New Japan Pro Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom and the Art of the Fight

New Japan Pro Wrestling is the second-biggest wrestling promotion in the world, and utterly unique. Naturally, its Wrestle Kingdom event was a hell of a show.

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Jan 5 2016, 6:57pm

Photo by ゾーヒョ/ Wikimedia Commons

One of the best pro-wrestling events in the world happened early Monday morning. It was evening in the Tokyo Dome, but it says something about New Japan Pro Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom, the flagship event of Japan's flagship pro-wrestling company, that fans in the West made time early on a Monday morning for some live wrestling. Wrestle Kingdom is part WrestleMania, part indie extravaganza, its various wrestlers linked loosely by a style that involves hitting one another really, really hard. It is absolutely worth setting an alarm for.

On the surface, NJPW appears hard to get into. The company eschews the American obsession with long promos and backstage vignettes for an obsessive focus on in-ring action, all of which is tied to a style that's a little rougher and more athletic than the standard WWE fare. But it's that relative simplicity—the binary of a fight, and the styles that make it—that in fact makes NJPW so easy to slide into. There are no weird soap-operatic power dynamics or obsessive corporate egos of the WWE sort; there are no elaborate storylines a la CHIKARA, which really should come with its own FAQ. NJPW's stories are almost always about two guys fighting for pride, a title, or both. They get in the ring, and they go at it. There's nothing to misunderstand.

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Jules Bentley wrote in this space about the ease with which you can fall into this seemingly strange world of Japanese wrestling. There's nothing all that strange about it, really: the names are unfamiliar and some of the jokey bits are mystifying if you lack the cultural context, but NJPW gets to the elemental appeal of wrestling through pyrotechnical physical storytelling and a complete lack of guile. It is, in its best and simplest form, honest about what it is and why people watch it. NJPW is so stripped down that what feels strangest and most exotic about it is just how straightforward and unadorned it all is.

Wrestle Kingdom 10 lived up to expectations. The event always does. It felt a bit overlong this year, with the tag-team-heavy undercard not quite matching the fierce action of 2014's vintage, but this is quibbling over a couple years on a finely aged wine. WK10 did not fuck around when it came to action or drama. It never does.

Styles upon Styles. Photo by ゾーヒョ/ Wikimedia Commons

The prime drama centered on three title bouts. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii was a brutal, wince-inducing affair that wound up being about which wrestler could take legit kicks the longest. There was Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles, dubbed a dream match between maybe the greatest wrestler in the world and an American high-flyer who's enjoying something of a renaissance in his early middle age. The third match, between Kazuchika Okada (NJPW's current champion and young gun) and Hiroshi Tanahashi (a sort of better John Cena), was the latest installment of a multi-year feud that's more about a generational power shift in Japanese wrestling than either of the primary actors.

All three bouts were mesmerizing, particularly the main event between Tanahashi and Okada. The lasting image of that match, a 30-minute screamer in which both men were exhausted by the end, is of Okada refusing to let go of his elder's wrist. It was a small but important piece of physical storytelling: Okada's last bit of strength was to hang on to that wrist, no matter how hard Tanahashi fought, to set up for his finisher, the Rainmaker Clothesline. If he wriggled free, Tanahashi would win because Okada was too spent to catch him for his finisher again. This sort of grace note, the small tell amid all that whirling overstatement, is a NJPW signature.

I sat, transfixed, throughout those three matches. Each of them was different, but they all embodied what's best about pro wrestling. There was that feeling of slight weightlessness you get as a wrestling fan when the action is paced so well, and the story in the ring so well told, that you forget that it's not real. That's when you really replay old forms of drama, when the Greek chorus becomes white noise and the masks become faces of flesh and bone. Okada's knee gets wrenched, over and over, and you gasp. Ishii head-butts Shibata and you recoil slightly from the sickening thud, wondering if it was as real as it looked. Physical time melts away into dramatic time, moments come and go. Nakamura gives a fist bump to AJ Styles after a match that tears the house down and there is nothing to do but smile.

It's this last moment that feels so portentous on a second viewing. Late Monday afternoon, well-sourced rumors began to break that Nakamura, Styles, and unnamed members of Bullet Club—a sort of postmodern callback to the nWo of the 1990s and 2000s—had all tendered their resignations after the show. The destination, if true, is obvious: they're heading stateside to WWE.

Styles' return to the United States and a fat paycheck in the twilight years of his career has always seemed like a foregone conclusion. He is an American and a family man, and the money is better stateside. Styles occupies a role oddly similar to that of Sting: he never hit WWE outside of a couple dark matches, instead making his name as the face of WWE's competitor, TNA. His role in WWE—most likely in NXT, WWE's indie-friendly development brand—will probably be to happily put on hot-shit matches while making younger guys look good.

Nakamura's case is stranger. He is—and there's no way to overstate this—a cultural force in Japan. There's something odd about him, a blend of slightly androgynous sex appeal and barely restrained violence; his every match is a candidate for match of the year simply because he's in it. To call on Bentley's discovery of NJPW once more, Nakamura does seem like a Takeshi Miike character sprung to life.

But Nakamura's undeniable charisma is partly the result of a that WWE holds in open contempt. Nakamura likes to mug to the crowd with the exaggerated showmanship of someone who thrills to live performance. WWE drills into its talent that you play to the camera before the crowd. Eyeball the cameras, talk to them, know where they are, and do your big moves where the shot already is.

Nakamura is wonderful, an undeniable talent, but it seems like there's a culture clash in the making here. Because this is WWE, Nakamura will not win that clash. He'll adapt, because he's a pro, but his choice is a hard one: risk a lifetime of work spent creating a truly unique pro-wrestling character, or be buried on his way out the door. The risk is great, but it's easy to see why Nakamura is taking the chance. He's a cultural icon in his home country, and may want to see if he can reach the same status elsewhere.

Also looming over the Wrestle Kingdom show is the gate number: 25,000 fans in a 55,000-seat baseball stadium. There are several factors that somewhat ameliorate that troubling number. Chris Charlton, co-host of a podcast dedicated to Japanese wrestling, points out that NJPW's obsession with running their big show on January 4th every year sometimes leads to smaller live crowds when it lands on a weekday. It's also true that, while NJPW is the second-most-viewed wrestling company in the world, the entire wrestling business is experiencing a downtrend. Still, all those empty seats make for a stark number, no matter the circumstances. The combo of a smaller gate and headlining wrestlers heading out the door won't kill NJPW, but it doesn't help.

Why does WWE want more wrestlers when its roster is bursting at the seams? The answer appears to be simple: Why not? NXT is looking a little lean after call-ups to the main roster. Nakamura, Styles, and Bullet Club can fill in there, probably around current NXT champion (and former NJPW champion) Finn Balor.

Mostly, though, WWE wants NJPW's stars because they want everyone and everything. This is what monopolies do; this is their logic. For as much as wrestling fans complain that WWE needs some viable competition to shake it from its creative doldrums, those same wrestling fans are already writing fanfiction about their dream matchups for Nakamura. The business is what it has always been, but the sort of ultraviolent artistry on display in NJPW does at least take the edge off.