In any good story, you need strong characters.

You need good, you need bad, but mostly you need characters and stories you can relate to. It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s one that most mainstream wrestling has gotten away from, particularly in WWE where promos are almost spoken in a made-up language. In that company, certain buzzwords that must be spoken, certain words that can never be spoken, nothing ever feels natural or organic.

A few months ago when I decided to start following Joshi promotion Stardom, the thing that struck me immediately wasn’t just the high quality if the action I was seeing in the ring. No, it was how easy it is to relate to the characters. The pre-match promos are such a simple concept, but one that makes it easy to invest in the wrestlers you are watching. They aren’t forced or overproduced, they just talk and let their personalities shine. Stardom fans all seem to have a particular wrestler they have a strong connection and attachment to.

For me, that wrestler is Natsuko Tora.

Now as a workrate nerd, Natsuko isn’t typically the type of wrestler that catches my attention. She isn’t the best athlete; she doesn’t hit the hardest and doesn’t always have the best matches. What she does have is an undeniable babyface charisma that shines through in her promos— all this despite being a heel as a member of Stardom’s top heel unit Oedo Tai.

One of Natsuko’s weaknesses is she has trouble keeping a straight face, often cracking a smile and sometimes giggling in her pre-match promos. It quickly became something it would always look forward to. Normally that kind of thing would annoy me, but watching non-kayfabe interviews you realize that’s just her real-life personality. Even as a heel she comes off as a lovely and bubbly person, and there is something very authentic about her that you don’t get a lot in wrestling.

On one episode of Oedo Tai Diet, stablemate Natsu Sumire asked “Do you want people to love you as Natsuko Tora the wrestler, or Natsuko Tora the woman?” to which Natsuko replied, “ Let’s go with both”. That’s the essence of why she is my favorite wrestler in Stardom. I am just as invested in the person behind the character as the character itself.

In late 2019 it was announced that Bushiroad would purchase Stardom. Their first order of business was bringing in Giulia from Ice Ribbon in controversial fashion, the second was gutting Oedo Tai.

The first dominos to fall were Hazuki and Session Moth Martina. Hazuki, who many believe was forced to retire by Bushiroad, was defeated by Natsuko Tora, who was her tag team partner, on Christmas Eve in Kaurakuen Hall. Earlier than night Martina wrestled her final match of her tour, and hasn’t been back since. Within the next few weeks, Andras Miyagi would turn against her unit and eventually leave the promotion, but the biggest change was the retirement of Oedo Tai’s charismatic leader, and one of Stardom’s biggest stars, Kagetsu. Who would have her final match as a member of the Stardom roster on January 26th.

As Oedo Tai was losing members, they were simultaneously adding members. Lifetime midcarder Saki Kashima turned against her STARS teammates by attacking Mayu Iwatani, and Bea Priestly turned on Queen’s Quest, attacking Momo Watanabe, both within weeks of each other in early January.

Oedo Tai was now made up of five members; Saki Kashima, who seemingly got a charisma injection with her heel turn, Bea Priestly and Jaime Hayter, the unstoppable gaijin monsters, Natsu Sumire, the comedy wrestler who violently humps her opponent’s faces, and of course, Natsuko Tora.

With Kagetsu gone the identity of Oedo Tai was now very different. They were no longer the lovable heel leaning tweeners, but now fully heel with a much more sinister approach, new look, and new much more menacing entrance music. Natsuko switched gimmicks from a lovable heel, to a sociopathic killer with no eyebrows.

The only thing that was missing is a leader.

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On February 15, Kagetsu made her return to Stardom for one more match, a gauntlet against the entire roster in one-minute time limit intervals. After the match ended she officially appointed Natsuko the new leader of Stardom’s oldest unit by giving her the jitte that she always carried to the ring, the same one that was handed to her by Kyoko Kimura when Kagetsu became the leader of Oedo Tai years ago.

At this point Saki had a budding feud with company ace Mayu Iwatani, Bea and Jaime were Goddess of Stardom Champions, Natsu went from a comedy wrestler with a tendency to violently hump her opponent’s faces, to a slightly less comedic wrestler with a tendency to violently hump her opponent’s faces. Every serious member of OT had raised their stock, besides Natsuko Tora.

But that was about to change.

The next night Natsuko would pin Arisa Hoshiki in a ten woman tag match and challenge her for the Wonder of Stardom AK the White Belt(Stardom’s secondary title, which seen as very close to the top title).

The stage was set. February 23 in Nagoya. Natsuko Tora vs. Arisa Hoshiki. This was finally the moment where Tora would take her spot as a top-level competitor in Stardom. A lot of people thought she would be the one to finally end Arisa’s long run as champ, and even if she couldn’t, a strong performance against one of the promotion’s biggest stars would surely elevate Natsuko to main event status.

But that never happened…

On February 18th, just 2 days after the title match was set, Stardom announced the cancelation of several shows due to COVID-19, including Nagoya. No one knew what would happen, but Natsuko would still get her title match against Arisa on March 8 live on YouTube for the first time on their only empty arena show to date.

But that didn’t happen either…

On the day of the show, Arisa Hoshiki pulled out due to a neck injury. At the time we didn’t know how severe the injury was, or how serious the situation would become, as Arisa would announce her retirement a few weeks later at the young age of 24.

In back to back shows Natsuko lost two White Belt matches, which she desperately needed as most Stardom fans weren’t sold on her gimmick change or sudden push. Instead, she ended up wrestling the winner of an opening match battle royal, the debuting Super Strong Starlight Machine(Saya Iida in a mask), who she defeated rather quickly. To make matters worse, Natsuko woould lose one of her stablemates, as this was also the final show for Bea Priestly before she headed back to England for the foreseeable future.

For reasons outside of anyone’s control, Natsuko’s push suddenly wasn’t looking so hot. She doesn’t have the star power that Mayu Iwatani has, she doesn’t have the elite wrestling ability that Momo Watanabe has, she doesn’t have the storytelling ability that Tam Nakano has, and she doesn’t have the crowd connection that Jungle Kyona has. Natsuko Tora is the type of wrestler who needed help from the booking, but instead had every obstacle thrown at her, and as a fan, it was heartbreaking to see.

On March 24, Stardom returned to Korakuen Hall to hold their annual Cinderella Tournament in front of a limited number of fans. After going through Saya Kamitani and Tam Nakano, Natsuko made the finals against Giulia. There were a lot of doubts about both wrestlers pushes, Natsuko was had been longtime midcarder who was suddenly thrust in a top spot, and on top of that, wasn’t seen as a super worker. Giulia came into the promotion months earlier and was instantly pushed to the moon, despite being awkward in the ring, seemingly uncomfortable in her promos, and just not very welcomed in the promotion for a number of reasons, including the controversial way she left Ice Ribbon.

Simply put, this had to deliver.

Not only did this match deliver, but it blew any expectations I had. For 12 minutes and 41 seconds, they absolutely battered each other to the delight of the small number of fans in attendance. Natsuko’s bubbly real-life personality was nowhere to be found as she was finally able to portray the monster heel. Giulia became the default face, and had the crowd in the palm of her hand. In the end Giulia made Natsuko tap to her Stealth Viper submission in one of the best Stardom matches of the year, a match where both participants had star-making performances.

This would end up being the final show before the shutdown.

After a three month hiatus, Stardom finally was able to return. Going into their first show it was unclear what direction the booking would go in with Arisa Hoshiki retiring, and the tragic death of Hana Kimura, leaving Stardom with some big holes to fill.

Jaime Hayter was also gone, leaving Oedo Tai severely weakened, now down to just three members. Conversely, Giulia’s Donna Del Mondo was immediately positioned as Stardom’s top heel stable, jumping Oedo Tai on the pecking order, and Giulia given a feud with Arisa’s tag team partner Tam Nakano, presumably for the now vacant White Belt.

On July 12, Giulia officially declared her intention to win the White Belt, challenging Tam Nakano at their upcoming Korakuen Hall show the next weekend to crown a new champion. Just as the match was about to be made official Natsuko came out and cut a promo about how she got screwed out of two title matches, using the real-life circumstances to fuel her character’s motivation. She demanded they make it a three-way, until Konami came out, and it became a tournament to be held over the next two Korakuen Hall shows on July 17 and 26.

Going into this tournament Natsuko finds herself once again as the underdog, a role she is very familiar with. This is her chance to prove that the Giulia match wasn’t a fluke and she can be a big match performer and is deserving of her push. She has the right opponent in Tam Nakano, arguably the best storyteller in Stardom.

In my head, I know the finals will come down to Tam/Giulia, I know that’s the biggest feud in the company, I know Giulia is the future ace, and know they won’t book Natsuko/Giulia in the finals of two tournaments in the same year.

Even with the results of this tournament a foregone conclusion, I will be holding my breath on every near fall hoping that they can make me believe, even for just a moment, that she can pull off the upset.