Japan Trip 2017–2018: Wrestle Kingdom 12

The single event that determined my entire Japan trip this year was Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest yearly show at the Tokyo Dome. On January 4th the biggest fights take place on the largest stage. All scores are settled, the fans get their catharsis, and the storylines are reset for the coming year.

Indeed the very next day, a show called New Years Dash cleans up the wreckage and sets up plot lines for the rest of the year. I missed tickets for that one; it’s generally not a great show considering everyone put on the performances of their lives the night before and are rightly kind of tired.

You’ll see the peak of the craft at a show like this; last Wrestle Kingdom the superlative match between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega brought a surge of international attention to New Japan.

Despite all odds I was able to get some of the best seats in the house (for about $200), setting my trip in stone. So you can imagine I was pretty hype about it.

Though in my head I knew where I was sitting, I couldn’t believe how good my seats actually were as I moved through the arena. The Tokyo Dome is a baseball field and naturally the arena seating is literally on the field. It didn’t sink in until I felt the grass under my feet through the tarp and that wonderful thrill of feeling “people aren’t normally supposed to be here”.

When I finally got to where I was supposed to be, I was pretty damn impressed. I had a height advantage in the back of Arena A, such that it was easy for me to see the fights from where I was sitting. Next to me there was a nice lady there for her man Okada, in front a fellow excited foreigner, and an adorable family would eventually fill out the row next to me.

Only towards the end, when I’d been sitting for about six hours, was I at all uncomfortable. No intermissions at this show: there’s too much wrestling packed in.

(Shout outs to the heroic young ladies who go out into the crowds with backpacks full of beer and whiskey sours on tap. God bless them.)

This is the closest shot I was getting with my iPhone 6 camera at full zoom. That’s Hiroshi Tanahashi up there.

The entrances got progressively more theatrical as the show went on. They would add something at every milestone as the matches got more and more important. When the very popular boys from Los Ingobernables de Japon came out, it was lasers.

For Jay White’s high-profile debut against Hiroshi Tanahashi, pyrotechnics got involved.

And when the overwhelming crowd favorite Tetsuya Naito appeared, fire and lasers.

The champ, Kazuchika Okada, is known as the “Rainmaker” for his gimmick of “making it rain cash”. It’s pretty common for fake “Okada bucks” to actually rain from the ceiling at bigger NJPW shows. In this case, they actually got some fans going and caused a money cyclone to whip around the Tokyo Dome.

There were basically two stories of the night, billed as a double main event. Foreign fans were here for Kenny Omega’s no-disqualifications match against Chris Jericho (fresh from WWE): a wild match nobody expected and nobody knew exactly what to make of. The PR for this match consisted of both men sneaking up on each other and beating each other bloody. Tables flew, and Kenny had his own championship belt ground into his face until he bled.

Japanese fans were there for a match of the two titans at the top of the company. Kazuchika Okada is the man with the unbreakable championship streak. Tetsuya Naito is the underdog story: underappreciated for years, he’s flipped his persona to a cool, charismatic rogue and has skyrocketed in popularity. Even the slightest look at the crowd made clear that he’s selling all the merchandise in the company right now: a sea of “Tranquilo” T-shirt and “Los Ingobernables” baseball caps, just like the man himself wears.

The Omega/Jericho fight gave us all the tables-and-chairs brutality it promised. The mom on the left of me looked up from her phone and told her family “Apparently all the foreign wrestling shows are like this!”, to which the family wowed and oohed and aahed. They were great. This match was not the spectacle of an Omega/Okada; it was a spectacle of a whole other genre.

As for Naito/Okada, NJPW set us all up. Everybody had Naito winning this one: Okada’s streak has gone on forever and I can’t overstate how much hotter Naito is with the fans right now. This was the perfect moment to give Naito the belt… so it didn’t happen. I suppose time will tell if this will work out in the long term or if disappointed fair-weather fans will leave Naito behind. I kind of doubt the latter.

One thing I don’t like about the big Wrestle Kingdom matches is that the guys have started to kick out of each other’s finishers like six or seven times in a match. This was really exciting when it was Tanahashi kicking out of the Rainmaker for the first time, and then again, because it was new and a genuine shock. When you go back to that well, it doesn’t feel like much of anything, and when Naito and Okada were just landing Destino and Rainmaker over and over again there wasn’t a lot of real tension or escalation.

Other than that point, it’s amazing to see these guys really go at it and put on their year’s best shows. You can see their growth over the years, and never more clearly than at Wrestle Kingdom. I’m so glad I got to go to this show.

And I left the 2000y memento pamphlet on the floor of the Tokyo Dome. I regret this.

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