There is a desperate romance in frailty. When seen in those viewed as idols and heroes, it is intrinsically linked with a seemingly mystical font of willpower and determination. For spectators, the idea of pushing one’s self past a breaking point is almost unknowable, something that can almost never be touched, and certainly never reliably called upon. We lust after it. It is the lust of maturation, for as we age, we shift our gaze away from the superhuman and the unattainable, and we instead stare longingly at the familiar yet exemplary.
It is enviable to see a young person innately know their calling.
Akira Hokuto was sixteen in 1983. She was the founder and president of the Bull Nakano fan club. Shortly thereafter, she quit high school to join the AJW gym and become a wrestler herself. She was not yet eighteen when she debuted, but her talent was natural and obvious and the praise she received was almost immediate. She was showered with rookie of the year honors, and was placed in high profile matches against the woman who had recently been her idols: Chigusa Nagayo, Yumiko Hotta.
Her life and career would take a dark turn shortly thereafter.
Hokuto, working to defend a recently won tag title, was given a tombstone piledriver from the second rope. Her neck broke upon impact. She crawled to her corner, clutching her head, holding it in place. She would proceed to wrestle and work with one hand clinging to the damage done, a heart wrenching and futile attempt to prevent more harm. She searched for a way to make herself whole for just one more small moment. Enough to just maintain, to be relevant. When the match was over, she couldn’t wrestle for a year.
The tag match would prove to be a prophetic look at the career pattern of Hokuto, who returned more popular than ever, only to inevitably meet with another injury. She would also return with a decided edge, the beginnings of the persona that would become known as the Dangerous Queen. First as a tag specialist and eventually as a singles star, Hokuto flirted with disaster and injury with an almost fatalistic furor. Against Manami Toyota, she threw herself from the turnbuckle to the outside, her leg colliding with the guardrail. She cried as she wrapped herself in bandages and tried to find something, anything within herself that would let her continue. It must be a harrowing feeling to search deep in to a previously bottomless pool of spirit and come up with nothing, grasping hopelessly for a way to keep fighting. Another self-betrayal. She was unable to continue. She would again come back.
With each injury and each return, Hokuto’s star burned brighter.
In her, the crowds saw a fervent determination that is universally admirable. They saw a rare genius, starkly lit when compared to the shadow cast by longer and ever increasing periods of absence and recovery. The crowds knew they were watching greatness, but more than that, they were watching greatness on borrowed time. Each match was a high wire act, a solemn promise to defy death and move ever forward. Those watching held their breath, afraid that each step would be her last, the final slip, an unforeseen gust of wind that would disrupt the practiced grace that fluttered in and out of their lives.
As Hokuto was waging war against herself, coming back yet again from injury, her home promotion of AJW was fighting battles on a different front entirely. Wanting to prove its superiority as a promotion, AJW was in the midst of taking on all comers from rival promotions. While the women of AJW has feuds of their own, they came together to fight for pride and country and take on any of the myriad invading enemy forces of the early 1990s.
Enter Shinobu Kandori
As Hokuto came back, she was tasked with dispatching Shinobu Kandori, a young fighter from a new promotion, LLPW.
Kandori had competed as a judoka in the Olympics for Japan, and had won bronze for her country in the 1984 World Championships. She had made the career switch to wrestling in 1993, and had made short work of many of her contemporaries. She was the perfect avatar for LLPW; young and hungry, too prideful to view herself as anything but the best. She approached her fight with Hokuto with the workmanlike preparation of a shoot fighter, ready to prove a point and subsequently move forever onward and upward, always competing for a goal beyond the present.
The match took place on April 2, 1993. From separate locker rooms, both women are interviewed. They are studies in quiet intensity. They take moments to themselves, shifting from foot to foot with an almost religious repetition. It is the steady pace of a studied but nervous performer. On that evening, they were prepared. They would go on. They would fight. Nothing could truly prepare them.
As they announce her name, the camera pans to Hokuto, dressed as a demon samurai, all in red. She holds a sword triumphantly. In these moments, she is a timeless warrior, unmatched throughout history. She will continue forever. Her only true opponents are the cruelty of fate, the curse of her own body, and the inevitability of age. As she takes off her costume and readies herself for competition, her face shows her comfort, her seriousness. She has the confidence of the ghostly swordswoman she portrayed, blessed with the knowledge that no mortal can stand against her.
Kandori, for her part, is a perfect foil to the pomp and circumstance of Hokuto. She looks on with the practiced scorn of a professional fighter. She is stoic. She paces. She stares. She looks as though she is in a vacuum, not an arena, as though this was a sparring session in some tiny gym in her home town, gearing up for a fight against a nameless adversary.
They circle and yell in typical wrestling fashion, although the trope is subverted when Hokuto destroys Kandori’s face with a forearm. She stands over her competitor, disdainful, triumphant. She grabs a microphone and screams, a true release of emotion. Is that the best you can offer, she proclaims. She stays on the attack for a moment, but an open hand slap from Kandori is enough to move forward. Hokuto slips and before she can think, her arm is being torn out of its socket, wrenched backward. She screams, two minutes gone and already broken. It’s an all too common moment, but that doesn’t make it any less awful.
The referee and two young girls stretch out a shoulder and spray painkillers until she can return. The crowd is listless. The wheels are turning. There is a terrifying thought process written on her face. I think I can do this with only one hand, she says. It doesn’t hurt so bad I don’t think. I’ve felt worse. With that, she unleashes a series of slaps and kicks and stomps, off balance and forceful. Each hit an assault, made heavy by the sacrifice of everything that got Hokuto to this moment.
Kandori, slight but unrelenting, soon overcomes and bullies her way back on top. She smells blood, she wants to win. There is no hesitation or remorse when she goes for a cross arm breaker on the injured shoulder of Hokuto, who can only hang on for dear life. They clutch at each other and tumble together, out of the ring, over a guardrail. They dance together, a constant pressure that forces them to destroy one another. They stand on a table, and much like at the start of the match, a brief moment of dominance for Hokuto turns quickly against her.
There aren’t adequate words to describe the sheer brutality of the martinete that Kandori uses. The crowd is hushed, remembering only a few years ago when a similar maneuver cost The Dangerous Queen a year of her career. They roll off the table and keep fighting, but the camera doesn’t follow. Instead it stays focused on the aftermath, a literal dent in the table, roughly the same size as the top of a skull. The young girls are there again, pleading for a moment for their hero to compose herself. Kandori marches to the ring, her patience wearing thin. The ref counts, and Hokuto looks up, a blazing defiant star, struggling forward, bleeding profusely.
Clearly hurt, every move levels the Queen. Kandori picks her spots, each strike a choice. Hokuto fights back with instinct, wildly swinging, dragging Kandori back to the outside. The earlier dance resumes in earnest. Kandori bleeds and Hokuto wanders back toward the ring, pausing momentarily to hold herself up against a safety railing. She leaves behind a bloody handprint, a trail of broken things for Kandori to follow so they may continue.
Once returned to the relative safety of the ring, the two work a style almost purely based in emotion and revenge. Kicks to the face are answered with kicks to the face, not immediately like you might see in a modern take on fighting spirit, but in due time, when the pain becomes too much and one person or another has to lash out. There are breaths in between everything, heaving chests and gasps after slaps, grunts and groans after kicks. The movements are the uncreative but effective ones seen in fights in hotel parking lots and fields behind schoolhouses; standing on hair, jumping on top of someone with every ounce of weight, a primal scream of bloodlust ringing out in momentary triumph.
Kandori deserves all the credit in the world for breaking the cycle. Instead of a strike, she throws a bomb. She remembers the left arm injury she inflicted. To her that must have seemed like hours ago. She chokes Hokuto. They struggle together, in to the ropes. Hokuto responds to this newfound aggression with a short piledriver, another receipt, a small loop of narrative closed. The young girls are holding hands on the outside. Did they know they were doing so? Was it a conscious choice or an involuntary reaction?
It’s very interesting to note that almost all of Hokuto’s offense has been driven by Kandori. There is not a single more that she does that wasn’t a direct response to Kandori doing the same thing. Punches, piledrivers and powerbombs were all answered in kind. Perhaps this seeming lack of creativity is tied intrinsically to her indefatigable will to persevere; in order to block out the pain and continue forward, all other thought must be blocked. There is no plan, no strategy. Only movement can persist. Only instinct, only emotion, only retaliation.
The match is winding down and it’s impossible to not see the heaviness of everything taking place. They writhe and slip away, and can’t be picked up. Hokuto escapes a sleeper because she is simply too bloody to keep hold of. With each rope break Hokuto finds, Kandori reacts not with frustration, but with despondence. She wants things to end, she continues to fight, but above all else she is a realist. Her practiced stoicism gone, she voluntarily breaks her self-imposed vacuum and looks longingly to the crowd, begging them for something. She needs something. She can’t even run. Hokuto dodges again. She is a consistent step beyond Kandori’s grasp, bloodied and hurt but still that phantasmal ronin that began the match.
Both women are down. They have kicked out of or escaped everything. There is no longer any sense in having a wrestling match. The crowd chants for the Dangerous Queen. Both women rise. One last time they run. They have the same idea. A straight right hand. They go down together.
It takes eight seconds for Hokuto to make the cover, and once again the audience is in some way confronted with the spiritual outweighing the physical. In a match where Kandori and Hokuto took almost the exact same amount of punishment, what makes one continue to crawl ever forward, like a character from a Samuel Beckett novel?
What makes one lie down, looking skyward, tacitly admitting an ending? It’s something just beyond a mortal grasp, just beyond understanding. It’s something that forces us to hold hands, to strive forward. It forces us to learn and look inward. Perhaps that is why fragility is so romanticized in others, for it forces people to confront it within themselves. It is a powerful image to hold on to, to see the torment of a broken person, to see them fight and find ways beyond our own to do more than just cope. As Hokuto covers Kandori, she can’t go on.
She goes on anyway.