The Ghastly Glory of New Japan Pro Wrestling
The craziest, most violent, most reprehensible, and best show in combat sports is New Japan Pro Wrestling. Which, somehow, is now a thing you can watch on TV.
Illustrations by Ben Passmore
You probably aren't getting into heaven if you enjoy watching New Japan Pro Wrestling. You are, at some level, sick. That's okay; we live in a sick civilization. I'm sick too. I love watching dudes hurt each other. Let's watch New Japan on AXS TV together. You don't mind if I get comfortable, right?
Is it weird that part of why I'm addicted to NJPW is that I barely ever know what's going on? Fat yellow letters fill the screen's bottom third: IWGP JR. TAG CHAMPIONSHIP TIME SPLITTERS BECOME 38th CHAMPION. "This match," the announcer says, "is the latest in the interminable battle between Chaos and the Sakuraba Gund." Duly noted. The bouts on a given episode come from different years; they're highlights cherry-picked from intricately bracketed Cups and Tournaments, the structures of which remain obscure.
And now, a commercial break. "I'm... Gregg Allman." Gregg Allman says, in a tone that suggests he might not have been yesterday, "and you're watching (pause) AXS TV."
We're back! Cheesy computer-smoke blows in from both sides behind the NJPW logo and triumphant electric guitar fades into driving synth. A battered wrestler peers into the camera through a sunset of facial bruises; his upper and bottom lips are both split. "I will never let anyone speak lightly of Super Junior," he assures us via subtitle. Is that a division, then? Not a person, tag team or faction? Who fucking cares? After no more than thirty seconds of elliptical promo, we're in the ring, inside "Bodymaker Colosseum, formerly known as Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium," to watch a wrestler named Vampire Chicken get massacred.
Some in the audience are wearing surgical masks. There is a shirtless man pacing ringside, presumably invested in the match's outcome, though his presence is not remarked upon. He's wearing a gigantic headpiece reminiscent of Sauron's battle helmet. It looks like a haunted castle is growing out of his shoulders.
The outlook is grim for haggard old Vampire Chicken. He is facing a pretty-boy hero wrestler with Masters of the Universe musculature, blonde-streaked boy-band hair, and a surgically idealized face. Above a lantern jaw, the hero's cheeks are round as a Cabbage Patch Kid's. His artificially plumped cherry-red cupid's bow lips smile, revealing luminous teeth. His face is uncannily ageless. Without changing expression, he kicks Vampire Chicken in the head so hard the television shudders on the dresser; his forearm chops leave diagonal, turnip-colored welts. The violence is appalling and yet so compelling, so visceral, so... real. This is "strong style," the notorious Japanese approach to pro-wrestling, now available with English commentary on AXS, a channel I had no idea existed.
The English commentary is key. Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett are the best pro-wrestling commentary team in decades. Effortlessly in command of the details and characters, they are superlative, enriching guides to each episode's otherwise disconnected and potentially baffling matches. Their approach is sports-like, and they take the action seriously as presented, integrating bits of backstory with flawless, technically informed play-by-play. They project a sort of Bruce Campbell-ish suavity, presiding over the broadcast like confident friends introducing you around a surreally wild party.
Ranallo, who's also announced boxing and MMA matches, has a polished, authoritative baritone and a remarkable vocabulary. Barnett, a former combat sports participant, provides an earnest, laid-back counterpoint and knows many of the NJPW wrestlers personally. Barnett's anecdotes span Tokyo, Las Vegas, and Rio de Janeiro, evoking a gritty, glamorous, big-city after-dark showbiz milieu of private suites and international flights. The commentary team's enthusiasm and engagement offer a path into a product that might otherwise be off-puttingly bizarre. When a wrestler cheats, the announcers react with strong disapproval, and their credibility makes it work. Instead of dispassionately evaluating the "heel work" of the villain, I'm nodding in agreement with my cool pals, Mauro and Josh, who are pissed at this asshole disrespecting the sport.
I have not seen any women in NJPW, except in the audience. This is a fantasy realm populated entirely by super-tough men, though the NJPW locker room ranges in body type, fashion, and age; it's a broad palette of violent masculinity. There are young boys and faded stars, the latter variously avuncular, mummified or deranged. This is a world of dandies, beefcake pinups, rough-trade bruisers, stone-faced killers, and quasi-human archetypal wildmen who grimace like gargoyles, bellow like gorillas, pull their own hair and bite whatever comes within range.
I can try and compare him to idols from other fields, but Nakamura is sui generis, a foppish, world-weary thug in a drum major's jacket who prances to the ring like Michael Jackson. His horrific strikes — Nakamura is "The King of Strong Style" — come like the dagger inside a phantasmagoric, florid bouquet of stylized balletic flourishes and gyrations, eccentric upper-body twists and Fred Astaire footwork. His face is that of man exhausted by the effort to control his own violence. Nakamura seems a prisoner of his gifts; deep inner struggle is etched into his expressive features.The number one reason to watch NJPW — arguably to watch pro wrestling at all — is the wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura, to dip into Japanese cinema, is a Takashi Miike character as played by a younger, more sinewy Beat Takeshi: an otherworldly gangster god whose face alone can hold your complete attention. In more domestic terms, Nakamura is like Omar in "The Wire," the avatar of some mythological force; he transcends not just the show but the medium.
When an opponent provokes him, Nakamura appears to experience genuine moral regret, something like disgust at what he's about to unleash. His face changes: he trembles: he surrenders to whatever terrifying entity dwells inside him and launches a spinning, writhing beat-down that would cripple a plowhorse, an unforgettable mix of guitar solo and Hulk Smash.
NJPW offers a few familiar gaijin faces. There's AJ Styles, who is like the AJ Styles of TNA except a hundred times better, and Doc Gallows, previously known as Festus and Luke Gallows in WWE, now wearing Mantaur head-paint. There's also a North American wrestler named Ricochet who moves like a cheat-coded video-game character — some lazy programmer forgot to assign him a weight value. Apparently untethered from earth physics, Ricochet vaults and rebounds and straight-up zooms around the air at will; his conventionally Newtonian opponents appear relics of an earlier evolutionary stage, cavemen trying to swat something flickering through the fourth dimension.
Much could be said about what New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS is not. It exists, of course, in contrast to the delicious McDonald's that is WWE — not only in contrast to, but as an anomaly growing in the substrate of WWE, which remains the global arbiter of what pro wrestling is. NJPW broadcasts on AXS are exciting, brutal and streamlined. Many elements WWE fans are accustomed to, including the soap opera storylines, are absent. The product is purer, heavier yet more sophisticated, somewhere between gonzo porn and art film.
It is difficult to expound on how thrillingly strange NJPW is without straying into exoticism. It is so strange, though. The audience sits in darkness, largely silent except for a scattering of bird-like yelps. The ring announcer is past parody, soaring up into a searing, power-metal falsetto gargle while introducing each competitor. Even the ring bell sounds weird, like it's made of wood.
The matches are far longer, their rhythms and dynamic composition more complex. There is often a "fighting spirit" segment wherein one competitor mercilessly beats on an adversary who refuses to give up or even acknowledge the very real pain he's being subjected to. Hulk Hogan used to do something similar, shaking off blows when he got angry for his comeback, but his opponents did not hit even a tenth this hard. The moves are wilder: the Dragon Screw Leg Whip, the Magic Killer, Mongolian Chops and Mountain Bombs, heinous neck-imperiling drivers and plexes no wrestling fed should still allow. The wrestlers fight on through legit injuries, including mid-match broken jaws.
The violence is reprehensible. I confessed my newfound fixation with NJPW to a friend whose judgment I trust, and found he shared my mix of misgiving and obsession. Watching NJPW, he told me, "I feel I witness more concussions per minute than even the grisliest of World Star compilations. I know I shouldn't like it, but I really, really do."
NJPW wrestlers practice disparate styles, a throwback to the days when UFC featured boxers with one glove vs. a karate guy, clashes of what would seem incompatible in-ring technique. A defrosted, vintage 1980s big-man monster, a pop-eyed grimacing 7-foot slob who throws flailing clotheslines, goes up against a solemn, cyborg-like submission machine who knots opponents into flesh pretzels and chokes them out with their own legs. Who the hell wins that one? Will the giant fat dude really get pretzelled? What will it sound like when his tendons tear?
I first came upon NJPW on AXS by accident, channel-surfing at 1 a.m. in a motel room, and I'd argue that was the ideal introduction. It's quintessential late-night TV that's very rare these day s —late-night TV that isn't merely shown late at night but which emerges from a late-night realm, TV you shouldn't let the kids see. It's dangerous and different, gripping and gruesome, a tantalizing window into a fully formed and radically unfamiliar world. It is art, but wow, wow, wow do those motherfuckers hurt each other.