Some people are bound to repeat the past. Some are stuck in endless cycles, seemingly condemned to live through the worst and never quite find the peace of mind they’re looking for. Some thrive in the shadow of others, content to adore and follow, but never ready to be let down.
Admiration is a dangerous thing. The people that inspire us are often bound to be the ones who let us down the hardest.
We fashion ourselves after our idols, after our favorite people, we want to be like them, do the things they do, succeed like they did. We look up to them and what they are, because they represent everything we want to be.
Everything we’re not.
Everything we crave to be.
Kotoka is not quite a pillar in the landscape of Dragon Gate.
The loss post of every unit he’s ever been in, a scrawny, scrappy kid barely getting by on sheer determination, and who, almost in spite of himself, became one of the most lovable underdogs on a roster full of strong personalities
But Kotoka’s not just a personality. He’s a character, the kind I wish wrestling would portray more often: deeply flawed, nuanced, violent and full of something more than just ambition or pride.
In all my years of consuming media, I’ve rarely come across a character that I relate to as much as I relate to Kotoka. There is something about him, intentional or not, that rings true to me and my experiences, something that is more than skin deep but cuts right to the core of the human psyche, and feels almost too real sometimes. The creation of his character over the years, the twists and turns in his story, his emoting and behavior… he may not be one of the greatest wrestlers in Dragon Gate, but to me, he is one of its most important characters.
Because he’s one of its most human characters.
He’s not Almighty, not an Iron Man. He’ll probably never be Numero Uno, and that’s ok. Because Kotoka’s purpose is different, at least to me.
When I was 17 years old, I suffered a mental breakdown and dropped out of college. Four months later, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a mental illness that affects my emotions, sense of self, and interpersonal relationships. It’s complicated and quite frankly depressing, but to sum it up: I feel and live everything a lot more intensely than people without BPD. What is a minor inconvenience to the general population can feel like the end of the world to me. I love things too much, and I have a very hard time controlling my reactions and emotions. I have a crippling fear of abandonment and will go out of my way and even damage myself to avoid it. I get attached to people very easily, very strongly. And this last point is important.
One of the most prominent symptoms of BPD is “splitting” which can be summarized as extreme black & white thinking. People and things are either all good or all bad. No middle ground, no grey areas. Another common thing for BPD people is the existence, to them, of a “Favorite Person”, someone who they split positively on for any period of time and are extremely emotionally dependent on.
If you’ve followed Dragon Gate for any number of years, this might sound familiar to you.
Kotoka’s story has been a pattern of favorite persons and how they let him down. After his stints in WORLD-1 and Madogiwa Windows, Kotoka’s alliance history has been a repeating cycle of latching onto someone and losing his sense of self when they let him down.
CIMA, the great mentor turned tormentor, of whom Kotoka even mimicked the gear and name in an effort to be accepted by the veteran.
T-Hawk, the ideal of self who let him down by causing the disbandment of the Millennials, but was the closest thing he ever had to family in the ruthless world of wrestling. T-Hawk is perhaps the one that hurt the most, because Kotoka wanted to be everything he thought T-Hawk was, and had to realize too late that reality was much different. When T-Hawk fell, time and time again, to Masato Yoshino then to YAMATO, Kotoka was powerless to stop it, forced to watch as his ideal crumbled, as the rose-colored glasses shattered.
So he turned, he broke his former self, never wanting to feel helpless again. And, on his path of (self-)destruction, found Shingo Takagi. But the mighty and powerful leader who discarded him once he had outlived his usefulness, despite Kotoka giving everything, including his hair, to Verserk, and to him. The boy who led himself to the wolves was eaten alive. The realization that he was merely an expendable pawn came crashing down on him like a tidal wave, once destroying everything he thought he’d made his own.
It’s painful, and a little too real, to see him fall back into the same pattern over and over again. To see him love so much, so hard, and then lose it all. When I watch Kotoka, when I see him give everything of himself and get so little back in return, when I witness the cracks and the beginnings of another split, it reminds me of myself, and of the others going through the same things.
Kotoka is someone who will, probably, always be more of a character than a wrestler. And though my emotional connection to him truly makes me root for him in every challenge he throws down, it is the outstanding character work of the man behind the face paint, behind the maniacal smile and the “bleeeeeeeeh,” that makes him one of my favorites.
On a roster of powerful, almost untouchable individuals whose worst flaws are confidence and pride, Kotoka is almost a real person, fragile and vulnerable and determined, even in failure. Because he has flaws that I sometimes fail to see in a Yoshino or a Susumu, because he has cracks everywhere and haphazardly puts himself back together anyway. Because even though this is reaching, speculation, extrapolation, call it what you want, someone who reminds me of me, who exhibits the same crippling symptoms and shitty behavior that I do, is still allowed to be the hero sometimes.
When Kotoka stops an attack from Verserk, when he tries to save the day, I feel like I can do it too. When I see him beg to be loved, and eventually realize he doesn’t need to, it gives me strength. Mentally ill people are too often vilified in media for me not to grab this bit of representation, intentional or not, and cherish it, carry it in my heart.
My fascination with story above everything in wrestling started with Dragon Gate, and how its characters’ paths always seemed so closely intertwined even after all these years. And in Dragon Gate I found a character so human, so close to the reality of my life and my feelings, that I could barely believe it. You can debate all you want about whether wrestling is an art or not, but there is only one character I have ever related to as much as I relate to Kotoka. His name was James Cook, he was a main character in Skins (UK), and he may have been a piece of work, but he was also a work of art. When a character touches your soul the way Kotoka has touched mine, when I can live through him and feel heroic through him, and remind myself that my BPD does not make me a lost cause thanks to him, I’ll call it whatever I damn well please.
Kotoka will never be Dream Gate champion. He’ll never be a big shot like some of his generational peers are poised to become. But to the people who think he will never amount to anything, I only have one thing to tell you:
He already does.