For Katsuyori Shibata, the wrestling ring is not only his battlefield, it’s a reminder of the impermanence of life. Early into his career, Shibata was involved in a tragic accident in a New Japan ring. An errant elbow strike led to the untimely death of Masakazu Fukuda. The freak accident wasn’t seen as the fault of Shibata, but it would be ridiculous to think that this doesn’t weigh on a person’s soul. Nearly a decade later, death would visit Shibata again, this time taking his father. Katsuhisa Shibata was a former wrestler and respected referee in New Japan, making Katsuyori a second generation wrestler.
Whether it be from the life that he took or the life he was given, Shibata knows that every match could be his last. Because of that, he wrestles the style that he wants to wrestle. Doing anything else would be a betrayal of himself. Katsuyori Shibata is The Wrestler. The fighter. The defiant hero.
While he might be surrounded by more colorful characters like Kazuchika Okada or Kenny Omega, Shibata is the hero that New Japan and their fans are looking for. On the New Japan roster Shibata is the regular guy. He’s not rich, he’s not the leader of a gang, and he doesn’t have a cool skull mask. In his black tights and boots, he’s just a wrestler. With his penchant for fighting, his unstoppable drive, and his slightly troubled past, Shibata has all the qualities of a shonen hero.
The protagonists of most shonen manga and anime are fighters. The lead characters of Dragon Ball, One Piece, Yu Yu Hakusho, Fist of the North Star, and many other series all use their fists and feet to punch and kick their way through their problems. To put it like this is to simplify things. Shonen manga is the most common type of manga that you’ll encounter. These Japanese comics aimed at young males can be diverse in genre, but more often than not, they’re centered around fighting. Whether they’re literal boxing matches like in Hajime no Ippo or card games like in Bushiroad’s Future Card Buddyfight, these fights are serious business and each one is more important than the last. Every punch thrown represents another step further in the journey of the protagonist.
More often than not, the journey is what really matters in the series. There’s always a goal that the main character is working their way towards.
In One Piece, Luffy wants to be King of the Pirates. In Dragon Ball, Goku wants to be as strong as possible. In Shibata’s case, he wants to eventually be the IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
For all these journeys, there is always a sense of escalation to the narrative. Just as Shibata has worked his way up the card from his initial spot as a young lion, the lead characters of these series work to become whatever it is that they want to be.
Dragon Ball might be the perfect series to illustrate this point. When it began, things were very grounded. Goku was a super strong child that set out on a quest to collect the Dragon Balls with his new friend Bulma. There was a grand sense of adventure in the early days, but as time went on, things got bigger. Goku wasn’t just a strong child, he was an alien, one of the last Saiyan’s in existence. This revelation changed everything and completely opened up the universe of Dragon Ball. Suddenly, Earth wasn’t the only battlefield as Goku and his friends found themselves fighting the evil forces of Freeza on planet Namek. It was there that Goku pushed past a new level of strength and became a Super Saiyan. Goku’s constant training and obsession with finding stronger competition paid off and continued to pay off as he discovered new Super Saiyan forms. Things just kept getting bigger and bigger from there to the point where Goku is now fighting literal gods in Dragon Ball Super.
This aspect of shonen series, training and growing stronger through hard work, is easily applicable to the wrestling world as well.
Shibata has been on a slow rise in New Japan for the past several years. He’s had to redeem himself not only in the eyes of management, but also in the eyes of his fellow wrestlers and the New Japan fans. Shibata’s departure from the company put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths so his return wasn’t entirely accepted. There’s a common misconception that Shibata left to pursue a career in MMA, but there was a two year period where he wrestled freelance before his ill-fated transition to shoot fights. If he had gone straight to MMA, the wound might not have been as deep, but his two years working for rival promotions drove the knife in deep. One of the people that he had to work hard to regain the trust and respect of was Hiroshi Tanahashi. The eternal New Japan ace wrote a book and in its pages, he buried Shibata for turning his back on the company. When Shibata made his return, the two predictably clashed. In a series of brutal matches, the two formed a new relationship based on respect earned in the ring.
Relationships and Shibata don’t go hand in hand, but there is one friendship that Shibata held in strong regard. With the right framing, it’s easy to say that his friendship with Hirooki Goto is the most anime thing about Shibata. Think about it; Goto is his samurai best friend that he went to high school with. The fact that they don’t have a show I can watch on Crunchyroll is surprising. While these two are well known as being friends, they might be even better known as opponents. These aren’t just friendly matches, these are brutal fights. The two best examples come from Wrestle Kingdom 8, when Goto returned from injury, and more recently, Wrestle Kingdom 11 where the pair fought over the NEVER Championship. While Shibata and Goto are currently on the outs, the respect they have for each other doesn’t go away. And if it does, they can always just beat the hell out of each other again as a reminder.
Even after Shibata was officially given the Lion’s Mark when he signed a contract with New Japan, he still had quite a few people that he needed to prove himself to. Like any good hero, he had to fight for the respect of the generation before him. The Third Generation to be exact.
Shibata’s feud with Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and Yuji Nagata was one of the best of 2016 and largely benefitted from the simplicity of its storytelling. Shibata showed the Third Generation the same disrespect he’s shown many opponents, but the New Japan Dad’s weren’t going to take his arrogance lying down. Each challenged for his NEVER Championship and each earned his respect in their matches. In his matches with Tenzan and Kojima, Shibata bowed to his fallen opponent after defeating them. The same couldn’t be done for Nagata the first time they met because Nagata actually took the title from Shibata. Not only did Shibata learn respect from Nagata, but he learned to never underestimate an opponent. When the feud ended, Shibata not only walked out with the NEVER Championship, he also found a new set of allies in the Third Generation. Any manga reader can rattle off a hundred times they’ve seen enemies become friends, especially after a hard fought battle. These new allies would serve Shibata well in the coming months as he found himself at the center of a war with Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Things continued to go Shibata’s way over the next several months. Even though he was already an incredibly skilled wrestler, Shibata continued to grow and improve. As he spent more time in Europe, successfully winning the Rev Pro Championship, Shibata began to incorporate more of the British style of grappling into his matches. He adapted to fit his surroundings and then continued to use the techniques that worked best for him. While he may have lost both the NEVER Championship and the Rev Pro Title, he’s moving past these defeats and onto greater things.
As of this writing, Shibata stands on the precipice of what might be the most important match of his career. After being tested by Minoru Suzuki, Juice Robinson, Tomohiro Ishii, and Bad Luck Fale, Shibata claimed the New Japan Cup and a title shot of his choosing. Following his win over Fale, the crowd was ecstatic. Shibata was always the guy that looked strong in the early goings of a tournament, but could never pull off the win until now. The escalation of Shibata’s career has all led up to this point.
Katsuyori Shibata is very much a certain type of hero. He solves his problems with his fists or his feet. He’s a smart enough guy, but he relies more on his toughness than his brain. Shibata welcomes you to attack his injury, just know that he’s going to hit you harder than you’ve ever been hit before in return. He’s going to fight his fight his way. He owes it to his father. He owes it to Fukuda. He owes it to himself.
On April 9th, at Sakura Genesis, Katsuyori Shibata challenges Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. With the fans behind him and his level of skill higher than ever before, Shibata finds himself at the highest peak he has reached in his journey.
Hell of a cliffhanger to end on, huh?