May History ’09
May 5th, 2009
In my opinion, one of the best ways to experience a country’s culture is at sporting events, usually this for me takes the form of football, but occassionally I take in other sports. One such sport was wrestling in Japan.
No not Sumo Wrestling, Professional Wrestling. The group was NEO Ladies Pro Wrestling in the famous Tokyo Korakuen hall.
I’ll level with you guys – I am a closet (well, rather proud) wrestling fan. To me it’s an art form – the same way a ballet is. Individuals, usually underpaid, gather in arenas to tell a story and bring emotion out of a crowd. But the real reason why it’s an art form is that if you don’t understand it, you’re unlikely to ever get the appeal. A lot of people don’t get it and dismiss it. I do, and I love it.
I had planned on watching wrestling in Japan, but I had planned on watching New Japan Pro Wrestling – one of Japan’s largest federations in Korakuen Hall but unfortunately the show was sold out. Instead I got tickets to NEO Ladies Pro Wrestling. Who are akin to your guys in leisure centres. Except with girls.
At this point I feel I should explain the scene a little bit. Every single combat sport in Japan (and yes, professional wrestling is considered to be a combat sport in Japan) is covered heavily over there, and every single year – as exposure – they are allowed to promote a show in the Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, to get a little more exposure than simply in their regional bases. So whilst the largest Sumo, MMA, Boxing & Pro Wrestling promotions in Japan have a show in Korakuen Hall every few months, some of the smaller regional promotions get one slot a year.
NEO Ladies is one of the larger companies to only promote one show a year, they have TV shows (both wrestling shows & sitcoms featuring the wrestlers), celebrities (more on that later) & a large fanbase. With that said, they’re not that big – sometimes getting a few hundred people a show. The Korakuen Hall event – May History 2009 (which is their Wrestlemania) – sold out the venue (or as it was reported on their website – a “Super No Vacancy Full House!!”). Either way, I had no idea who they were.
I picked up a ticket the day before, and was looking forward to it. Was a bit of a highlight for my trip to Japan, even if it wasn’t the NJPW show later in the day. Nevertheless I was relatively clueless going into the event. All I know is that female wrestling is serious business in Japan (none of these hot oil matches seen in the USA feds). I arrived well in time to watch the preparation, which featured beautify designed banners hanging from the ceiling.
The first match featured Ayumi Kurihara vs. Nozomi Dai. I feel I should explain Ayumi Kurihara. From my understanding, she’s a bit of a celebrity in Japan – imagine if you will if Davina McCall began wrestling training & you’d get her. To be honest, the match featured an abundance of drop kicks, with the finisher being a drop kick from the top turnbuckle. I wasn’t convinced.
The next match was comedic & bloody marvellous – Toshie Uematsu & Ran Yu-Yu vs Fuka & Nagisa Nozaki. Rules went out the window with a wierd spot where a hold was applied on a postage trolley & wheeled around. The Nozaki’s won, but this match got the crowd going.
If that match was comedy, the next match wasn’t, as it was a title match for the vacant NEO High Speed Championship, featuring Rei vs. Natsuki*Taiyo. Rei was geuinely incredible, as this athletic encounter had featured double sunset flips, hurricaranas and a cartwheel on the top rope – which is probably the most incredible thing I’ve thing in my life. Fuck the Northern Lights. Natsuki*Taiyo kept her end up, with her own collection of maenouvers – eventually winning the match with a backflip slam from the top rope. I was gobsmacked, genuinely jumping up and down & cheering the staple wrestling chant of those who are impressed with the effort. It was then I observed that my fellow Japanese puro fans weren’t cheering, instead watching with respect.
One of the bigger matches on the card featured Haruka Matsuo, a petite pink wearing Japanese lady. Haruka, you see, was retiring from professional wrestling, and this was her last match – a tag match feating Matsuo & Aya Yuki against Tanny Mouse & Yuki Miyazaki. One of the quirks of the Japanese crowd is the throwing of streamers when impressed. US & UK have a similar, but noticably different habit – the throwing of trash when unequivocally unimpressed. All of a sudden, on the announcement of “Haruka Matuuuusssssooooo!!!” by the female Michael Buffer, streams of pink, white & gold flew over my head, aimed for the ring. It was truly a sight to behold. Japanese fans don’t cheer, they throw streamers, and they streamed the fuck out the place.
Whilst retirement matches in the US are serious things (but rarely lead to an actual retirement), in Japan they are rather frivolous – but did lead to an actual retirement. The entire roster (including the referee & Aya Yuki) came out & each hit a move on this poor girl, giving Tanny Mouse & Yuki Miyazaki the win. Haruka, being the tough girl she is, picked herself up, was given a hug by the entire roster (the same one that kicked her arse a minute ago) and a video package was played with the Japanese Michael Aspel leading a “This is your Life” ceremony – with gifts shared by people she knew. It was all in Japanese, but is was touching. Following this, her theme music was played one more time (the marvellous “Girl Power” by 90’s crap UK bubblegum pop duo Shampoo) & she was carried out on wrestlers shoulders, akin to Bobby Moore after the 1996 world cup final.
After the break was a 6 women No Disqualification match – Kyoko Kimura, Atsuko Emoto & Tomoka Nakagawa vs Kyoko Inoue, Etsuko Mita & Hiroyo Matsumoto – this was absolutely brutal & I didn’t like it much: blood, diving off ladders & me having to vacate my seat at least three times due to large Japanese women being thrown in my general direction. The match ended when Hiroyo Matsumoto was hung – yes hung – from the ring. Genuinely scary moment that look planned, but still was concerned enough not to enjoy the rest of the show & the main event.
The main event was for the NWA Pacific Ladies heavyweight championship. Imagine the scene. It’s Wrestlemania 17. It’s Stone Cold Steve Austin vs The Rock for the WWF Championship. It’s been built up for absolute year, could the champion The Rock beat the challenger Stone Cold Steve Austin? But 3 days before the event, during a match in front of 100 people, The Rock suffers a neck injury, meaning that the individual who caused the neck injury became champion due to forefit. That man was Steve Blackman. So the match at Wrestlemania 17 is now Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Steve Blackman.
Makes sense? Good. Because that what happened.
The champion going into the event – Emi Sakura – only became champion because the original champion – Nanae Takahashi – was injured. Her oppponant – Yoshiko Tamura – looked confident & like she should be there. Emi, bless her, did not. The match itself was great, with Emi in control for large swathes, but Yoshiko won the match, became champion & everybody left promptly.
Except they didn’t. Korakuen Hall is tiny and there was only one way out, plus there was a meet & greet session with the girls, so with a few 1000 yen (about £15) in hand, I had signed photos, shook hands & blank stares with my incomprehensible English.
Except one. Rei, who I developed a little crush on. Despite being able to kick my arse 10 ways on Sundays, she spoke pretty good English. She asked me what my name was so she can personally sign a picture. Which she did & I asked her to pose with it. She was only happy to oblige.
That picture, along with all the other polaroids & a few pictures you see above (although they are a bit over exposed, sorry), take pride of place on my wall. Yes, I know it’s scripted, and yes I know it’s a bit silly at times, but if you’re ever in Japan, head to the Korakuen Hall & watch some wrestling – bonus points if it’s NEO Ladies – you’ll be bloody glad you did.