Facial expressions and body language.
These are the things that symbolize the admired New Japan style. Not the forearms or counter sequences, Rainmakers or Hidden Blades.
It only takes a match between two professionals with high stakes, such as between Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito in the final of a G1 Climax with a chance at headlining the biggest Japanese wrestling show of the year, to remind us of this very fact.
To illustrate the excellence of these discrete, minute details, let’s observe the entrances before the match.
Naito enters first, plodding with his trademark swagger and unwavering calm, but also with an evermore determined look, and focused eyes fiending for a tear.
Okada initially appears as “business as usual,” he is looking for his third straight title to enter yet another Tokyo Dome main event, victory is inevitable, and Okada’s reign at the top is immortal. As his music goes down, Okada makes an observant glance over at Naito after his name is announced; Okada loses the first battle, he looked first.
However, in the moments before the bells sounds, he seems not as confident as usual, almost detached, a somewhat fragile look in comparison to his normally stoic and determined glare.
Naito remains in his corner, back turned, eyes closed, trying to embrace his ‘Tranquilo’ and remain collected in this raucous Ryogoku building. Naito removes his gear entirely with his back turned, remaining until every item is completely removed.
As the bell sounds, Okada squats firmly in his corner, with his right hand on the top rope, now focused, with Naito as the one closer to the middle, almost more ready, standing up and square, entranced in Okada.
Throughout the match, Naito appears to be getting the better of Okada in most exchanges, initially out-wrestling him to the ropes on the first exchange, refraining from taking a cheap shot. In contrast, Okada tries and fails after the second tie-up. This cycle continues throughout the match, Okada seeming being reactive, rather than his typical proactive.
Another major part was Okada shrieking. He shrieked, over and over again, in delight, in pain, for motivation, for necessity. He is continually searching for answers; he doesn’t come up against people with as much experience as he does often, and it seems this time that is getting the better of him.
Naito remains cool and collected, working tirelessly on the neck throughout, until a lapse, as, with a mistake we have seen time and time again, he embraces his more youthful time and attempts the moonsualt of the Stardust Genius, and misses.
Though it is not over, where after Okada kicks out of one Destino, Naito finds a way to hit two more and call it a day eventually.
The crowd was molten, and demanded a Naito win, and as such Okada and Naito took on more clearly defined heel and baby face roles respectively to effectively correspond.
Assuredly, Okada has the best facial expressions in the business. For someone whose character is so often serious and unanimated, he consistently conveys precise emotions before, during and after a match, that truly elevate professional wrestling as a medium of entertainment.
With the story, his character, and fan reactions in mind, he acts as real, compelling human in a made-up world. He is truly spectacular.
As far as the winner goes, it’ll be great to see Naito back in the main event on the big stage, and a potential match-up with former stablemate SANADA sounds very enticing as someone who has been a major fan of his transformation.
Most of this match, the structure, some sequences, and big moves have been seen before and will be seen again. That is not what is important.
The way these two legends convey their emotions evokes that raw audience connection, acts as the glue of the mammoth, sometimes repetitive main event style, and continues to make NJPW the king of big-match wrestling.
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