Great Voyage in Tokyo
March 15, 2015
Ariake Colosseum, Tokyo
Invasion and takeover angles aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. At best they have lost their potency in the greying of the years. Many of the famous storylines of outsider force tackling monolith company, in addition to the countless ones run by collaborating small independent companies on any given weekend, approximately end with the mild disturbance in their midst eventually reset, the foes vanquished and reduced and the order restored (counterpoint: a great deal of cinema does) Which is sort of stupid. Why would the sanctioning body allow it?
As much as UWF vs New Japan, nWo vs. WCW and WWF vs WCW/ECW may have set tongues wagging, nearly all petered out after the initial hot shot, unable to sustain momentum. In many cases these fissures between the lines of real and storyline inadvertently lifted the lid on the falseness inherent and in their own scramble to do big business, end up half-throttling it. Let us now pour one out onto the kerb for UWFi.
NOAH, of all companies, should be aware of this potential problem given that they are the real deal (though admittedly it was a genuine secession from All Japan that drove their origin tale rather than a ‘takeover angle’) and that history can make any storyline that mimics it look hokey. But we are a couple of months down the road of a slow-played angle pitting NOAH against Minoru Suzuki and his mixed bag of associates and all is bubbling nicely. Qualms aside, we are in established safe hands as NJPW co-booker Jado has taken over the pencil for NOAH. But do NOAH need to re-establish the potency of their order by vanquishing a set of dickish freelancers or do they just need a total overhaul?
Hitoshi Kumano vs. Mitsuhiro Kitamiya: This is pretty interesting. Kitamiya has graduated from his phase as a ‘Young Lion’ (they don’t call them that here) before his junior, Kumano, though for much of 2014 the two wrestled regularly as equals in opposition. Now Kitamiya has quickly bulked up and altered his moveset and gained an orientation working with the heel unit Cho Kibou-gun whilst Kumano scampers around in basic ring trunks and plays the pin candidate to the hilt.
The match isn’t entirely convincing and not simply because it is too quick a turnaround to believe that a new singlet and haircut has turned Kitamiya into a senior wrestler. Kumano is fine as the babyface underdog but Kitamiya’s power-guy shtick needs a little smoothing out, with much of his offence feeling anti-climactic. He wins with a tackle that the commentator sells as death, overrating a very simple and only-competently executed move. Back to the drawing board. **
After this there’s a video featuring Mitsuharu Misawa and Genichiro Tenryu, showing a clip from a match they had in NOAH. Suffice to say those guys are laying their shit right in. I’m not quite sure what the point of the bit is but it ends with Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada holding a portrait of Misawa, which I only mention because it really is a bit weird.
Katsuhiko Nakajima, Taiji Ishimori and Mohammed Yone (BRAVE) and Captain NOAH vs. Jonah Rock, Yoshinari Ogawa, Super Crazy and Zack Sabre Jr.: If you’re not familiar with NOAH, they have this funny tendency of giving each match an English subheader that sort of tells the story in an abstract way, e.g. Wrestler X v Wrestler Y: Young Fire Clash. For this match, the legend reads ‘Captain will be unveiled’. Err, spoilers lads? As it turns out, no. Besides, everyone knows who Captain NOAH is.
As the Suzuki-gun story dominates the main narrative thrust of NOAH, this match features people mostly sidelined by the overarching tale. Which is saddening for a ring packed with some high-class domestic and international talent, but they make a fist of it. Ishimori wins with a picture-perfect 450 Splash on Super Crazy after some entertaining action with a little bit of everything from armbars to aerial attacks. **3/4
Akitoshi Saito and Quiet Storm vs. Strong BJ (Daisuke Sekimoto and Yuji Okabayashi): If you like the idea of four stout chaps almost exclusively running at each other and colliding whilst roaring then buddy I have a match for you. Sekimoto and Storm open up with running the ropes, colliding and yelling. Okabayashi and Saito square off and build up to some yelling/running sequences generally resulting in a collision. Some exchanges of momentum and attractive collisions, usually featuring yelling and/or running, occur and the match builds to a nice finish where Sekimoto roars and downs Storm with his Stalling German Suplex.
Previous NOAH reviews might have seen me down on Saito and Storm but they’re good here in the three main departments of running, colliding and yelling, though Strong BJ are the once-and-forever masters. I hope that the new creative element of the company can keep them in mind. Fine midcard tag match. ***1/4
Maybach Taniguchi and Takeshi Morishima (Cho Kibou-gun) vs. Manabu Nakanishi and Hiroyoshi Tenzan (NJPW): This is not the most mobile quartet of wrestlers ever assembled but there’s enough charisma and love in the room to get the audience through this slightly hokey brawl. Morishima initially emerges alone, squaring up his opponents to the detriment of whatever is happening behind them, which in this instance is Maybach with that big stupid fork on a pole that he carries.
It isn’t a bad outing, all told. The increasingly creaky Nakanishi vaults the ropes to the outside impressively and lumbers through a good 50% of this match in-ring, whilst Tenzan continues to show the serviceable veteran entertainer side that emerged last year’s G1 Climax and as such the NJPW guys get all the babyface reactions. There’s also a bit of running and colliding in this bout too, which all happens in slow-motion when contrasted with the match before.
Morishima offers a credible wrestling/brawling presence in the midcard, winning a mixed bag of a match with a strong lariat and then a nice Backdrop Hold on Nakanishi. Maybach also features. **3/4
The final five matches all pit Suzuki-gun members against regular NOAH wrestlers, four of which are for company championships.
Dangan Yankees (Masato Tanaka and Takashi Sugiura) vs. Shelton Benjamin and Takashi Iizuka (Suzuki-gun): The best tag team of 2014 (source: Fujiwara Armbar self-poll) find themselves atop a hill of shit in the first half of their match against dastardly invader heels Benjamin and Iizuka. Sugiura is handcuffed to the turnbuckle and getting whaled on by his opponents in turn whilst the other attends to Tanaka, who spends a great deal of time writhing on the concrete.
Iizuka reveals himself to be minimally-talented once his elaborately chaotic entrance is complete, redolent of The Sandman whenever he worked for a company larger than ECW. But what this match lacks in wrestling qua wrestling it finds in generation of heel heat and manufacture of the crowd’s desperation for the big comeback. After a few minutes of punishment, a ring lackey eventually frees Sugiura (who wrestles the remainder of the match with a severed cuff around his wrist). Upon receiving the tag, the crowd becomes momentarily ferocious, baying for Suzuki-gun blood.
They don’t quite get blood, though they do get a Dangan Yankees victory. Iizuka minimises how much damage he can have on the actual wrestling segment of the match by allowing Benjamin to do some nice stuff with Tanaka and Sugiura. Benjamin and Sugiura staredown in the post-match, which is great news given their mutual amateur pedigree and Kurt Angle influence. ***
GHC JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP – Hajime Ohara and Kenou (Cho Kibou-gun) (c) vs. Daisuke Harada and Genba Hirayanagi (No Mercy) vs. El Desperado and TAKA Michinoku (Suzuki-gun): A strong whiff of New Japan emanates from this bout as a bunch of fine junior heavyweights are tossed into a high-octane spot marathon. Fortunately, there is a thread by which this dangles: the story is that the heels of Cho Kibou-gun are somewhat asleep to the Suzuki-gun danger in their midst, seeing their natural alignment with the forces of comic dick evil rather than NOAH. This routinely allows TAKA and Desperado to crawl amongst the wreckage to exploit the lack of unity.
Whilst there are high points, the match feels rote, ten minutes of moves and tricks removed from any context of why they might be important or impressive. Harada and Ohara work well together, whilst Hirayanagi pleases the crowd and Kenou’s image overhaul serves him better than his previous look. It is the invading vultures who incrementally remove pleasure, never entering into the match on terms, as if Statler and Waldorf suddenly became the main guys on The Muppet Show. Which makes it all the more disappointing, as Desperado takes the win with a Diving Body Press on Hirayanagi and become new GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. Dull. **1/2
GHC JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP – Atsushi Kotoge (c) vs. Taichi: Atsushi Kotoge was a decent choice to unseat Daisuke Harada as Jr. Heavy champ if you have to pick a person not named Zack Sabre Jr.. He’s a fine flyer with an array of ground moves and changes of direction and a pronounced spell on top is overdue. However, it increasingly looks as if that choice was made simply to offer a less-protected wrestler up to the hurricane of wreckage created by Suzuki-gun.
Taichi isn’t a favourite in the Fujiwara household and his post-adultery suspension run of constant cheating has grated on every last nerve. TAKA and Desperado return to the ring, selling no recent conflict, and set about neutralising Kotoge with ruses and plans and jackanapery. Kotoge is just a stooge for a 20 minute comedy act led by Taichi that has about 3 minutes of compelling material. At times he looks bored by being put in a situation where he is unable to entertain or get any physical momentum going. Every time he signals a big move, it is cut off in egress.
The in-house crowd for their part buy it, their vocal disapproval at the outcome a positive sign contrasted with the apathy that has marked some recent NOAH shows. It takes a multitude of shenanigans to down the champion but defeat by Taichi’s Black Mephisto strikes as inevitable before quarter of the match had elapsed. Disappointing. **
GHC TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP – Killer Elite Squad (Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Lance Archer) (c) vs. TMDK (Shane Haste and Mikey Nicholls): NOAH has put on entertaining heavyweight tag team matches now for a while now, with a strong spine based around Dangan Yankees and TMDK. The addition of Strong BJ is a shot in the arm for domestic fans, whilst simultaneous NWA and GHC tag champs Killer Elite Squad add star power to round off a very fine quartet of rugged hardman teams.
Even better: after three consecutive matches of chicanery I am pleased to report that this match contained just one such attempt to cheat, which failed. Archer and Smith Jr. may ham up their gaijin asshole bully bit in the entrances but their matches are more businesslike in execution. Their work with TMDK, always vital, always working, always a bundle of energy, feels natural and as such this comfortably outstrips all gone before it.
After a sprightly opening from the Australian challengers, KES slip into dominance as easily as a millionaire playboy sliding into a hot tub, flogging Shane Haste with ease. Comebacks are mounted and curtailed. Whilst Nicholls does manage to enter the fray and TMDK drop a few bombs of their own, it is for naught as they fail to regain their titles. Nicholls is trapped in the Killer Bomb and is dispatched in half the time it took them to lose the belts in the first instance.
What the match lacked in structure and smoothness, it made up for in energy and earnestness. Smith Jr. and Archer are big men with substance and unlike their Suzuki-gun junior compadres it is not a chore to see them temporarily ride roughshod over a division in the name of a storyline. After the kind of match they’d never been allowed to have on US TV (long, entertaining) they heel it up backstage, proclaiming themselves the best tag team in NOAH or anywhere. Not quite, but points for effort. ***3/4
GHC HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP – Naomichi Marufuji (c) vs. Minoru Suzuki: It begins, as many outstanding GHC Heavyweight encounters have done before, with Kenta Kobashi centre-ring holding the belt. Here the great man is a functionary, reading out the approval of the sanctioning body. He shakes Marufuji’s hand and wishes him luck. He shows Suzuki the title and offers his hand, but Suzuki puts his head down and steps away, instilling the missing pieces of theatre back into NOAH.
Establishing this psychological layer, where the good guy connects and resonates deeply with the great things in the company past whilst the bad guy wants to flit from company to company eviscerating all they stand for, grants this match the potential to access those great main event battles at Budokan and the Tokyo Dome of the last decade.
On the whole, it is mostly successful. The opening exchanges are excellent, with Marufuji trying to flip around Suzuki’s constrictor-arms in an elegant game of cat and mouse. The stoic face of the champion contrasted with the bilious laughter of the challenger makes the dynamic concrete; there is no smarkish chanting for Suzuki. It is classic heel vs. face fare and all the better for it.
As the match grows and the moves become more impactful, the tension ratchets accordingly. Marufuji wants to set his opponent up with the Shiranui but Suzuki always seems to have a counter, cleverly grounding his man with a Fujiwara armbar just as Marufuji appeared to have lift-off. There are also brief departures from the Suzuki playbook, with a few pin attempts before the allotted time and a great deal of rope-running, at one point the pair doing a Wrestlemania VI-style crossover fest.
Suzuki-gun’s juniors loom outside, their attempts to interfere cancelled out by Marufuji’s stablemates in BRAVE. Toward the end, the energy outside the ring shifts as the remainder of Suzuki-gun emerge to obliterate any opposition. The direction of the match from the production truck is immaculate here, generating a sense of inexorability, that the life is being choked out of NOAH by these oncoming hordes, culminating in a stray shot of Iizuka barrelling toward the ring wearing his iron glove.
The in-ring stays true despite the chaos unfolding around it, and though Suzuki is levelled with the Shiranui and the Ko-Oh Knee, Marufuji never hoists his man for the Pole Shift Flowsion killshot. Suzuki cinches the wind from Marufuji’s sails with armwork and rear chokes, before spotting Iizuka breaking free of the melee at ringside to mount the apron and prod Marufuji with his weaponized hand. Suzuki pounces with glee, making a minor show of the justice he is about to mete by way of a lingering Gotch-style Piledriver, a cover, and a 1-2-3. ****1/4
An infographic shows that Suzuki-gun have swept the board, taking all four titles away with them. They celebrate en masse for a while until the entire NOAH roster, now having discovered unity by the way of fetching black and pink tracksuits, sweep the ring clear of heels and proclaim that they will eventually prevail under the stewardship of their fallen champion.