Wrestle Kingdom 12, New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s biggest show of the year, happens live late tonight / early tomorrow morning. To prepare for the big show, here’s a piece about Japanese wrestling that ran in 2016’s Paste Quarterly #2, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.
If you wanted to watch Japanese wrestling in America in the 20th century, you had to work for it.
VHS tapes of the best Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi matches were traded through the mail by strangers who connected through fanzines or Usenet. You could maybe find second or third generation dubs hidden among the anime at fan conventions. The most dedicated fans would read about the latest state-of-the-art matches in subscription newsletters like the Wrestling Observer. Whatever your source for puroresu (as the Japanese transliterated “professional wrestling”), you had to seek it out.
The internet, as it tends to do, gradually tore down those walls. Watching Japanese wrestling in America today is as easy as hitting YouTube or downloading an app onto your phone. If you still have cable, you can even tune into AXS TV on Friday nights to hear Jim Ross, the iconic Southern wrestling announcer from WWE and WCW, call the best New Japan Pro-Wrestling matches. Current stars like Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito wrestle a few shows a year in America for New Japan’s American partner, Ring of Honor, and are regularly cheered over any of the native wrestlers. New Japan, the preeminent Japanese promotion, is so popular over here that for the first time in its 45 year history it ran its own shows in America last July. Those two shows in Los Angeles sold out almost instantly.
Japanese wrestling isn’t simply more popular now because it’s more available. For many fans, it’s the best wrestling in the world today, and the most significant alternative to World Wrestling Entertainment, which dominates the wrestling landscape. When you hear the word “wrestling,” you most likely think of Vince McMahon’s company, either under its current name of WWE or in its classic ‘80s/’90s identity of the WWF. Today WWE strides atop the global wrestling industry like an all-conquering giant, with enough resources to sign almost any talent in the world and drive almost any other promotion out of business on a whim.
Depending on your perspective, WWE is either the best or the worst thing to ever happen to the wrestling industry. Its ability to make money and turn wrestlers into international superstars is unparalleled in the history of the business. It’s also stripped away much of what makes wrestling feel like wrestling, by hiring TV writers to script promos for wrestlers to recite word-for-word, by regularly fighting its most vocal fans on what wrestlers should be the company’s top stars, and by, until recently, prioritizing a homogenous brand of in-ring action that many fans desultorily refer to as “WWE Style.” WWE makes millions of dollars almost every year, but the overall audience for pro wrestling in America is significantly smaller than it was before WWE bought its last major competitor, WCW, in 2001.
The fans that are left are passionate. They care about wrestling as a performance art that apes the presentation of a real sport, but they’re also fully aware of how choreographed and artificial wrestling is. WWE occupies a middle ground between those two poles, but the most popular Japanese promotions in America swing sharply to either end. Puro either acts like it’s real, or admits it’s entirely just for show. In New Japan interviews are less important than death-defying in-ring action, with wrestlers fighting long, brutal matches for titles or honor; on the other side of the spectrum, the absurd characters of the cult Dramatic Dream Team promotion include blow-up dolls, invisible wrestlers and inanimate objects. Their methods are different, but both companies specialize in ornate displays of cooperative violence that feel almost nothing like WWE.
It’s simple: Japanese wrestling is more popular than ever in America because much of it is very good, very different, and easier than ever to watch. Instead of working for it, it now works for you.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections, and used to edit Paste’s wrestling section. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.