We’re kicking off the most underrated New Japan tour of the year in Korakuen Hall!

New Japan Pro Wrestling
World Tag League 2015 – Night 1
Korakuen Hall – Tokyo, Japan
Watch: http://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00357_1_1

Mascara Dorada & David Finlay vs Sho Tanaka & Yohei Komatsu

This match was supposed to signify the triumphant return of long-time errant luchador BUSHI, but mysterious circumstances have led to him being replaced here with David Finlay instead. This is nothing to complain about—as anyone familiar with this cohort of Young Lions will know—because as much as Finlay looks like an out-of-his-depth student teacher on an exchange programme, he hits hard and has excellent chemistry against both members of the opposing Lion team (affectionately known as Shohei. This is going to be a long Tag League with a lot of celeb-couple-style mish-mash tag team names, let’s start as we intend to continue).

The opening sequence is an unmitigated joy, with Yohei doing a backflip into a kip up to manoeuvre out of Finlay’s devious wristlock, causing the attentive crowd to erupt into applause. Yohei in particular here moves with confidence and grace , ducking clotheslines then effortlessly transitioning into a hurricanrana.

While this match doesn’t have the lucha/lion dynamic that was advertised, and Dorada definitely feels like the odd man out; tentatively walking the ropes while Finlay’s breaking up submission with dramatic rolling uppercuts, this is still a great deal of fun.

Dorada gets the pin on Komatsu with the Dorada Screwdriver, which feels a little disappointing, being that the ol’ tag-team vs two-men-put-together trope indicates that Shohei ought to have been victorious. ***

Juice Robinson & Tiger Mask vs Frankie Kazarian & Christopher Daniels

Some new faces popping up at this point in the card, with Tag League participants the Addiction facing Juicy Tiger (not wedded to that one, better suggestions welcome). Kazarian emerges here in one of the most horrendous ensembles I’ve ever seen, and I am so stunned by this fashion faux pas that I almost forget to load up my list of synonyms for “embarrassing” to describe Juice Robinson.

This is not a match with fantastic storytelling, but whatever it does attempt is undermined by Robinson, as he seems to think that every match he’s in is a personal showcase for him. Here he’s constantly shrieking and yelling “OH YEAH BABY” in a manner that forced me to physically cover my eyes just to recover from cringing so hard. Regardless, he doesn’t seem to have exhausted the good will of the Japanese fans, as they clap and cheer for his helicopter on Kazarian.

Daniels feigns a tweaked knee after leaping over Tiger Mask halfway through this match, which allows for enough of a brief referee distraction for Kazarian to throw himself on Robinson. This is a useful detail to have in these throwaway first-half tags, because although it lacks in subtlety, it effectively sets us up for what to expect– alignment-wise– from the Addiction in the tournament.

Robinson’s signature seems to be a non stop collection of closed fist punches with theatrics. When closed fist punches are delivered in moments of great drama in NJPW, like when Kota Ibushi was driven to desperation against Shibata at the G1, they are treated with a stern warning from the referee and the real risk of stoppage. For Robinson to be throwing them so casually feels inconsistent with the internal world of NJPW, and just another detail that makes him jarring.

The Addiction get a decisive victory, with hapless Juice taking the pin. *3/4

Captain New Japan, Ryusuke Taguchi & KUSHIDA vs Gedo, Michael Bennett & Matt Taven

It’s been a glorious few months of respite from having to see The Kingdom, and all the associated misogynistic crap that hovers around their threesome like a thick smog. They’re not fun; they’re not good wrestlers; they don’t have any charisma; and the only redeeming thing about them was exploited for an unpleasant jokey-sexual-assault angle at Dontaku. They’re in the runnings for Tag League, though, so it’s time to get settled in for eye rolling and long sighs of disappointment. At least heavily-bearded Gedo seems happy to see them.

Captain New Japan comes out wearing a pair of Taguchi-style comedy glasses over his mask here, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t even have available ears for them to rest on! How are they staying there?

This starts slow, with lots of teasing, and KUSHIDA desperately trying to ring general his shambles of a team into some sort of strategy: but being thwarted by CNJ’s hubris to try to face down Gedo single-handedly.

Taguchi manages to get himself in a scenario where all three opponents are draped across different ropes, so throws a three way set of running hip attacks. Then, unfortunately, he gets distracted by Maria on the apron, sashaying and swiveling (because women are objects). Maria is a Distraction, like a trash can or an eye rake; men are idiots who can endure vast amounts of physical punishment but are rendered incapacitated by throbbing arousal whenever feminine buttocks appear in their periphery. To add another layer of unpleasantness, the commentary table take creepshots of Maria’s behind throughout this match and post them on twitter. When Japan has an infamously widespread sexual harassment problem; where girls are photographed and groped without consent on public transport daily; surely any form of media has a responsibility to see how its behaviour could have knock-on effects on societal attitudes to women’s autonomy?

When KUSHIDA finally gets tagged in, and starts throwing headscissors and pele kicks and running knees, the relief is palpable. KUSHIDA also seems to have learnt Kyle O’Reilly’s feint grasping-at-air into an armbar spot, from their partnership at Power Struggle.

Later, CNJ falls to Maria’s gyrations, and while the camera focuses pornographically on her crotch, the Captain slowly starts to remove his belt. What are we supposed to believe is the outcome here? That CNJ intends to sexually assault Maria here and now? And worse, that this is a reasonable and expected reaction to the Kingdom’s sexual weaponisation of her?

The Kingdom get the win. 1/2* (just for KUSHIDA)

Jay White, Manabu Nakanishi, Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs Cody Hall, Tama Tonga, Yujiro Takahashi, Bad Luck Fale & AJ Styles

AJ’s hat hair is off the charts here; it’s got a kink in it which I’m not sure could be removed by even the most professional of ceramic straighteners. Yujiro’s back to brunette. You’re all up to date now, in Biz Cliz Hair News.

This match has a lot to enjoy in terms of facials and interactions  but not much in the way of wrestling , like most of these big mid-card million-man tags. Unexpectedly, one of the most fun interactions here is between Tonga (who is not so secretly the second-best wrestler in this match) and Nagata, who have a great chemistry. Tonga’s unnerving dashing around like he has wheels in his kneepads causes Nagata to try to react with firm and unwavering stalwart resistance, but he’s not entirely convincing, which is a marvellous scene.

The commentary table are just besides themselves throughout the latter part of this, reacting to Kojima’s chops like they’ve never seen them before: and that enthusiasm is fairly infectious, raising the excitement in an otherwise average match.

While the team of Jay White and His Dad’s Friends are a fun one, they lack any impressive athleticism until the Lion himself gets tagged in, and impresses massively with missile dropkicks and impossibly fast evasive sequences. Finally, he gets murdered by a spear through the ribs from Tonga, and gets hit by returning Takahashi’s Miami Shine for the finish. **1/2

https://twitter.com/SenorLARIATO/status/668013101346856960

World Tag League (A Block)
Tomoaki Honma & Togi Makabe vs Kazushi Sakuraba & Toru Yano

The effort to make a joint theme for the CHAOS C-team here goes as far as Yano’s jingling open notes abruptly switching to Saku’s synthy beat. Yano comes out wearing a matching Sakuraba mask, though, so I appreciate that gesture.

Sakuraba instantly takes every opportunity to ground Honma here; a sensible strategy, as it’s very hard to execute a Kokeshi with zero run-up. Saku seems to have an answer for everything Honma tries: most impressively, catching a headbutt by swivelling his lower body on the mat to catch Honma between his thighs and armpit into a Guillotine Choke. This skill at adaptation and opportunism makes him a more natural partner for Yano than it might appear.

https://twitter.com/DeathToAllMarks/status/668017836699344896

Yano gets the win with a roll up after a low blow. **1/2

https://twitter.com/SenorLARIATO/status/668018962773516288

World Tag League (B Block)
EVIL & Tetsuya Naito vs Doc Gallows & Karl Anderson

The lights drop for EVIL’s laser hands, but in the unforgiving setting of Kouraken Hall, his costume looks a little cheaper and less impressive than it did in his dramatic debut at Power Struggle. He is, however, sporting a daring purple streak in his hair.

We’re rapidly distracted from admiring EVIL’s well-conditioned ponytail locks, as his Ingobernable amigo removes his hood and reveals himself to be aforementioned absent luchador BUSHI!  The real Naito follows behind at a snail’s pace, but this revelation is a delicious moment of excitement.

This is a bad guy battle through and through, and after the requisite painfully slow Naito unboxing, the Ingobernable team leap at the Biz Cliz boys. This match spills out to the crowd quickly, and Anderson swoops Naito up on his shoulders for a powerbomb, then just earnestly runs through the aisles of the building, culminating in throwing Naito out of the fire exit and into nothingness.

https://twitter.com/SenorLARIATO/status/668022333697822721

Velvet-clad emo-core EVIL is left to deal with both members of Guns n Gallows alone, which he handles with remarkable competence and resilience, while Naito regains composure and ambles at the slowest feasible speed back towards the ring. BUSHI stands at ringside, with an enigmatic expression, not assisting his brethren.

This match is great on drama—like the gasp-inducing spot where EVIL sinks his teeth into Anderson’s collarbone, and I thought the match was going to descend into straight vampirism— but a little thin on psychology, and doesn’t yet clear up any of the obvious questions. What do Los Ingobernables want; what are their relationships with each other; and where does BUSHI fit into all of this?

The final sequence is a mass of frenetic fun; EVIL pounces the ref into a tight conspiratorial hug that falls to the floor, which allows Naito to push Gallows toward the apron where BUSHI spits strength-sapping black poison mist in his face. Naito hits Destino for the win.

https://twitter.com/SenorLARIATO/status/668024726061752320

After the match, they lay a beatdown on the ref—and Yohei, when he tries to assist—and the three Ingobernables pose over the referee’s limp body. ***

World Tag League (B Block)
Katsuyori Shibata & Hirooki Goto vs Tomohiro Ishii & Shinsuke Nakamura

Meiyu Tag are back in the saddle together again, having drifted alone since losing their titles at New Beginning in Sendai; now facing two of the three CHAOS champions. I imagine that Shibata was watching the Ingobernables antics backstage, which contributes to him looking even more unimpressed than usual.

Goto assures Shibata that he can handle opening this match against Ishii– whom he had a much-praised encounter against during the G1. They take never-ending elbows to each other, and then match strength on lariats meeting in the middle of the ring, over and over, until finally Ishii gains the upper hand and drops Goto to the mat.

Both of Meiyu Tag lock in simultaneous stretches on their opponents later in the match, with a beautiful display of symmetry that reminds us that Shibata and Goto’s childhood friendship never dwindled. Shibata is ready to grasp Nakamura whenever Goto fumbles; he has his back, reflexively.The men communicate without words, without gesture, just knowing instinctively how to collaborate.

There are too many good spots to mention in this match: just the best of each of these men’s fury and passion. The contrast of Nakamura’s refusal to take anything seriously, with Shibata’s relentless seriousness, is especially enjoyable.

An exchange of ill-advised headbutts leads to Ishii coming out on top and folding Shibata perfectly in half, his feet to his hands, for the deepest pin you’ll ever witness: but Shibata still kicks out. Finally, Shibata gets the pin on Ishii after the beloved Ushigoroshi/PK combo. ***3/4

https://twitter.com/SenorLARIATO/status/668029573980930048

World Tag League Match (A Block)
Michael Elgin & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs YOSHI-HASHI & Kazuchika Okada

One of the things that I love about New Japan and its event cycle is that “build” doesn’t feel like artificial provocation: but like the more natural ways that resentments flare up between people forced to work together. Tanahashi and Okada were kept apart from each other at the Wrestle Kingdom conference, the sort of sensible reaction to their breath-taking pull-apart brawl at Power Struggle that would make sense from a real company that hosted a real sport. However, crossing paths in the ring during Tag League was deliciously inevitable, and that adds a level of punchy intrigue to this main event immediately.

Ostensibly this encounter isn’t about Elgin and YOSHI-HASHI, but they bumped heads last at the G1 final in a heated singles match, so there’s drama between those two men, too. Their exhibition segment of this match, deep into it, is better than their singles by far, with no wasted moments.

Love and Power, as Tanahashi wanted them to be called (or Unbreakable Ace, as I wanted) immediately provoke unflattering comparisons, because much as any friends of La Sombra’s will always be playing second fiddle to his exceptional beauty, Elgin– all beard and ill-fitting dressing gown– looks like a troll compared to transcendently well groomed Tana.

Okada’s still flushed and bruised from going to war with Tenryu, but when Tanahashi greets him in the ring with a vicious shove to the chest, Okada just smiles, winningly. This infuriates Tana even more.

Elgin’s habit of holding someone—in this case, YOSHI-HASHI—up in a delayed vertical, and then responding to Okada’s interrupting kick to the gut by merely repositioning his grip and raising him even higher, is massively over. Elgin almost makes us forget that what we really want to see is Tana and Okada brawling in the aisleways for an hour. We get a taste of that when Okada wrestles Tanahashi into the front row, causing a concerned Yohei to hover well-meaningly over Tana’s broken body, amongst the shopping bags of Japanese fans. Okada’s at the 16 count when he returns to the scene of the crime to throw more uppercuts, but drags him back to the ring just in time.

https://twitter.com/SenorLARIATO/status/668032117918605312

Okada wrestles smug this match. He’s smirking at Elgin when he throws a dropkick at him, but every now and again Tanahashi makes him lose the veneer and furrow his brow like the worried child in tears we saw escorted away by Gedo after last year’s WK main event. Tanahashi reverses a Rainmaker attempt with a slap and a slingblade. This whole match is dripping with hatred under a thin layer of cockiness.

The finish of this gloriously chaotic match involves the debut of the Elgin-assisted High Fly Flow (or High Fly Mike, if you will). ****

https://twitter.com/DeathToAllMarks/status/668035665850945538

Tana and Okada press foreheads intensely after the bell, but Okada leaves without incident, for Team Unbreakable Ace to sweetly wish the fans “aishitemasu”.

Final Thoughts: Despite NJPW’s glaring women problem that left a dark cloud over the first half, the actual Tag League matches redeemed this show into being an outstandingly enjoyable opening night. This whole show is available free on demand from NJWorld, and I would definitely recommend watching if you have any investment in the build to Wrestle Kingdom.