I know what you’re thinking, it’s just what we all need, another think piece about the state of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Secondly, who even wants to talk about that EVIL guy? Isn’t there enough EVIL in the world?
2020 for many reasons has been that year that the unthinkable happens and yet something that has raised eyebrows is the King of Darkness, not only turning on his LIJ brethren but defeating Tetsuya Naito to become a dual champion. It’s a debate that we’ve all tirelessly had with each other with many settling into different camps with very little sitting on the fence about where they stand with EVIL’s reign, was it always the plan and, mainly, is EVIL a true main event player? One of the hardest things NJPW has had to navigate thus far in EVIL’s reign is the lack of crowd reaction, which is impacting on telling how well received the current story is. It’s difficult for us at home to pick up how the crowd is receiving his change in character thus far. We’re all just waiting for him to cut a monster heel promo at the end of the night to thunderous boos, something that isn’t possible with the crowd rules implemented. It all still feels like it’s a lot to take in for fans, with major changes happening and with so many still not able to enter Japan, there’s the feeling that there’s a lot more to come.
Everything NJPW has done thus far has two sides to it, on one, was it really such a good idea to use more than half-empty arenas to shock crowds and to attempt to make a new mega-star in EVIL? Or was it a genius play as they are so mighty, it wouldn’t hurt their 1/3rd ticket sales. Time will only tell with this post Jingu and the pandemic. Time will also tell if this is something that is seen as a stop-gap until we reach G1 Climax season, another curve ball thrown this year with it now taking place in Autumn. We are all so eager, myself included, to see where this is going and what the state of BULLET CLUB is going to be, forgetting that this is the company that is the king of slow burns, which can be both so painful but so rewarding at the same time. Something that one of the big protagonists in this story knows that all too well. Though I feel like this story isn’t really about EVIL, he’s just the catalyst for it to happen, this is the story of Tetsuya Naito and Hiromu Takahashi.
Tetsuya Naito was never meant to be cast as the savior of the New Japan main event scene. I don’t need to tell anyone twice what Naito’s background is and how he got into this position. Since Naito returned as the ungovernable one from Mexico, it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing for him in the midst of all of his success. Short title runs, failed attempts at the Dome and being stuck with the pest that is the Intercontinental title, you wonder just how much one could take. Though through it all, it didn’t stop him from becoming a perennial fan favorite. Naito, who has some questioning his fire and approach to his first LIJ recruit departing the group in such a whirlwind of events, is finally biting back with the fire and aggression that some fans have been clamoring for, a lot of built-up emotion coupled with Hiromu now out with injury, something was going to give.
LIJ has never been the group to showcase their motivations and feelings straightforwardly to the audience. Naito, in particular, is stoic, only breaking to laugh, spit and mess with his opponents. The connection they’ve built with their hardcore fanbase means knowing the intricacies of how their faction and friendship works if you’re not reading into it, the faction seems like a muddled mess with a captain unable to steer his ship in Tetsuya Naito. It’s something that isn’t necessarily played out in the ring but in their actions in backstage promos and swipes they’ve taken at each other in the media. Naito prior to EVIL’s departure even stated he’d rank EVIL at the bottom of the LIJ totem poll. Being in LIJ means always battling to be the best, even if it means besting other members of the group and taking matters into your own hands. It would explain the lack of fire from Naito when losing to EVIL and a masked beefy BUSHI, later to be revealed as ‘The Spoiler’ Dick Togo. An apt nickname. The audacity of EVIL to betray the group and forge his own path is something that Naito, if it wasn’t happening to him, would have the utmost respect for, the disrespect shown is something that LIJ was built on. He wanted everyone to thrive and EVIL leaving the group is how he was going to do it, no longer in the shadow of those still members of the group. It would be very surprising if we see Naito unsuccessful on August 29. It would raise a lot more questions for him to lose than it would EVIL. Personally, even if it is to the detriment of the match quality of the main event scene, I would like to see EVIL terrorize for a bit longer, with Naito winning in late autumn. It would make the bigger moments that will arrive later, feel all the more special. To see him and his mentee battle their way through the current state of NJPW with all the fans on their side, to then battle in the Tokyo Dome in January would be magic and it’s the match we’ve all been waiting years for, and it’s Tetsuya Naito vs Hiromu Takahashi.
Speaking of our secondary protagonist, if there’s anything we can currently take away from the current scene in New Japan is the fact that Hiromu Takahashi transcends the division he is currently in. He stole the show in his run in the New Japan Cup, somehow dragging good matches out of the likes of Honma, facing his Young Lion fears in Toru Yano and toppling the stone pitbull, Tomohiro Ishii, which is no mean feat. With his huge influence on the New Japan main event scene, you could be forgiven for forgetting that he is the current reigning Junior champion, gearing up for a defense against Ishimori, which has been the side story in the whole LIJ and EVIL Club feud. One would hope he can drop the title so he can carry on his rise to the biggest star in the company. Or NJPW will do something they’ve never done, and allow Hiromu to achieve his dream of being both the Junior and Heavyweight Champion at the same time. Something that really, if you want to be pedantic, doesn’t make too much sense but really, it’s something that the crowd will be willing Hiromu to do. If Sengoku was any evidence of that, the crowd broke the strict rules when he hit his finishing sequence.
You rarely see someone build the connection Hiromu has with fans, it goes deeper than just what he does in the ring, which Hiromu himself is very conscious of. In a documentary profiling his return to the ring after his serious neck injury in 2018, he talks about himself as a fan and his own experiences. There’s more to this than a colorful jacket and plush cat dolls. It’s a man who can emote by doing more than just shouting at his opponents and fighting them. Underneath it all he’s a very personable person, allowing viewers to pull back the curtain to a certain extent when he’s interviewed, allowing you to invest in him on that deeper level, something that isn’t as commonly seen in NJPW. He takes you in and brings you along this story with him all whilst being one of the best bell-to-bell performers in the world, still with that spring in his step and fire we’ve seen from him since he debuted as a Young Lion back in 2010.
He wants to give the fans what they want in every conceivable way. He is very much so the main character in every story he’s in because he puts himself in that position, even if he’s not meant to be. Evidence always points to this (says I, the person who is still deeply affected by the Daryl storyline throughout the G1 Climax tournament in 2017). After the betrayal of LIJ and Naito by EVIL, it was Hiromu who had the wrestling world talking. His immediate challenge and breakdown in the ring as EVIL departed, inserting himself again as the lead character in this story. Hiromu’s own story, triumphing in the face of adversity, is told through every piece of his character, from his colorful gear, explosive move set to his emotive backstage promos and when Naito is alongside him, you needn’t be a long term fan, you can just pick up the storybook from wherever they leave you.
I know some are currently turned off by current events and the match quality isn’t at the level needed from a company that, to many, is the pinnacle of professional wrestling but there’s just something within me that tells me it’ll all be worth it. When it’s all said and done, the hero that we can all identify with will be the one that will defeat the EVIL that reigns over New Japan Pro Wrestling alongside his mentor and the man who was there for his entire career, Tetsuya Naito.
Or maybe I’ll wake up from this daydream.