New Japan Pro Wrestling
Road to Castle Attack – Night 7
February 22, 2021
Korakuen Hall
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: NJPW World (JPN)

The metaphors in relation to this Castle Attack, this siege, were exhausted in my 2/16 review. There’s no more material, unless you’d like to exhume and revive Terry Jones for some delightfully populist revisionist history (while we’re at it, we should probably bury William Manchester several feet deeper). That said, New Japan is certainly feeling the traditionally historical effects many dubious sieges have endured. In this case, that a sieging force often faces complications worse that the besieged, which grow exponentially as the siege proceeds. The most catastrophic pitfall: losing a leader. New Japan has definitely lost one, with another teetering. Confidence is eroding. If this was a real siege, it would have collapsed.

Hiromu Takahashi is out, the worst possible scenario in the entire company besides something similar happening to Kota Ibushi. With Tetsuya Naito, things are less severe; Naito is easily the most popular wrestler in the company, but there are robust programs working independent of him and multiple options (even if some would be anathema to the Western fanbase). Paradoxically, while the Junior division is currently booked better, drawing phenomenal depth out of a shallower stock, Hiromu is the nexus and without him the division is compromised.

The show began with the message of Hiromu’s injury and extended recovery time. Naito was brought out to soften the blow with his vow to wrestle on February 25 (and babble more about Ibushi, amplifying the confounding, abstruse philosophical foundation of their program), but the environment might have been set by that point. The show was anemic and the crowd was largely listless all night.

The United Empire (Jeff Cobb, Great-O-Khan, and Will Ospreay) def. Gabriel Kidd, Hiryoshi Tenzan, and Hiroshi Tanahashi

Will Ospreay’s balance points still need time to align. He’s started working matches differently in this new character, but the mannerisms of his previous persona have re-emerged recently. His interplay with his wife a few shows ago in a backstage comment had the same jocular Millennial conversational energy Ospreay had when he was in CHAOS. The problem isn’t lamentable or anything; this is still a fresh character, and strides are being made.

The problem for Will is that in direct comparison to Great-O-Khan, Ospreay does not come across as the leader of a faction. The difference in the strength of character is what separates the two right now. When O-Khan cuts the micless promo, he seems like the future of the company. There is a consistency to O-Khan: the habits, quirks, characteristics, communication, and ringwork. He is overshadowing the group when the emphasis is placed upon him.

This might not be problematic for the United Empire, though; as Ospreay workshops this version of himself, the other two in the group are evolving considerably. Ospreay appears to be a few months away from mastery; by the time he gets there, and I believe he will, this will end up being a remarkable unit. Especially when YOH breaks everyone’s heart and dissolves The Sakura Denbu to join.

This was the exact same match as February 17. In alignment with the rest of this show, nothing noteworthy occurred. All of the little details found in the other matches on this tour were absent, with few captivating moments presented in substitution. Certainly O-Khan turning an abdominal stretch into a gutwrench suplex rules, as does everything involving Gabriel Kidd. It’s damn near impossible to fast-forward through a Kidd segment. This was an easy watch only by the innate charisma and talent of the participants.  **1/2

CHAOS (Toru Yano, Tomohiro Ishii, YOSHI-HASHI and Hirooki Goto) def. BULLET CLUB (Tanga Loa, Tama Tonga, Chase Owens, and Jay White)

Let’s be clear about one thing: when it comes to excessively long introductions, Yano’s is vastly superior to Kenny Omega’s. This is self-evident. No debate necessary.

The work was adequate in this one, but the crowd simply did not respond. During the traditional tornado domino segment, where the participants enter one after another, hitting a move and then absorbing another, the audience was mute. Jarringly. Only two things stood out here, both of them in the post-match.

The first was that Chase Owens threw a corner pad at Yano, which caused Yano to drop his Provisional KOPW trophy. The trophy broke upon contact with the mat. Yano was inconsolable, but that effusive response should have been tempered by the inevitability of the result. If you rewatch the drop, the goddamn thing cracks once it hits the ground, instantly.

I’m also pretty sure that, if I am interpreting his words correctly, Owens promised to shoot on Yano if Yano did any comedy in their match.

The second noticeable thing was that Hirooki Goto, in his backstage comment, asked Tama Tonga for a clean match. This is notable because… if this guy is going to be such a fucking geek, can he at least try not to go out of his way to do it? “Fight clean and fair, for once,” he asks the man that was willing to work an angle with post-WWE Enzo Amore. Goto is supposed to represent a uniquely Japanese spirit, the embodiment of the very historical era this Castle Attack concept evokes. He’s not exactly conjuring images of Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen here.  **1/4

BULLET CLUB (El Phantasmo, Taiji Ishimori) def. Los Ingobernables de Japaon (BUSHI and Shingo Takagi)

The match isn’t worth deep analysis. It was a functional tag match that, thankfully, differed from their February 17 match by the extraction of Yujiro Takahashi. And yet, BUSHI remained. Shingo beat up the little guys, even the one that is actually bigger than him, then BULLET CLUB worked him over for an exhaustive time. One would almost pine for the full ELP experience, yet this one was largely worked traditionally.

One thing effectively established was the boot, which ELP used to turn the tide on Shingo, and then used it once again to take out both members of LIJ for the win. The use of the boot has not been excessive; this might have been the most that ELP has used it in one match. And so for now, the gimmick isn’t tedious. ELP is capable of such things. **1/2

The most important part here, of course, was the best tag team in the division, El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru, interrupting ELP’s not-at-all telegraphed monologue about the lack of contenders for BULLET CLUB. Despy entered the proceedings by punching Ishimori with a Loco Mono, his hand wrapped up with his tie for some unfathomable reason. This once again confirms Desperado’s inviolable ethical commitment to unethical behavior. Kanemaru, entirely disinterested in such things,  simply punted ELP’s grundle into his lymph nodes. This was set up by Despy catching the loaded boot, and I once again return to this notion: if the loaded boot is so lethally formidable, how can you catch it?

This is the best, and possibly only, option for February 25. Proof of that: this was the most actively engaged the crowd was all night. At the very least, this should provide some additional weight to the connections between these four. Besides Ishimori and Kanemaru, who have too much backstory, all combinations in this match-up are burgeoning.

Particularly important is continuing the tremendous (and still novel) Desperado-Ishimori rivalry, and commencing the Despy-ELP feud that, if New Japan truly dedicates themselves, should carry the division while Hiromu recuperates.

SANADA def. Tomoaki Honma

There were moments in this one that were fairly fluid. There is a limit to the degree of fluidity, as Honma, unfortunately, falls into the same category as Tenzan and, on certain days, Tanahashi: wrestlers that fall on the wrong side of Newtonian Laws of Motion. Once their momentum of motion is lost, the amount of force needed to resume or replenish is considerable. For Honma, just sitting up from a prone position looks like a Sisyphean task.

And yet, this match had the most sustained reactions of any match on the show. As they did with Nagata, this Korakuen crowd rallied behind Honma when SANADA had him locked up, even in the Skull End. And like Nagata, Honma essentially discarded a substantive amount of very deliberate legwork, though it was more forgivable here; unlike Nagata, Honma did not throw kicks with the damaged leg.

This match was really well structured. Honma did some cool stuff, like that Kokeshi to SANADA’s back as SANADA was stuck sitting on the top tope. SANADA, for his part, fell through an attempted sunset flip powerbomb off the corner, and responded beautifully, nailing a spectacular dropkick and patiently waiting for a delayed fall from Honma, whom he caught in a Skull End. ***1/2

BULLET CLUB (EVIL and Jay White) def. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii)

This match actually ended up being quite significant, for a few reasons.

The first is that Okada took a fall in a Road To tag match. This doesn’t happen. In fact, he doesn’t take falls in any tag. I spent an hour and went through every tag team loss incurred by Okada going back to January 2019, and could not find a fall.  Even in a straight two-on-two tag, teaming with someone of the caliber of a Tanahashi or an Ibushi (which has happened several times in the last two years), Okada did not take the pinfall.

At that point I gave up and did what I should have just done in the first place: call in Chris Samsa, who found the answer in 5 minutes: April 22, 2017. Bad Luck Fale and Kenny Omega defeated Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii, in Korakuen Hall, when Fale pinned Okada after a devastating tombstone to set up their Wrestling Dontaku main event (this was defense #9 of Okada’s epochal reign). And so, it had been 1,403 days between pinfalls of this type for Okada. Only 70 days shorter than Hulk Hogan’s first WWF Championship reign.

And further, this was an absurdly protected pinfall. It took a legitimate historical assassination technique, choking Okada to the brink of unconsciousness, followed by one of the most protected finishers in the company to take him down. Okada thus retains his strength, to whatever degree of credibility Okada can retain when encased in a program with EVIL. I’m pretty sure things are barren in the West right now regardless. And beyond and of any mitigating circumstances, the result stands. Okada ate a very, very rare pinfall. This is significant.

The other critical facet of this match: absolutely no hint of dissension, or even discomfort, between Jay White and EVIL. As stunning as it is to believe, considering the environment that has entrapped us has warped of sense of time (magnified in this context by the stark symptoms found in a State of Emergency New Japan show), but Jay White returned within this very month. Jay White returned on February 3, under almost exact circumstances: teaming with EVIL and Yujiro Takahashi to face, of course, Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii, joined by Toru Yano.

The intrigue of that match was the interplay between Jay White and EVIL, and god damn did they exploit that entirely. Each tag between the two was punctuated with a pause so pregnant Twitter cancelled Dave Meltzer for speculating when it would culminate. EVIL and White approached each other with taut caution, not allowing the other to depart their line of vision for even an instant. There were no back pats, no quick tags, very little combination offense/trolling, and only performative support.

Things certainly have changed. At one point EVIL, after thoroughly taunting Milano in the post-match, gave two hearty shoulder pats to White as Jay, playing air piano to the Bach-ian chorus of EVIL’s entrance theme, was on his way to acridly taunt Toru Yano. It’s not at the level of KENTA and Jay’s mutually appreciative gleeful misanthropy, but the tension between the two was absent. They tagged normally, worked in synchronicity as they wore down Okada, supported each other in layers of heelish enterprise, and at times appeared bemused by the contrasting antics of the other.

In short, they were a functional, effective tag team, devoid of drama. Or rather, devoid of drama towards each other; they relentlessly manufactured drama with Red Shoes to expertly seize and maintain control of the match. Simply put, they were a team that could achieve a pinfall over Kazuchika Okada at a Night 7 Road To show.

This is important. If the Jay White and EVIL thing is going to make sense and have resonance, the foundation needs to be tenfold stronger and sturdier than the payoff. The base was already set during the G1 and cemented in early January. Now begins the laborious process of establishing a believable relationship between these two, so that the severing of it is that much more traumatic.

This one had all the hits: Jay hiding in the crowd area, EVIL somehow catching his opponent in perfect position to upend poor Abe-san, and an engrossing formulaic Okada hot tag that always manages to work. And, of course, the biggest 2021 New Japan hit of all: Red Shoes making the conclusion three-count, aware that the pin was reached through devious measures, even though he had refused to count a similar pinfall earlier in the match. Red Shoes is the ultimate visual empiricist. ***1/4

FINAL THOUGHTS

With a funeral atmosphere and perfunctory matches, there is nothing compelling enough to recommend watching this show. SANADA vs. Honma is absolutely worth mention; one would not regret taking the time to watch it, but the match is exactly what you would expect. An angle is presented, though it is clearly a scramble. If you are having Despy withdrawal, and after several shows bereft of him you should, you can just watch the segment on NJPW’s Youtube channel.