. He all but ripped the thing out of its socket. This made Okada a sympathetic figure, splitting the crowd’s support between the two men and stirring them into an even greater frenzy during each encounter. Their feud climaxed with a collision in April 2013, an unassailable masterpiece that saw Okada reclaiming his title. He’d fend off Tanahashi one more time later that year in the story’s denouement.
Even though this rivalry is being reignited with Tanahashi as champion, he’s going into this match as the underdog. Okada has two wins in a row against him, and after their initial series of trades, never actually lost the title to the aging master. (Tanahashi won the belt from AJ Styles in October 2014.) Tanahashi might still be the company’s top star, but Okada is no longer the overachieving rookie. He’s not out to prove himself on January 4. He’s out to take his spotlight back.