Alright, before I launch into my first-ever pro wrestling article, let me get something out of the way: this piece is aimed at a very specific subset of people. If you’re a guy in a Bullet Club shirt, a girl with a Daryl Takahashi plushie (I don’t even know if you can buy those in the states, but I sure as hell hope you can), if you’ve seen every episode of Being the Elite, or if you’re a longtime puroresu faithful, you can probably either go ahead and skip this one without missing too much or read on and nod in agreement for most of it. Because I am talking to one group of people right now, and one group only: the WWE faithfuls who are either completely unfamiliar with New Japan Pro Wrestling or have only seen a handful of matches at most. I want you to be willing to broaden your horizons juuuuuuuuust a hair, because, until earlier this year, I was just like you. A one-product guy, a “mainstream” rasslin’ fan. But I took the plunge and subscribed to NJPW World, and for the foreseeable future, I don’t see myself going back. Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t going to be all glowing praise for my current favorite promotion; I’m going to run down the positives and negatives, the dumb reasons to not like New Japan and the good ones, and let you make up your mind for yourself. No Meltzer-like fawning or superfandom, promise! So let’s dive in!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure that at the bare minimum, you’ve at least heard all the arguing over the Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada trilogy that brought Dave Meltzer to his metaphorical knees, leading him to break his own 5-star rating system to give all three matches ratings of 6 stars or higher. Hyperbole? Maybe. Nonsensical? Not really. This series really was a triumph as far as booking and match quality is concerned, and is a prime example of the main thing that NJPW has going for it: as far as in-ring action goes, New Japan is probably the best promotion on the planet right now. The main event scene, midcard, and junior division are all stacked with some of the most talented wrestlers of the modern era. You don’t need me to tell you this, though. Just hit Google or Youtube and watch any number of matches from this year’s Wrestle Kingdom or G1 tournament. Of course, the second-biggest wrestling company in the world is going to have a great locker room. Where New Japan really succeeds is in the booking and presentation of their talent. Focusing in on that, I’m going to take a moment to dispel some of the myths I used to believe that kept me from really delving into the product for more than two years after watching one of their events for the first time.
Myth 1: The Language Barrier Is Impassable
This is the biggest one, the most daunting thing (at least to me) that keeps American fans from wanting to get into a Japanese promotion. “I don’t speak Japanese, so I won’t be able to understand what’s going on!” Yeah, that was me after tuning into a couple events here and there and then tuning out. Here are a few reasons why that isn’t true:
1. English commentary
Since having an English commentary team for an event for the first time in 2015, New Japan has since established the regular commentary team of Kevin Kelly and Don Callis. In addition to being a solid pair with great chemistry (Callis, in particular, is a great color guy), the number of shows they’re brought on for has been significantly increased over the past year. Almost every major show you can view on njpwworld.com going forward will have English commentary, and a fair few of the smaller ones as well.
2. Lots of English-speaking performers
Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a Japanese promotion, so the majority of the promos are still in Japanese. But there are still LOADS of foreigners in this company. The Bullet Club is entirely made up of native English speakers save for Yujiro Takahashi, and I STILL heard him cut a promo largely in English just this past weekend. To top it off, bilingual junior heavyweight Rocky Romero often joins the commentary team when he isn’t wrestling and will do his best to translate Japanese promos when he’s with them.
3. Simple presentation
This ain’t sports entertainment. This is the rough outline for the build to the majority of their important matches:
Guy 1: “I am the champion.”
Guy 2: “I defeated you in a non-title match/won a title shot/have been extremely dominant, and I want an opportunity at your title!”
Guy 1: “Okay.”
There’s often a little more to their programs than just that, but this more or less sums up how New Japan booking tends to work. Everything revolves around the titles. There are no soap opera-like storylines, no romances, no convoluted storytelling, just guys making alliances, making enemies, and winning championships. Everything revolves around what happens in the ring, and as a result, everything tends to be pretty easy to understand, even for a dumb gaijin like me.
Myth 2: Lesser Talent
I’ll be honest, this was just me being dumb. After watching Wrestle Kingdom 9 in 2015 via stream after a buddy suggested I watch it with him, I remember being impressed. I came away thinking Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi had a stellar match, that it was good to see an old favorite in AJ Styles again, and that the main event between Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi was pretty excellent. Then I tuned out for a year. Then tuned BACK in for Wrestle Kingdom 10 the following year and was actually planning on keeping my subscription to NJPW World…until hearing the next day that Nakamura and Styles were leaving for WWE. And with my two favorites from the promotion jumping ship, so did I, intrigued as I watched them put Kenny Omega over Nakamura and Styles before they could depart, but fully expecting that NJPW was just going to be the inferior product going forward.
Holy hell, was I wrong!
I was focused in on WWE for the next year-and-change, happy with AJ’s main roster run, hopeful (if confused) for Shinsuke’s lengthy stay in NXT, and thoroughly impressed with Kota Ibushi’s appearance in the Cruiserweight Classic. But 2017 has felt like a lackluster year for the E so far, falling well short of the wrestling renaissance I hoped for with their influx of top-tier performers over the past few years. So when I heard about the G1 special New Japan was putting on in Los Angeles, I decided to resubscribe and give them a chance to win me over. Considering that I’m writing this article right now, that pretty much tells you whether or not they did, now doesn’t it?
For real though, that show was excellent. The U.S. title tournament they put on was jam-packed with great matches, and Cody vs. Okada for the IWGP championship also delivered. And from what I’ve seen over the course of several shows, all of the bigger NJPW events tend to deliver bigtime on match quality, beyond what the WWE has to offer at shows of similar importance. But how is this possible with WWE skimming their best talent?
First of all, there are a lot of Japanese wrestlers that WWE will never be interested in. Guys like Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, and Kushida are all excellent performers, but despite their upsides, don’t really have the types of personalities that would translate well into the E’s wildly different presentation. Secondly, you have guys like Okada, Ibushi, Tanahashi, and Omega, all world-class talent who have made it clear that they aren’t interested in signing elsewhere (at least not for quite a while). Third, you have wrestlers like Cody, Juice Robinson (formerly CJ Parker in NXT), and Tanga Roa (formerly Camacho in WWE) who have done pretty damn well for themselves since leaving WWE and don’t seem to have an interest in returning. Add to that a number of current and former fantastic Ring of Honor and indy guys like Michael Elgin, Marty Scurll, Ricochet, and Will Ospreay, and you have a roster that is absolutely stacked, and probably not shifting too much anytime soon.
With the bad reasons not to get into New Japan out of the way, let’s get to the reasonable barriers to it.
Issue 1: Too Many Tag Matches
Even I think this is the most glaring issue with NJPW. Almost the entire roster is broken up into factions: the honorable (if goofy) Taguchi Japan, the sadistic Suzuki-Gun, the tweener Chaos, the heel-in-Japan, face-in-America Bullet Club, and the antihero Los Ingobernobles de Japon. Given the constant faction warfare, nearly all of the undercard non-title matches end up being a mishmash of tag team wrestling. Their recent Destruction shows have been ALL tag matches with 1-2 singles title matches capping off the events. Some of it is fun, but it can definitely be a slog at times. Luckily, this problem is a lot less glaring at bigger shows. Most of the titles get defended at those, so the majority of the matches end up feeling really meaningful. But man, those smaller shows…
Issue 2: Too Sports-like
While I don’t personally have an issue with this, I can see where some people do. As I stated earlier, this is decidedly not sports entertainment. There are no over-the-top storylines here, virtually zero backstage vignettes, very few gimmick matches, and very little talking. The little mic time there is gets limited to (usually brief) post-match victory promos and challenges and post-show backstage interviews.
That being said, I see people complaining about NJPW lacking larger-than-life characters, and I can’t agree with that view at all. Tanahashi’s ridiculous air guitaring and swagger shows plenty of personality, Okada’s cocky Rainmaker persona is plenty over-the-top, Toru Yano is a wackier comedy character than anyone in WWE, and the Los Ingobernables de Japon faction is chock full of colorful characters. To anyone who tries to insist that Tetsuya Naito isn’t bursting with charisma, all I can say is…Tranquilo! Relax, man, chill out…
Issue 3: Shows Air Super Late/Early
There’s really no getting around this one. All their shows stream live on njpwworld.com, but since they always start late afternoon/early evening in Japan, that means that the live air times here tend to be around 3-5 AM. Definitely not convenient if you enjoy watching your wrestling shows as they air. This is another one that I personally don’t mind though, as all shows are available for streaming after the fact (just like the WWE network), so I just make sure to avoid spoilers until I can catch the most recent event, typically the afternoon after it airs. Again, doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but your mileage may vary.
That sums up all the major cons I can think of, and this article is running pretty long, so let me quickly run down the pros one more time before I wrap up.
1. Big Matches That Deliver
The in-ring product is second-to-none right now. This is probably the best time to jump into New Japan, as they’ve really been delivering lately.
2. Quality Streaming Service, Cheaper Than WWE’s
Full disclosure: I’m currently subscribed to WWE Network and NJPW World, but if I end up deciding to axe one, it’ll probably be WWE. My feelings about the quality of the various shows aside, NJPW’s streaming service is of similar quality to the WWE’s (slightly better, actually; I have yet to experience any stream interruptions on their service) and is cheaper: 999 yen a month, which works out to a little over $9 US. Navigation is fairly simple as well, with a toggle at the top of the page that switches between Japanese and English.
3. All About The Titles
As mentioned earlier, some might see the lack of storyline elements as a con, but I love it because it puts all the emphasis where I feel it belongs: on the title belts. A championship match in NJPW feels like it MEANS something. Okada will likely be setting the record for longest IWGP Heavyweight Title reign if he successfully defends the belt at the upcoming King of Pro Wrestling event. Tanahashi, Omega, and Naito have continued to make the Intercontinental title feel special, continuing Nakamura’s work since his departure. Kushida has been having fantastic bouts as the Junior Heavyweight champ. And with Brock Lesnar barely on Raw as of late and Jinder Mahal feeling like a midcard WWE champ, that’s a refreshing change of pace as far as I’m concerned.
4. Western Accessibility
New Japan is working hard to make their product as accessible as possible to a western audience while retaining their authenticity. English commentary, an English translated website, lots of American and Canadian talent being pushed, and a promise for another US show (maybe multiple shows?) in 2018 means that things are likely to keep getting better for the English-speaking NJPW fan.
5. Great Talent Who Are Actually Over
As much as I love many of the performers on the WWE roster, a great many of them have trouble getting over or are decidedly not as over as they should be. New Japan definitely doesn’t have that issue, with a great deal of their talent over BECAUSE of their handling rather than in spite of it. Okada has been a fantastic, dominant champ. Kenny Omega has gotten over on both sides of the Pacific, even prior to his current status as inaugural US Champion. And Tetsuya Naito is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Stone Cold Steve Austin, a charismatic bastard who has people in the crowd screaming his name even as he spits on his opponents mid-match.
If this article convinces even one person to check out New Japan Pro Wrestling, I’ll consider it a success! If you do decide to subscribe to NJPW World, be sure to watch Destruction in Kobe this weekend; I’ve been actively looking forward to the Kenny Omega vs. Juice Robinson IWGP US title match for a while now. Join me next week for more on New Japan as we gear up for their next big event, King of Pro Wrestling on October 9th. Catch ya later, marks!