High-impact slams, chokeholds and daredevil feats of athleticism aren’t the usual way to celebrate a 40th birthday, but that’s how New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) will be spending its big day.
The promotion company was founded by square-jawed wrestling legend Antonio Inoki in June 1972. Its signature event has been held annually on Jan. 4 at Tokyo Dome since 1992, but in 2007 they dubbed it “Wrestle Kingdom” after a video game.
For fans of the popular U.S.-based World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) promotion and its dramatic soap-opera shenanigans, Japanese puroresu (pro-wrestling) might take a little getting used to. The basics are still the same: count-outs, muscleheads, bodyslams and matches that appear somewhat predetermined. The difference comes in the presentation — puroresu takes itself way more seriously.
The man currently at the top of the puroresu pyramid is Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi. He’s an ideal poster boy for the organization: handsome, young and a winner. He became quite philisophical when he spoke with The Japan Times recently about the organization, and he also stressed that he’s not just a pretty face.
“I was a young performer when I joined NJPW,” he says. “At that time, I was trained and taught how I, as a wrestler, should live. It’s not just about the performance.”
While bouts in the West are often interrupted by outside interference to enhance dramatic flare, puroresu matches have a more sportsmanlike atmosphere. A lot of emphasis is placed on tournaments, and win/loss records are important for a wrestler’s future.
The audience is often quieter, mostly letting out “oohs” and “aahs” in unison at the bigger moves and occasionally breaking into a round of applause after a particularly skillful exchange.
Despite hard times in the early 2000s, when the company transitioned from old stars to new and lost a chunk of its audience, NJPW has regained its footing to become Japan’s top wrestling promotion. Tanahashi credits the staff, but he also thinks the philosophy of “how wrestlers should live” helped.
“We experienced a lot of setbacks,” he says. “But it’s like wrestling: you must have patience when you are attacked and wait for the right moment to fight back. I think that now, what the staff, wrestlers and fans have been seeking are united. We seem to all be looking at the same goal.”
The reverence puroresu enjoys today as an almost-legitimate sport (it’s still viewed more as entertainment) is largely thanks to founder Inoki. With a credible fighting background, Inoki’s constant dabbling in mixed-martial-arts bouts did wonders for increasing the credibility of pro-wrestling, especially after it had mostly been dismissed in the West as a muscle-bound pantomime. His 1976 bout against Muhammad Ali took on legendary proportions and is still remembered by fans today — the fact that Inoki fought the world’s greatest fighter to a draw gave professional wrestlers in Japan a lot more clout.
But that’s not to say puroresu is completely serious. Any good fight promoter knows that two generic guys in black trunks knocking the stuffing out of each other gets old after a while. NJPW in particular has changed with the times, incorporating a sizeable shot of American showmanship into its matches. Events feature loud rock music and light shows; wrestlers have adopted outrageous personas and are decked out in colorful costumes, often taking up the microphone to belittle opponents using edgy yakuza-style slang.
NJPW also borrows from the acrobatic style of Mexico’s lucha libre (free-wrestling) tradition, and is increasingly shining the spotlight on exciting young wrestlers who can wow crowds with high-flying moves from the top rope. Rising stars such as Tiger Mask (the recent incarnation, five wrestlers are reported to have played the character since he debuted) and Ireland’s Prince Devitt are seeing a lot of success at combining the acrobatics of lucha libre with the high impact of puroresu. The result can often look like something out of the film “The Matrix.”
But the influence hasn’t all been one way. Many top U.S. stars spent their early years in Japan honing their craft, including popular fighters Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam and the late Eddie Guerrero. NJPW’s roster always has a few foreign faces, and it can be exciting to see talented young performers on their rise to stardom.
With the economic downturn, it has been regularly reported that many Japanese pro-wrestling events have seen declining attendance figures, but NJPW has proved an exception. Last year’s Tokyo Dome show pulled in around 42,000 people, its biggest numbers in six years, proving that Japan’s biggest puroresu outfit hasn’t gone down for the count. A big part of this hasn’t just been the company’s knack for changing with the times — NJPW veteran wrestler Yuji Nagata also credits the rise of a new generation of stars.
“There are new performers now, so our matches appeal to new fans,” Nagata says. “There have also been more appearances on TV, and the Internet has helped bring in a new set of fans.”
While rivals All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro-Wrestling Noah are suffering as the stars of yesteryear scale back their schedules or retire outright, NJPW’s top draws these days are still in their mid-30s.
“We provide a good practice environment,” says NJPW President Naoki Sugabayashi. “We have dojo and training camps, so the performers can practice any time they want to.”
Buoyed by its resurgent popularity in Japan, Sugabayashi says NJPW has even begun exploring expansion abroad. The company has forged strong links with Mexican promotion Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) and North America’s Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling, allowing for regular talent exchanges that help keep the product fresh. Sugabayashi says these overseas tours are set to become a far more common occurrence.
“Recently, we have been dispatching our performers to Mexico, and we are also inviting their performers here,” he says. “We have done events on the East Coast of America, and are hoping to do more on the West Coast.”
With their eyes set firmly on expansion and an increasing international fan base, NJPW can take solace in that old adage — life begins at 40.
Additional reporting by Daisuke Kikuchi
“Wrestle Kingdom 6″ takes place at Tokyo Dome on Jan. 4 from 5 p.m. Tickets cost between ¥3,000-¥40,000. For more information, call (03) 6407-3111 or visit www.njpw.co.jp.