As her name suggests, Kris Wolf is a wolf trapped in a human's body, and every night she roams the streets of Tokyo for meat. In a former life, she was in her mid-20s, engaged, and working as a freelance photographer in the Bay Area. But when her engagement fell apart, she accepted an invitation to live with a friend in Japan. Originally it was supposed to be a 20-day vacation, but after cycling the hinterlands and camping in the wilderness, the country became her new home.
Like many expats, Wolf took an unsatisfying job teaching English to stay in the country, but she kept her eyes open for something a little more physically stimulating. One day, a colleague mentioned that she had seen a women's pro wrestling match, and the transformation began.
"My friend told me to check out this one company, and I watched a couple videos, and oh my God—it was all these cute little girls in shiny costumes flying around, throwing each other, kneeing each other in the face, and not dying," Wolf says. "You're an action star."
The company Wolf is signed to is called World Wonder Ring Stardom, one of the many women's wrestling promotions, or joshi puroresu, in the country, and the women on joshi rosters are responsible for some of the most brutal matches in all of pro wrestling. The outcomes are predetermined, and the performers/fighters do their best to keep each other safe, but scripted or not, getting kicked in the face is still getting kicked in the face.
"Joshi is even more hard-hitting than a lot of men's wrestling," says Enuhito, a Japanese reporter and blogger who's been covering the industry since 1998. "Being cute or beautiful is not as important as being strong. The women who compete are physically small, so they can receive violent moves with no severe damage. A lot of male wrestlers say, 'If we did they same thing, we'd be dead.'"
Over the past few years, America's WWE has worked hard to modernize and legitimize their women's division—the mud wrestling and bra-and-panties matches are relics of a distant era—but work in the ring is still handled carefully. If you tune into an episode of Monday Night Raw, you'll never see a female superstar take an unprotected roundhouse punch to the face, or get dumped on the back of their neck. The violent physical freedoms reserved for joshi are hard to find anywhere else in the world.
Kris Wolf's character is, literally, a wolf. She comes out to the ring in a tuft of gray fur, and recently cut a hilarious, surreal promo where she threatened to beat up a child. "I like delicious meat—are you delicious meat? Do you want to fight me? Please call me! Bye!" She didn't grow up watching wrestling, and this is all still pretty new for her, but you can tell she's having a great time.
"These things generally attract a male audience, but upon seeing [joshi] for the first time, I wanted to be involved because I wanted to pass it on to the young girls in the world," she tells me. "Because there are other weirdos like me that don't feel like they fit in."
Japan has become the vanguard for a generation of ultra-talented female athletes in the wrestling business. Some of WWE's top stars—Becky Lynch, Natalya Neidhart—cut their teeth overseas; current NXT Women's Champion Asuka is a direct import from joshi; and Sasha Banks, who might be the very best wrestler, regardless of gender, in the entire company, grew up watching the legendary (and currently defunct) All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling. This is a very fertile ground, but it's so aggressive that it can still feel a little bit like contraband.
I asked Wolf if she ever feels like joshi is fetishized by the men who come to the shows.
"I think about that a lot," she says. "I look at American pro wrestling, where the majority of the fans are men and that's not necessarily a fetishized thing. But I'm not trying to dismiss it either. Camera lenses do come out when you're in a short skirt and the booty is popping."
Joshi promotions, as a genre, have built a business model on being the only place where you can watch women tear each other up in the ring with a basically limitless amount of violence, cruelty, and ferocity, and it's part of a long history pro wrestling has with sexual borderlands. Valid or not, a room full of men paying money to watch a roster of women fight carries plenty of implications.
"I think I can say it is fetishistic, but specifically for men," says Enuhito. "Female fans see these wrestlers as 'strong heroines' or Takarazuka [a Japanese theater troupe in which all the roles of both genders are played by women]. But for certain men, it does contain something fetishistic."
In other words, joshi is complicated: In some ways it's unfair to write off the one dominion in the industry that promotes apparently unbridled athletic liberation for women as just another vamp for horny dollars, but the male gaze can be difficult to shake. Kevin Wilson, an American who runs the joshi fan site Puroresu Central, is sensitive to those accusations, saying it's a stereotype that he'd like to uproot.
"I can honestly say I have never met a joshi fan that watches it because watching two women wrestle gets them excited—it's basically the same as the men's promotion in Japan, just with women instead," he says. "Aside from an occasional comedy match, the wrestlers don't play up their sexuality during the matches. So while I can't say that no one watches joshi for that reason, based on my personal interactions, it's a very small percentage. And they keep it to themselves."
For the most part, Wilson is right. The discourse surrounding joshi is almost always centered around the work in the ring, but it's impossible to say it never dips into lustful territory. Joshifans.com, one of the more active Western joshi communities, hosts a subforum called "Wrestler Love" that, among other things, serves as a place to post provocative photos of the talent. A retired wrestler and current referee, Mio Shirai is one of the most prominent figures in the scene, and she's also released softcore DVDs.
But that doesn't negate the fact that, on its best days, joshi is a place of freedom—one of the few spaces in pro wrestling where women can express themselves with the full extent of their athleticism without worrying about the manicured, reality-show demands of the WWE. But, like most things in the wrestling business, it can also be gendered, othered, and prurient. While Kris Wolf knows the idea that Japan is the Mecca for women in the wrestling business is reductive and dishonest, she still found empowerment in the purity of a stiff kick to the ribs. It hasn't always been easy, but she's found a home.
"I had a break due to injury, and I battled myself the entire time," Wolf tells me. "Why do I subject myself to this pain? What about this makes it worth it? That's the thing about getting what you want—you don't see the full picture at first. You're infatuated, and then you start to learn more. There are so many different layers and levels. Now I feel like [joshi and I are] an old couple who worked through their marriage issues—it makes you question, do I really want this? Maybe they haven't always loved each other, but they worked through it, because it's worth it."