April 10: New Japan Pro Wrestling Invasion Attack 2016
Venue: Sumo Hall
Let’s not mince words here: Sumo Hall was the greatest wrestling venue I’ve ever been inside of (and I’ve been to, uh, an awful lot of them, now in 3 countries!). The building, which as the name would imply was built to watch the traditional Japanese sport of sumo wrestling, has the most incredible sight lines I’ve ever seen for a 9000+ seat building. This should make intuitive sense, given that the entire purpose of the building is to watch two men do battle in an elevated, circular fighting area; the sight lines thus translate extremely well to watching pro wrestlers duke it out in the squared circle as well. We were seated in the middle section of a three-tier upper deck, well above the “sumo boxes” of the lower level, and we could see everything almost perfectly (the only time we couldn’t was during the NEVER six-man when they brawled up into one of the entrance ways, a future occurrence the Sumo Hall architects could be forgiven for not planning for). On top of that, the acoustics were easily the best of any building of the size I’ve ever been in, as the sound carried throughout the arena incredibly well. Basically the best way I can describe Sumo Hall is as thus: of all the larger buildings I’ve ever been in, it was the only one that really felt like the best of small buildings. It was the perfect in-between of the sense of scale and excitement that comes with being in a larger arena with thousands of fans (like you might find at a WWE show, at least back when their crowds occasionally made actual noise) while still possessing sight lines and acoustics like a great small indie building. Really I can’t say enough about Sumo Hall, and any trip I make to Japan in the future will surely involve attending another wrestling show here as a major part of it! Here’s some venue-specific photos:
Main Event: Tetsuya Naito def. Kazuchika Okada in 28:50 to become the 64th IWGP Heavyweight Champion ****1/4
Of all the matches I watched on my trip, this is perhaps the one that I waffled on the most when it came to a star rating. While I like Okada, anyone who knows me should also know how much I love Tetsuya Naito. During his original babyface push I was consistently baffled by the NJPW crowds’ treatment of him, and I wanted him so badly to win when he challenged for the title at the Tokyo Dome (though in hindsight it was obviously the correct decision not to have him win then). After he turned heel and became the coolest person on the planet in 2015, I was elated and latched onto the LIJ train almost immediately. Fast forward to 2016 and the New Japan Cup. I had already decided to go on Alan’s wrestling trip that would include Invasion Attack, but I wasn’t sure whether or not the big Naito-Okada IWGP Title match would take place here. If you’ll recall, Naito spent a lot of time during the NJC claiming he would not take his title shot at Invasion Attack should he win. This made me think at first he was either going to lose or win and then take his shot at Dominion in Osaka (a city that he has a lot of history with). But then Naito won the tournament and was goaded into a title match at Invasion Attack after all by Okada. Initially I was elated, but then the booking conspiracy theories started: maybe this isn’t Naito’s automatic title shot. Maybe this doesn’t count because Okada challenged him, so Okada can win at Invasion Attack and then Naito can be all “well that’s cool but I still have my NJ Cup title shot” and win the belt later, at Dominion.
Um, holy crap. That theory made a lot of sense to me. So now I was scared you-know-what-less that I was going to Invasion Attack to see just that scenario play out, and see my absolute favorite wrestler in New Japan (by a MILE) lose the big match yet again. As we approached the main event, I was starting to feel more and more like they had to have Naito win that night. It simply felt like his moment, especially considering the crowd was easily like 75/25 behind him (and there was LIJ merchandise everywhere). But the nagging doubt was still in the back of my mind throughout the match. I give you this set-up just to explain that, watching it live, I honestly was not engaged at all in thinking about the match from a “match quality” or “STARZ” standpoint. All I cared about was that Naito won, and I was thus on the edge of my seat throughout, watching as nervously as you’ll ever see a full-grown adult person watching a pre-determined “sport”. It was really just like watching my LA Kings or Toronto Blue Jays play a must-win Game 7 in the playoffs, which is many things but “fun” isn’t quite one of them. I just wanted to be there live to see Naito finally reach the pinnacle of Japanese wrestling in person so badly, and luckily enough it all turned out great in the end. I jumped out of my seat and cheered so loud my voice nearly went hoarse, and even many days later I’m still so happy to have been there to be a very small part of Naito’s special moment. You deserved this buddy, congratulations!
So this is one of the very few matches of the trip I did rewatch back on tape, and after watching it without the nerve-racking experience I feel good about my star rating here. Naito and Okada really put on a suitably epic match for the stakes and stage involved, and I don’t feel the interference overwhelmed it too badly (it did at times, but not throughout the entire match). Sanada’s debut could have gone better just in the respect that no one in the building seemed to know who he was (we are a bunch of puro nerds and we had seen him live twice that week but none of us in our section had a clue until Twitter told us, I guess just because his hair looked so different from earlier that week!), but he certainly did make an impact. I’m happy that, even with all the interference, the end result was still Naito reversing the Rainmaker from Okada and pinning him with the Destino, just like we all thought it would be the moment he started using that move. Overall, this was a hell of a way to end the trip, but it wasn’t even the best match on the show!
Undercard Notes: Those honors, as well as Best Match Of The Entire Trip honors, has to go to KUSHIDA vs. Will Osperay. I’ve watched this one back too just to confirm, but I have to go the full ***** monty. I really just don’t see what flaw there was with this match. Will’s selling was phenomenal, and I’ve never seen a match where they built it almost entirely around a body part and yet still crammed in so many spectacular moves at the same time. It was basically like a “grown-up spotfest” and I loved every single second of it. I was happy to see KUSHIDA retain too, as he really deserves this run as the junior ace (and should get way more love as one of the best in the entire world than he does), and the post-match that set up a KUSHIDA-Liger match next was really something special to see.
The rest of the show featured a ton of really good matches too: the NEVER six-man tag match was just a regular ‘ol spotfest, but a really fun one; Shibata-Tenzan was super to watch live with how 100% behind Tenzan the crowd was (and if you think Shibata kicks hard on tape, holy crap); the junior tag title match was nearly 16 minutes of action and honestly better than I was even expecting it to be; and the Ishii/Goto-EVIL/BUSHI tag was brutally stiff and a really great way to kick off the EVIL-Goto feud proper. The only thing that wasn’t that great was the IWGP Tag Title match, but to be honest, I didn’t really give it much of a chance to be great in the first place as I used it as my bathroom break match (the lines were pretty ridiculous during intermission) to be ready for the main event. I was kind of disappointed in the result, but I don’t really care too much about those belts anyway.
Overall: I can’t say enough good things about this show. If Invasion Attack ’16 had been an average show or maybe even a mediocre one I’m sure I would have had an amazing time just being there live at Sumo Hall, but they blew me away with a fantastic one instead. I was glad to see the feedback online was shaded toward “amazing show” more than anything else, confirming it wasn’t just my live event bias telling me this show was so great. It was just a fantastic, magical night of professional wrestling, and a great way to cap off the best damn vacation I’ve ever taken (and, quite honestly, ten of the best days of my entire life).
Final Thoughts: I really can’t stress enough how amazing this trip was. Thank you so much to Alan for putting it together and to everyone else- both my fellow travelers and the many, uh, permanent gaijin residents of Japan that we met along the way- for being wonderful companions along the journey.
If you’re a fan of Japanese professional wrestling you absolutely need to get to Tokyo sometime soon. I promise you, it will be one of the best experiences of your life. Many people I’ve talked to who would otherwise want to do it expressed that they were worried the language barrier would be a factor, but as someone who speaks very little Japanese (I’m working on learning kanji now though and would like to be way closer to fluent by the next time I go!) I can tell you, it really wasn’t a problem. The people and (especially) the businesses of Tokyo are very, very used to gaijin visitors who don’t speak a word of their language. Many places had at least one or two people with some English knowledge, the majority of restaurants had an English menu available (though some didn’t), and if all else failed they were totally okay with you pointing at the (usually very large) pictures on the menu to order. The train system was also both easy to figure out, with English signage everywhere, and honestly just incredible to witness in person. Every single train will arrive at the exact time the Hyperdia app (a free app for planning your train trips in Japan- just pick two stops and an arrival or departure time and it will get you there, transfers and all) says it will, and you’ll notice a distinct lack of anyone running to catch their train because the next one is always six minutes or less away! I can’t stress that enough, because I was incredibly surprised the first time I noticed the trains running six minutes apart on a Sunday night at 11 pm! Anyway, I didn’t get on the wrong train or miss my stop once even while making a lot of transfers throughout, so you’ll probably be fine too.
Yes, traveling to Japan is expensive mainly due to the flights, although you will be surprised by how inexpensive some of it is once you get there. The food (and booze) prices, speaking as a New Yorker here, were way lower than I was expecting. And hotel costs are very manageable, with AirBNB being an English-friendly and affordable option should you be comfortable going that root (I stayed at hotels, but someone else on our trip stayed at an AirBNB for I believe $67 a night, which is definitely something I’m going to look into for at least part of my stay next time!). One expense that will add up fast are your show tickets (as I talked about back at the start of this beast), though obviously if you go to fewer shows than I did (and I should note there were a few people on this trip who went to even more than me!) that will help.
So go to Japan. Do it. You will love it. You will have the time of your life. If you can wait long enough, you can even go at the same time I’m going! That’s right, I’m going to pass my learned wisdom (mainly, how to play pachinko and how to order at izakayas with touchscreen tablets) onto the great masses, should you choose to come on my next journey. As of right now, I’m planning that to be in October 2017 (so we’ll see King of Pro Wrestling at Sumo Hall plus probably a million other shows at Korakuen/Shinjuku/etc), so it’s a long ways away. But if you want to come, stay tuned to my Twitter feed and start saving now! Until then, I’ll be over here, staring at my photos and sighing.