Those are the attendance figures for the three Korakuen Hall shows on the initial leg of the Road to New Beginning Tour, which ran from January 17 to 19. They are low. Like, approaching “Ska Band Outnumbers Audience” low. They are so low that even Shingo Takagi had to acknowledge it in the show closer, because his promos are literally just a narration of his thoughts in which he happens to have a microphone and audience:

The factors that lead to numbers like this in 2021 are self-evident, but we don’t even need to compare these numbers to pre-COVID data, or even intra-COVID 2020 numbers; we only have to compare the numbers within this stretch of shows:

  • A 43% drop from Night 1 to Night 2.
  • A 19% jump from Night 2 to Night 3, and yet Night 3 was still 32% smaller than Night 1.

Of course, it must be noted that viewers, especially Western viewers, are not required to watch every show. But this logic does not apply to physical attendance, because people were going to all the shows. And compared to past COVID-era shows, the last two numbers look abysmal.

Density You Would Need to Exhume and Revive Karl Schwarzschild to Measure

I count 20 shows between August 6 and December 23, 2020, in which New Japan ran Korakuen Hall with an audience. This does not include the four shows in late July which all drew exactly 482 people, which must have been their peak capacity at that point. Looking at post-COVID Korakuen figures since, it appears that the current maximum number of attendees that New Japan can fit into Korakuen Hall, within the parameters and conditional restraints imposed, is 696.

In those twenty 696-capped shows, 100% capacity was achieved 12 times (twice they reported 698, for some perplexing reason). They exceeded 626 (90% capacity) 17 times. In fact, only three times during this period did they draw less than 600, and two of those times were in the 590s (594 and 597). The lowest attendance number in this period was was 557, on a November 30 World Tag League show headlined by FinJuice vs. Dangerous Tekkers. It was the seventh time they had run Korakuen that month.

Three things instantly emerge in response to this, when examining the numbers they drew at these initial Road to New Beginning shows. One: Night 2 was dangerously close to under 50% potential capacity, where the previous COVID low was 80%. Nights 2 and 3 of this tour had lower attendances than the July 2020 shows, when the allowed capacity was 31% lower.

Two: why the fuck would you report attendance as 694 when the cap is 696? Reporting a 99.7% capacity house is a level of ethical inflexibility that I cannot even fathom. Someone exhume and revive Thomas Aquinas.

Three: they ran Korakuen 20 times over a 139-day stretch in 2020; on this two-tour string they are running it 15 times in 40 days. That November 2020 course saw seven shows presented over a twenty-nine-day stretch. That’s an average of once every 4.14 days, spread out in clusters of two, three, and then two. This current January-February 2021 run averages a Korakuen Hall event every 2.67 days. They are in clusters of three, two, four, four again, and two. And where do you think they plan to start the post-Castle Attack tour in March? HINT: NOT IN BEPPU. Not even in Chiba, where they run those weird Tiffany mall shows with the escalators in the background. It’s KORAKUEN HALLLLLLLL, naturally. The first of a mere three Korakuen’s in March 2021. Congratulations on the temperance.

The key point here is this: the 557 figure put up in November 2020 was at the end of a dense stretch of shows. These January 2021 shows were at the beginning of the tour, with twelve more to go in this singularity of scheduling.

The low numbers had a significant effect on the shows; you could just see it from the befuddling opening shots, with the opposite-camera section behind the ring nearly desolate.  At times, Nights 2 and 3 had barely enough manpower to muster audible support for the wrestlers or matches. The matches that did evoke perceptible applause were exponentially more enjoyable, simply for the confirmation of human presence. The ones that did not were saturated with excruciating intervals of silence.

Way to the Bland Booking

The scheduling is obviously critical; this the first stage in a torrent of Korakuen Hall shows over the course of this tour. Between this show and February 25, a thirty-eight-day stretch, there are, I repeat, TWELVE Korakuen Hall shows scheduled. Many of them are on weekdays. They are clustered, and most of the clusters are exercises in monotony, sparsely distinguishable from each other. That was exhibited on this three-show stretch. The booking was insipid, differentiated by minuscule variation and minor shuffling.

Match 1 pitted Satoshi Kojima joined by a Young Lion against the United Empire; because there are only two Young Lions in Japan right now, Nights 1 and 3 were the exact same match: Satoshi Kojima and Yota Tsuji vs. Great-O-Khan and Will Ospreay. The second match was the exact same every night: Suzuki-Gun vs. Bullet Club. Match #3 saw Kazuchika Okada teaming with a two-man extraction from the Hirooki Goto/Tomohiro Ishii/YOSHI-HASHI pool, against the exact same Bullet Club squadron of EVIL, Dick Togo, and Yujiro Takahashi. That match at least provided us with the match-up between Samurai Cosplayer Goto vs. Sandinista Cosplayer Togo. Fine matchups, but dreary for three nights.

Scrutiny must also be directed towards the main event booking as well; the numbers suggest that people were willing to attend the initial event and no further. Eristic jock otaku Great-O-Khan places the blame on the wrestlers themselves, decimating his new target, Naito, as well as a little casual deicide on Ibushi:

“Look how many people are here, your precious followers. Proof that they are just peasants. Why so few of you? This goes beyond the obvious answer. The current champion, Ibushi… and the former champion, Naito… they don’t have charm. They should fall at their own hands! We’ll make sure it is done.”

Bloody hell, what a massacre. Skip Ospreay and let’s get straight to the GOK Epoch. This was an absolutely genius avenue to take for a heel backstage comment, because it’s technically not the babyfaces’ fault. Consider this:

  • The promotion’s best wrestler and current champion, Kota Ibushi, main evented none of these shows. He was firmly entrenched in the semi-main event, an odd place for a fresh and exultant new champion. Ibushi has spent most of the tour engaged in a wholesome courtship of SANADA, where they have had several earnest post-match summits on the nature of the numbers “one” and “two,” a sort of Himbo Foucault-Chomsky. After all that build, Ibushi finally asked SANADA out to a talky date during his January 21 backstage comments. Another satisfying ending to an NJPW shoujo rom-com. Of the six Korakuen Hall cards left on the New Beginning tour, Ibushi will main event four. That will be something to keep an eye on.
  • The promotion’s most popular wrestler and former champion, Tetsuya Naito, is purposely trapped within a post-title reign miasma, to such a degree that he is married to the alarmingly rigid Tomoaki Honma. Honma appears to be a snap-mare away from cataclysm. How am I sure of that? Because Naito keeps snap-maring Honma to amuse himself, of course. Honma can barely sit up out of them. Naito spent these shows entertaining himself with incorrigible nonsense like hiding Hiromu Takahashi’s Best of the Super Junior trophy under the ring and literally taking a nap on the ringside floor while Kota Ibushi and SANADA have their post-match conferences of sincerity.
  • The promotion’s greatest wrestler, Kazuchika Okada, is ensnared in a bizarre situation. He has a clear opponent: EVIL. He faced EVIL every single night on this run. He has openly challenged EVIL in the backstage comments, and EVIL has coyly accepted (though with gibberish about justice so boring you could exhume and revive John Rawls and he’d tell EVIL to spice it up a bit). All of this has happened, and yet there is no booked match between the two, so this all seems opaque. At the earliest, this match will happen in five weeks. Like Naito, Okada has spent the tour amusing himself by subjecting the audience to paroxysms of arhythmical clapping and, on the December 21st show, literally taking a headcount of the audience during his turnbuckle pose. It didn’t take him long.
  • The promotions legendary wrestler, Hiroshi Tanahashi, has a haircut that looks like he’s KENOH’s dad. He is KENOHLD.

And so, there was little incentive to attend multiple shows, or even bother to leave your house during a pandemic with neither yield nor relief in sight. The main event feud of this leg of the tour, the rivalry that is anchoring the shows, is Master Wato v. BUSHI. Master Wato is an adorable klutz that is at least a year or two away from ripening, and BUSHI… BUSHI sucks. BUSHI just sucks.

Of course, there are mitigating factors. For one, this is a long tour. By the end, the New Beginning tour will have spanned twenty-six days. As I noted in my review of the January 18 show, New Japan had weeks of dates to fill due to the vacancy left by FantasticaMania’s tragic cancellation. Maybe Okada is doing these weird mannerisms because he spent ages workshopping Dragon George material and refuses to put it aside. Regardless of that, New Japan apparently felt that it was vital to fill these dates, even if it meant scorching the already desiccated, arid Korakuen land.

Considering the situation, the booking suggests that they have decided to play with form. The shows are insignificant anyway, so why bother trying to draw? You could wonder why the booking philosophy chose to anchor itself to Master Wato vs. BUSHI rather than Hiromu Takahashi vs. SHO, certainly. Obviously, they are thinking ahead with this one, presumably to normalize Wato in this card position. We’ll see if it has any effect when the Cobalt Geek himself closes the February 10 show with a challenge to Hiromu.

The Solution to Everything

Of course, there are other factors that New Japan has little control or influence upon. But I’m a solutions-based person, and I have a great one that solves every facet of this issue for New Japan. It’s quite simple, actually:

  1. Move your company headquarters and all personnel, wrestlers included, to a boorish country that deifies callously rugged, self-immolating individualism.
  2. Set up your base of operations in that country’s most fucked up state, regulated by a comically abhorrent administration that is permeated in malfeasance.
  3. Once established in that fucked up state, exploit the tragic carelessness to your advantage. Either use your astronomical wealth to either acquire an open-air arena or build an epileptic’s nightmare labyrinth of iridescent, coruscating light and a terrace farm of LCD screens displaying auto-repeated Chaturbate rooms.
  4. And then, get a TV show.

I guess I’d have to say that’s my only advice. The Kids in the Hall aren’t litigious, are they?

We’ll have to return to this during the next leg of the Road to New Beginning, taking place in the aftermath of the January 23 show. That show, without question, easily outshines the tour closing February 11 New Beginning in Hiroshima. Ibushi and SANADA, it must be pointed out, are being given absolutely zero support on that show.

The Path Ahead

Will the next clusters of Korakuen Hall runs return to capacity, and can they sustain it if they do? The cards portend differently.

The next set of Korakuens take place on January 24 and 25. They are essentially identical, but Ibushi and SANADA are shifting to the main events. Each of the two cards open with a Young Lion + Dad’s 8-man tag, with the Bullet Club in opposition on January 24 and Suzuki-gun on January 25. Match 2 presents Tencozy vs. United Empire on both nights. Match 3 will be CHAOS vs. Bullet Club affairs, exactly as it was on the first set of three Korakuen’s: KING OF KORAKUEN YOSHI-HASHI will join Kazuchika Okada and Hirooki Goto on January 24, and indisputable Hall of Famer Tomohiro Ishii will join them on January 25. Match 4 tenders Honma and Naito in opposition with different partners each night, either SHO/Hiromu or Wato/BUSHI . Match 5 sees Golden Ace, teaming with Wato on the 24th and SHO on January 25, against SANADA and Shingo Takagi, who will team first with BUSHI and then with Hiromu.

Frankly, even with a slight break and the interpolation of the championship program into the main event, I do not expect much from these shows. They seem like they will struggle to break 500, let alone the magic 696. But they are the final stops in Tokyo before the New Beginning in Nagoya show. If they break 600, all credit to Ibushi, who, by the way, is currently the #1 and #2 in merch sales on the New Japan merch shop.

The real test will be the shows between Nagoya and Hiroshima. Those cards are an absolute treat, largely because two of them contain the usually spectacular New Japan elimination match. This cannot be overstated. While writing an essay on El Desperado’s 2020 backstage comments for the 2020 NJPW Year in Review e-book, I was stunned by the level of heat that the February 4th Suzuki-gun vs. CHAOS elimination match provoked in the Korakuen crowd on hand.

The BULLET CLUB are in both ten-man elimination main events. The first, on February 1, is a Suzuki-gun affair, comprising the junior heavyweight (Desperado/Kanemaru vs. ELP/Ishimori) and heavyweight tag team titles (Dangerous Tekkers vs. G.O.D) feuds on opposite ends, with the DOUKI-Jado rivalry grafted on. For some reason, that exact same match is scheduled for February 3, but not as an elimination match. On February 2, G.O.D. remain and are joined by EVIL, Dick Togo, and Yujiro Takahashi to face the CHAOS heavyweights.

On the next two nights, February 3 and 8, Ibushi and SANADA face off in regular tag team matches. Each night they will have a  different Junior charge. On February 3, Master Wato and BUSHI once again find themselves in a main event. For the final Road To New Beginning show on February 8, Ibushi and SANADA are joined by SHO and Hiromu Takahashi, respectively. Whichever juniors are outside the main event are plugged into the semi-main, where they will team with either Tomoaki Honma or Tetsuya Naito.

The February Korakuen’s show a level of creative shuffling and novelty not found in the previous set of shows, but also a severe density. Whether or not that inventiveness, and tour-closing status, can inspire a return to respectable attendance numbers will be the true assessment of just how far you can push one venue.