Among other things, I’m a fan of a lot of Japanese pop culture, and I have been for a long time. I sample a lot of Japanese media and entertainment, from movies, music, television, anime, and of course, professional wrestling. The English commentary broadcast of Wrestle Kingdom 9 is where I would point to as my jumping-on point for being an active fan of Japanese wrestling offerings, beyond watching the occasional single match or card. However, I have not had very much exposure to the current Joshi scene in Japanese wrestling. That said, I think I’m the sort of fan that’s open to a women’s wrestling presentation from the Japanese sensibility.
It seems then, a sort of kismet that All Elite Wrestling has provided a prime opportunity to sample modern Joshi with their Women’s World Championship Eliminator Tournament’s Japan Bracket. The announcement of a bevy of Japanese competitors to vie for a chance to face the AEW Women’s Champion was something that I found personally exciting as a fan on several levels – a chance to experience a series of Joshi’s current stars as well as some established veterans as presented by my favorite North American promotion. Some of the talent announced were recognizable: Yuka Sakazaki, Ryo Mizunami, and Emi Sakura I’d been introduced to in previous AEW events and Aja Kong is a long-established legend. However, Mei Suruga, Maki Itoh, Veny, and Rin Kadokura were unknowns to me, and I was looking forward to seeing what they had to offer. By the same token, I didn’t want to come into the event with too many preconceived ideas, so I avoided researching any previous matches or clips highlighting the bell-to-bell skills of the competitors.
Now that the Japanese bracket of the Women’s Eliminator Tournament has come to a close, my feelings on the Joshi presentation supplied by AEW are mixed. There was a palpable hype in the build to the opening rounds of this tournament, and I can’t help but feel that the event didn’t quite live up. However, I also came away feeling that for my first exposure to modern Joshi, I enjoyed myself for the most part. There are some talents I know I want to see again, though I’m pressed to find a performance I found compelling enough to add a Joshi promotion to my regular rotation of wrestling consumption.
However, the first, and most deserved, credit goes to the commentary team, with a special notation for Excalibur’s solo call on Night 1. Typical hallmarks of Excalibur’s commentary were present as one would expect, such as his researched callbacks to a talent’s career, or his proficient naming of maneuvers. But he also brought an energy and enthusiasm that had a genuine quality – which would be a boon overall to each match. This was only enhanced further by the addition of Taz from the Semi-final round onward, with whom he shares a natural chemistry with his masked cohort at the announce desk. The quality of the call was essential in neutralizing some of the lacking aspects to the production value in the Japanese bracket.
My initial views on the production itself, were that we weren’t at Dynamite anymore. The feel was much more independent, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it was an undeniable contrast to what we see as the ‘AEW Style’ presented on television or on YouTube. But there was in its place a guerilla aura to the camera-work and setting, which did have something of a charm – not something always present on a web show presented by an independent du jour. The challenge of the look was exacerbated by the lack of crowd. For fans of Japanese wrestling of various stripes, this is something one is somewhat used to in some form or fashion. But for someone whose majority wrestling diet is AEW, this might have seemed on the sort of par as the earliest days of the pandemic. The cameras though did a good job of shooting the action so that the small size of their location didn’t impede one’s ability to focus on the action.
Then, perhaps most importantly, are the impressions I got of the action itself. Joshi wrestling certainly has a level of theatricality to it that seems prevalent in almost all of the talents’ presentations, which seems at a higher baseline than AEW generally operates. However, I’m not opposed to a dose of theatricality in my wrestling, and I also can like the way Japanese presentations can be a bit over the top, so I’m open to giving what the competitors have to offer an even shake. At least in principle. However, I wasn’t always dazzled by the work I saw in-ring. I’ll discuss specific competitors shortly, but in general, I think that the smaller ring that the Japanese bracket was working with had an impact on the overall look and feel of the bell-to-bell effort. More so than any aspect of the production value, the noticeably smaller ring made matches feel cramped, an unnatural spacing for high flying maneuvers, and the struggle for submission rope-breaks lacking in credibility.
As a fan of a lot of different Japanese media, I’ve had my exposure as well to their American fandoms. These groups can be invaluable in learning more about a given piece of Japanese pop-culture, but they can help provide exposure and access to more content to feed one’s interest. However, as one navigates these fandoms, you’ll encounter levels of praise and acclaim that are rich with hyperbole and border on fetishization. While I can’t deny some impressive showings during the Women’s Eliminator Tournament Joshi Bracket, there does seem to be a contingent of Joshi fans that believe importing the Japanese side of the bracket is the tonic that cures what ails an AEW women’s division that has been slowly rebuilding since being decimated by the Pandemic Era. I can’t say that I’m of the same opinion, but I do feel that the Joshi Bracket revealed a few potential talents that AEW would benefit from being able to bring into their roster on a more regular basis.
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The ‘Magical Girl’ who’s had a handful of appearances in AEW, was a finalist for the Japan-side bracket, and perhaps the talent that has the most to offer, in one package. Her gimmick is heavy on the sweet, and her offense is reliant on a great deal of acrobatics, so she may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, she was more than capable of putting in a consistent quality effort across three tournament matches, and facing distinctly different styles. Although her charisma feels like it’s more tailored to a uniquely Japanese appeal, I think she’s the sort of ‘different’ that younger American fans would easily embrace.
One of the proteges of fellow competitor Emi Sakura, my first impressions of Mei Suruga were nonplussed to unconvinced. However, I decided to give her match against Yuka Sakazaki another watch, and I felt I may have been a little critical of her in-ring abilities, but not overly so. My initial impressions were that she has potential, but she’s green, and after having watched her again, as well as in a 6-Person offering, I still feel she has some learning to do. She’s best while on the defensive and selling, but her offense feels like she still needs to work on her execution. Likewise, her character seems to be a sweet, young underdog, but it comes off as saccharine to me. However, I’m perfectly willing to admit that Mei Suruga might completely change my mind by this time in a few years.
I’m of two minds when it comes to Emi Sakura. Objectively, I can see that she’s a skilled in-ring worker, possessing a deep knowledge of how to wrestle, and believably execute a myriad of maneuvers. There’s simply a way that she performs her craft that so rarely lands with me. Admittedly, during the Women’s Championship Eliminator Tournament, Emi Sakura has turned in the performances I’ve enjoyed of her most. And while she may not be precisely what I like to watch, I’ve always held an appreciation for wrestlers whom I never root for, but I find myself enjoying their matches, perhaps despite myself. Combine enough fans with my sensibility towards her, with the fans that Emi Sakura seemed to already cultivate in AEW pre-pandemic, and add it to the clear skill she has in training the next generation of women’s wrestlers (including a tournament participant, and a current as well as a former AEW Women’s Champion), it becomes difficult to deny what she can bring to the table.
One of the competitors I knew the least about going into the tournament, and one of the competitors I was most impressed with after, would be Veny. Technically speaking, not only does the execution of their move set look practiced and clean, it also comes off with sting and impact. As well Veny conveys a constant current of understated charisma that works perfectly for their somewhat arrogant and heelish persona. Of all the competitors in the Japanese bracket, Veny’s strikes are the ones that seem to have the most oomf, but also I felt had the most psychology to their matches – which is a trait I prize highly, especially in a young wrestler. Of the newcomers to AEW by way of the Women’s Championship Eliminator Tournament I have seen, Veny felt like the one with the most potential to be a stalwart for any women’s division.
While technically one of the most sound wrestlers in not only the Joshi bracket, but of the entire tournament, Rin Kadokura is the competitor that I came away with the least excitement about. I won’t argue that Rin does not know how to put together a strong, clean sequence in the ring, however, what I will tell you is that I felt a complete lack of charisma in the two offerings I saw her in. Even without Excalibur, and later Taz to provide exposition – I felt that the turned-up presentations of the Joshi gimmicks I’d seen to that point were enough to tell me everything I needed to know about the characters of each wrestler, despite any language barrier. That was not the case for Rin. I suppose that she is a babyface, only by playing the game of association with the tournament match and her participation in the 6 – Person match, but I don’t feel there’s any confirmation of this from what Rin gave to the audience. Of everyone I saw in the tournament, I feel Rin Kadokura left the least of a mark, which is unfortunate given her clear in-ring skill.
In the sense of full disclosure, I became much more aware of Maki Itoh once she took to Twitter, soon after the announcement of the Joshi Bracket competitors in the Women’s Championship Eliminator Tournament, and from there got more exposure to her character than any of the other newcomers to AEW competition. From that, I was excited to see how that would translate in the ring. While I can clearly see that her in-ring mastery is still very much a work-in-progress, I feel that she’s a natural when it comes to the showmanship side of the wrestling business, which I feel can be every bit as important a skill in a successful wrestler. While Maki Itoh is not for those whose tastes skew more towards wrestling purism or are less enamored of theatrics, it seems readily apparent to me just why AEW fans will fall all over themselves for her just as her cohort of Japanese fans have done. If we were playing a game where AEW could only choose one competitor from the Joshi bracket to sign full time, I think Maki Itoh would be the one that they could make into the biggest star in the shortest time.
Technically an AEW alumnus, from the first Double or Nothing show in 2019, Ryo Mizunami would become the winner of the Japanese Bracket of the Women’s Eliminator Tournament. Her story is one of a pro-wrestler nearly ready to give up the career, but was reinvigorated performing in front of the AEW crowd and decided to continue her wrestling dream. Working a power style more suited to her build, Ryo provided a little something different in this tournament than some of the more acrobatic or technical styles we’d seen with other competitors. And Ryo performs with a certainty and authority that is backed by her years of experience. However, given that she was the winner of the Joshi bracket, I don’t think it’s a bold take to say she was neither the best bell-to-bell, nor the most charismatic. Ryo’s work is believable and has emphasis, however, it doesn’t ever truly feel exciting. As well, her confidence does not feel genuine. I had noticed in her original Double or Nothing appearance that there was a sort of awkwardness to her body language and facial expressions. And oddly, in this no-crowd venue, her confidence seemed to come to her more easily, but even then didn’t feel fully real. That underlying nervousness comes through in her performance, and it impacts my ability to support her. Although she made it the furthest in the tournament for her bracket, and she has the sympathetic story of AEW saving her passion for wrestling, I’m not exhilarated at the notion of a Mizunami vs. Shida match at Revolution.
A legend not only for Joshi, not only for women’s wrestling, but for all of pro-wrestling. Sadly the Aja Kong of the storied past is not the same wrestler that we saw in the Women’s Eliminator Tournament. I will say, that for her tenure in AEW, this was a better iteration of Kong than we’d seen at the inception of All Elite Wrestling. But it was not the Kong of myth. The presence of Aja Kong in the tournament bracket lent undeniable credibility based on her name and reputation alone. However, I’m not certain that she was able to lend the tournament anything else more tangible than that. And moving forward, the benefits Aja Kong could offer to AEW would seem to be the sorts that would be limited and strategic in application.
Ryo Mizunami will face the winner of the United States Bracket Nyla Rose. And while I can say with all honesty that I looked forward to every Women’s Eliminator Tournament match with anticipation – be it US or Japanese, Dynamite, YouTube, or Bleacher Report, and I can also say that I’ve enjoyed the event – I feel like the Joshi Bracket entered like a lion, and left like a lamb. The first round of the Japan-side featured a sweep of winners who had competed in AEW previously, without any surprise upsets. And while Ryo Mizunami put up a series of matches of acceptable quality to reach her victory – there seems no energy or enthusiasm to see her go further – whether to beat the U.S. Bracket finalist, or to dethrone Hikaru Shida’s title reign. And while I would be perhaps excited to see a return of the likes of Maki Itoh or Yuka Sakazaki to an AEW ring, the Japanese Bracket has not converted me into a fan of Joshi. This was a missed opportunity because I was the sort of fan predisposed to letting AEW make me precisely that.