“Art is made to disturb.”
Cubist painter Georges Braque told us that 100 years ago. His paintings embodied that statement by fragmenting and distorting the ordinary. In Braque’s hands, a violin morphed into a boxy apparition from a dream world. A man’s form disintegrated. A glass on a table became unnervingly unfamiliar. Other creators have long made Braque’s quote ring true, from Patrick Suskind with his murderer’s ballad Perfume to Jordan Peele who examination of race and envy through the lens of horror with Get Out. And while Braque likely didn’t have pro wrestling in mind when he said those five words, they align with what Tomohiro Ishii does in the ring.
Pro wrestling is often campy. It can be built around acrobatics, showmanship and sculpted bodies. Not Tomohiro Ishii’s version. The strong-style practitioner relies on inflicting and absorbing unfiltered violence. His interpretation of the art sees him pound flesh against flesh, to free the roaring animal inside him. There’s a beauty to all the bashing he does for New Japan Pro-Wrestling each time the bell rings, but it’s unsettling, too. It’s a celebration of our primitive side. It’s back-alley fighting with ropes and a spotlight.
And as one describes Ishii’s in-ring style, the same adjectives one would whip out for Braque’s paintings emerge: Bold. Dark. Somber. Britannica.com noted his paintings were remarkable for their “robust construction.” That’s an apt phrase for Ishii’s no-nonsense, lariat-heavy assault on each of his opponents.
Like his contemporary, friend and rival, Pablo Picasso, Braque moved from more traditional painting into playing with the abstract. He abandoned realism for sharper lines and misshapen still life. Per GeorgesBraque.org, Paul Cezanne’s geometric work inspired him to adopt “simplified faceted forms, flattened spatial planes, and muted colors.” One could describe Ishii’s strike-centric arsenal this way, as well. It doesn’t make what he creates any less memorable, but the Stone Pitbull works with a reduced palette. As a result, there is a compelling simplicity to his wrestling, a well-defined, well-refined style.
Braque’s Bottle and Fishes (c. 1910-1912) is a bouquet of fragmented images. A rigid bottle stretches vertically on the left. Surreal fish fill out much of the rest. Blues and browns dominate the painting. Ishii has to appreciate a work like this. It is the simple being made powerful. It’s as darkly-toned as much of the bruiser’s bouts.
The Stone Pitbull’s first-round clash with Yuji Nagata at the 2019 New Japan Cup uses contrast in an equally effective way. Much of the match sees Ishii dole out forearms while Nagata relies on kicks. It is one man’s strength against the other’s. A battle axe clangs against a mace.
Braque’s blue brick-like shapes snag the viewer’s eye as does Ishii and Nagata’s slugfest arsenal. There is a striking, straightforward power to both works of art. The still life objects seem to collide and become fused together. Ishii and Nagata shared that same energy as they tried to bowl each other over early on in the bout, as they absorbed blow after blow. Enemies now intertwined. The storytelling isn’t subtle; it’s a primal tale of the pursuit of dominance. When the match was over, Ishii stood on wobbly legs, now the bottle, standing tall, looking over a mess of broken fish.
Braque’s Mandora (c. 1909-1910) turns the smooth curves of a lute jagged. A silvery brown stretches over much of the image as the instrument melts into a wall of polygons. Many of the Frenchman’s painting look like siblings of this one—monochromatic, unsteady.
Ishii’s matches often give off a similar vibe. Take his slugfest against EVIL at New Japan Wrestling Dontaku 2019. As Braque’s painting relies on repetition of shapes, Ishii vs. EVIL leaned on a repetition of motions. Lariat. Lariat. Forearm. Forearm. Rather than switch up his attack, Ishii only turned up the intensity on his old favorites. He bashed EVIL in the jaw with increasingly intense forearms. He cranked up his lariat until it had EVIL flipping over like a helicopter in a tailspin.
[Replay ‘Wrestling Dontaku 2019 Night2’ on May 4th, 2019]
7TH MATCH: SPECIAL SINGLES MATCH Tomohiro Ishii vs. @151012EVIL!! #NJPWWorld Watch now▶︎https://t.co/Tj7UBJ4PjP#njpw #njdontaku pic.twitter.com/Uk1waOpRsn
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) May 4, 2019
Ishii’s offensive flurries parallel the harsh, bold lines of Mandora. The lute’s strings looked carved into the canvas rather than created through brushstrokes. That same severity is at play in the slobberknocker at Dontaku.
Ishii, like Braque, isn’t nearly as celebrated as he should be. In discussions of the best wrestlers in the world today, guys like Kenny Omega and AJ Styles get mentioned plenty. The Stone Pitbull, meanwhile, is often relegated to the land of the underappreciated.
That is the story of Braque, too. Despite helping to forge a new path for art, it’s Picasso that gets the recognition. Never mind that Braque and Picasso were contemporaries with comparable styles. Outside of the art world, Braque is rarely mentioned while Picasso is synonymous with art.
Ishii doesn’t have one peer in particular who snags all the spotlight in that way. Instead, he is relegated to a slot below the likes of Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi and the rest of New Japan’s main eventers. He may go his whole career without an IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign despite his great talent.
Those in the know, however, treasure Ishii’s brilliance.
Much like Braque, he has honed in on and perfected a style he is now famous for. Braque drew. He sculpted. He painted landscapes. But he chose to take a good number of his steps walking down the cubist avenue. Similarly, Ishii has narrowed his in-ring focus to his brand of strong style. He has shown himself well-versed in technical wrestling. He has a great burst and is surprisingly athletic for a man so fridge-shaped. He pares down his move set, though, for the sake of artistry. He composes similar matches each time out—hard-hitting collisions of bravado where spit flies and chests are left red. The audience is left in awe, left to stare at the unfolding violence, to seek meaning in the disturbing art in front of them.