Emi Sakura has been wrestling for twenty-five years. That’s longer than some of modern-day joshi’s biggest stars have been alive and covers a period where the scene has changed in countless ways. In that time, Emi has been an erratic constant. Despite having worked for some of the biggest companies and alongside the biggest stars, Sakura-san has ultimately ploughed her own path, doing things in a way that only she could.
There are people better placed to tell that particular story, though. In fact, Emi has been doing a pretty good job of scratching the surface herself, her recent series of sit-down interviews, aka ChocoTalks, have seen her and a selection of old friends dive into the past and chart her career alongside theirs. Every single one is worth a watch, each pulling out a different side of Sakura, the same story never repeated twice.
What I can talk about is why Emi is the person that I respect in wrestling above all others. Despite her oni nature, Sakura is a brain and a wrestler that twenty-five years into her career is still pushing the genre forward. You need only look at ChocoPro, the first wrestling company, in my opinion, to truly master YouTube. They realised the power of building a show around a single camera, not just performing the same matches they always would but turning the camera and the person behind it into an active participant, working the crowd through a lens. It’s meant that while other wrestling companies struggled without live fans, they thrived, finding a niche that no-one was filling.
That same attitude also happens to be punk as fuck. A lot of wrestling companies have claimed to be ‘punk rock wrestling’, but not one of them has a fraction of the claim to that term that Emi does. Time after time, she’s shown a willingness to rip it all up and start from the bottom. Christ, her main promotion still runs out of an old dentist office, wrestling on mats, and yet presents as good a product as anywhere else while all being delivered with ‘No Paywall’! If you dropped Emi Sakura on the moon with a stranger who had never worked before I guarantee that within a month she’d have found a way to lead them to a great match and beam it to the world far below.
And despite having a back that often forces her to sneak off halfway through a two-hour stream to stretch and attempt to relieve the pain, Sakura is one hell of a worker. In the last couple of months alone she’s had incredible matches with Yunamon, Lulu Pencil and Hanako Nakamori. While she may spend a lot of her non-wrestling time as the lovable figure who insists on cooking curry for everyone that steps into Chocolate Square, there is still a glint of steel in her eye. When Emi walks into a big match situation, there is no-one better. She is a master of playing with your emotions, whether that’s as the cold-hearted veteran who felt the need to put Yunamon in her place or the broken down Emi Pencil.
We haven’t even got to the work that has perhaps made her most famous in recent years as two of her pupils have broken out of Japan to take AEW by storm. Emi Sakura’s training revolves around the idea that anyone can do this, as she’ll accept a Lulu Pencil or a forty-odd-year-old Tokiko Kirihara as quickly as she will a Mei Suruga. Sakura has the ability to find the thing which makes each wrestler them, to pull on that and shape them around it. Not everyone can be Manami Toyota, so she allows them to be themselves. Darejyo is the school that will accept a freelance journalist who looks like she’d be broken by a strong gust of wind and teach her how to twist the genre in a way that still delights and surprises me to this day. And for all that oni-ness (she has no issue with publicly needling her pupils and exposing their flaws), the bond she develops with those she brings under her wing is easy to see. Whether it’s her watching Hikaru Shida win the AEW title or discovering that Hanako Nakamori has kept not just a gift Emi gave her eight years before, but the note that came with it, there are moments where the devil slips and the proud trainer is revealed.
I could talk about a million more things. Whether it’s Ice Ribbon, her role in bringing wrestling to countries like Thailand or incredible matches from her past like the hair vs hair bout against Kaori Yoneyama. With twenty-five years of history to pull from there is enough for at least a book or two. Sakura-san is someone who has broken down and rebuilt wrestling countless times and while her refusal to play by the rules is probably the reason she’s not a bigger star, those who know, know. A quarter of a century is a long time to do anything, never mind something with the politics and physical exertion of pro-wrestling. However, if I had my way, 2045 would see us all sitting around talking about Emi’s 50th anniversary, and I bet she’d still be better than most.
Thanks to their No Pay Wall initiative, all Gatoh Move and ChocoPro content is available for free on Gatoh Move’s YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2HtPsU4U7TNSv2mSbPkj0w