New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) has slowly been gaining traction in the United States for the last few years, which coincides with lower ratings for WWE television products and general unease and disinterest from the American fan base. The push into the United States continues this weekend as NJPW is running their first shows, a two-night special, in the country in Long Beach, California. The event will find the crowning of the first-ever United States champion in a tournament and Cody Rhodes, son of legendary U.S. icon “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, will challenge for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, the top belt in the promotion, held by Kazuchika Okada.
Many have heard of New Japan mostly based off the Okada/Kenny Omega match that went viral in January of this year or because of the flux of talent that left New Japan last year headlined by American AJ Styles and “King of Strong Style” Shinsuke Nakamura. The reason to watch New Japan could be generalized that it’s the place to go if you are tired of WWE-style wrestling presentation, even more the place to go than American promotions, Impact and Ring of Honor, although the latter has a talent exchange deal with NJPW. However, the task of learning New Japan is daunting – they have over thirty wrestlers on their roster and with a consistent stream of ROH wrestlers, Japanese legends, stars from other Japanese promotions coming in and out; they have four to six hour events – although considerably less events overall than WWE has; there is the obvious language barrier. Still, the reward can be worth it for someone missing the wrestling of their youth.
5. The announcers and audience add to the show
This is the garnish on the plate being served. Americans can’t understand the language of the Japanese commentators, but they can feel the passion. Their inflections and volume is almost universal in telling the story of the match. Some U.S. viewers of New Japan will only listen to Japanese commentary. Nevertheless, NJPW does offer American commentary for their biggest shows of the year. The English-speaking announcers are former WWE announcer Kevin Kelly and Don Callis – known to ’90s WWF fans as The Jackal and ECW fans as Cyrus. They both do a great job of telling the story in the vain of Jim Ross and also inform the viewer of character or backstory they might need. For those that have the AXS channel, the channel owned by Mark Cuban, NJPW airs specific matches from New Japan shows once per week with commentary from Jim Ross and former MMA star, Josh Barnett. There are no branding or slogans or catchphrases in the commentary. They aren’t constantly trying to sell something other than what is on the screen. They add to the matches and story being told rather than act as advertisers.
The audience also adds to the show. American audiences can have great energy at times. Too often in the past couple years though, U.S. audiences have started to hijack the show and make themselves a factor in the story. While this is understandable when they are not satisfied with the product offered to them, the insipid and constant chants have become annoying and distracting. Japanese fans are generalized as being “quiet” and “respectful.” It’s true, in some regards. Early in the match, they don’t make much noise. The fans respect the athletes and the concept of “fighting spirit.” So, the longer a match goes, the more a wrestler has suffered, and the more times they have broken a submission or kicked out of a pinfall, the crowd heats up. By the end of a great match, the fans are wild, and that kind of slow build makes the product more exciting.
4. The product is more serious, but there’s still room for comedy
The fans take wrestling more seriously; the announcers take wrestling more seriously; the wrestlers take wrestling more seriously. However, it’s not a stuffy, gladiatorial event every time. There are comedy characters and comedy acts, but they are relegated to the midcard and lowcard, which is where they should be. Most of the comedy in the main event or upper card scene derives from the character and the circumstances. For instance, in the last Okada/Omega match, Omega had Okada on his knees. He made his hand into a pistol, a pose used by The Bullet Club faction, and put it to Okada’s head. The tired Okada though snatched his finger out of the air and twisted in this moment of tiny, comedic comeuppance. In another example from the past year, Tetsuya Naito, the Intercontinental Champion until a few weeks ago, believed that there were too many titles in New Japan, so he felt his title didn’t matter at all. Consequently, he treated the title with no respect at all. He would drag it to the ring; he would throw it behind his back high in the air, uncaring of where it fell; he would whip it against the steel post or stairs. By the time he was finished with it, the title belt was dented, bent, and broken all over. Overall, there’s still plenty to laugh at throughout an event.
3. The builds are slow and not obvious
The builds to matches are slow. In an era where WWE is running a pay-per-view for each brand almost every month, New Japan benefits from less shows. They run about eight major events per year that last between four to six hours. They also a few month-long special events throughout the year, most notably the G1 Climax, which starts in July and ends in mid-August. The G1 features two “blocks” of ten competitors. The wrestlers in a block all wrestle each other over the course of a month and whoever scores the most points faces the winner of the other block in the finals. The winner is awarded a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom in January, the “Wrestlemania” of New Japan. So, in essence, the G1 serves the function that WWE’s Royal Rumble does. They do have other cards in between those events, but they aren’t as important as the cards consist of multiple-man matches and perhaps one lesser title match.
It’s possible that outside of tag matches, a singles match might build over the course of an entire year. The stars and match-ups aren’t overexposed on weekly television, so there is actual speculation that can take place about who will win, how the match-up will go, etc. The booker, Gedo, also has a knack for fooling the audience. Often when everyone thinks they know what is going to happen, what match will come next, who will take the title, it’s not ever what they expect. This doesn’t mean it’s a swerve; it’s just a measured way of subverting expectation and building anticipation.
2. The wrestlers actually sell moves and the matches often feel realistic
When a viewer watches a New Japan match, they are watching performers that are trying to convince the viewer they are watching a fight. They show exhaustion, they remember when a certain body part has been worked over through the match and sell the injury realistically. Some American criticize Japanese wrestlers for “no-selling” later in a match, but the Japanese are fond of the idea of “fighting spirit.” It’s the one thing the fans respect the most. Therefore, when two wrestlers pound each other in the face with forearms at some point, it’s a test of bravery and honor, not no sells. The move sets are varied in the matches and wrestlers will often try to go for finishers early to win the match quickly. Sometimes this works, but often a wrestler needs worn down before a finisher can be performed. This sounds natural for older U.S. fans, but in the past decade or so, it’s been lost in the WWE product as in-ring storytelling has been lost. The wrestlers sell so much that in the sixty-minute draw between Okada and Omega a few weeks, the last seven minutes or so consisted of them try to get to their feet and direct their energy to one move to try to end the match. This selling allows the viewer to suspend disbelief and invest more in the show.
1. NJPW isn’t overly-produced; in short, it’s more sports than entertainment
This is the biggest reason many fans are moving over to New Japan. WWE has pushed the balance of sports and entertainment past its tipping point. They can still occassionally execute the seriousness when needed, usually when it comes to Brock Lesnar. However, often the feuds devolve into utter nonsense and the same tired tropes of the past twenty years only without an edge because it’s the PG-Era. Entrances, which are great and magical for sure, often take the place of character development or exploration. Every “superstar” is watered down by being on television so much that they don’t feel important. Branding has hurt WWE as well. In New Japan, however, it’s not about the entertainment aspect. They have been entrances sometimes, sure, especially at major main events. They have streamers for major wins. But they don’t have a million camera angles. The directors don’t attempt to get clever. They film the match and try to accentuate the action and storytelling. The booking of the events and matches makes it feel real as if it is a sport. No one receives a World Title shot without a reason. Wins and losses matter. A losing streak hurts honor and less the wrestler opportunities. In essence, everything feels more realistic, logical, and sports like with a clear rationale.
These are simply a handful of reasons to give New Japan a chance. This weekend, AXS TV will air night one of the G1 US Special. Otherwise, Dailymotion has videos up quickly and New Japan does have streaming at their New Japan World website. More posts will be forthcoming about facets of New Japan leading up to the G1 Climax starting in the middle of the month.