I don’t know if it’s just me, but May’s felt like a long old month. Maybe it’s because I’ve actually been able to do some stuff for the first time since March last year, and that’s exhausted me. Seeing other people is hard, you know? Anyway, enough about me because there has also been plenty of wrestling to enjoy, and that’s probably why you’re here.
I can’t even begin to imagine the process of sitting down to work out a normal eight-person tag, never mind one that went over forty-five minutes and took place in the confined world of Chocolate Square. The fact this wasn’t a total mess was a miracle in itself.
And to start with the negatives, there were some awkward moments. However, considering how many different pieces were being slotted together, they were few and far between. Actually, my main criticism is almost the exact opposite, as at times it felt episodic, each segment being given its moment before moving onto the next. I understand why that would be the case, it’s the easiest way to split up this kind of action, but it left things feeling a tad contrived. It was an impressive construction, but you could still see the joints. Despite that issue, the bulk was still a blast to watch, a combination of fun wrestling, amusing comedy and Mei Suruga being put in a box.
The best bit, though, was the ending. For in the final minutes, all the years of experience on that mat stepped aside and left it to the two youngest (at least in wrestler years), Lulu and Chie, to see them home. At that moment, it became a battle of wills, two talented rookies giving everything they had while their older partners yelled them on from the sidelines (or, in Chris Pencil’s case, threw Lulu at Chie). Despite being part of the same class, Chie is undoubtedly the stronger of the two, but exhaustion made sure this was closer to a level playing field. At this stage, Lulu’s long losing streak only creates moments where you think she’s going to win now and then, but this was one of them, the series of La Magistrals causing my heart to start thumping as I allowed myself to believe she was going to pull it off.
Unfortunately, it was to be Chie’s day, which meant more heartbreak for Lulu. Not only did Pencil Army’s long battle for their first win stumble once again, but Chris Pencil proved himself not to be the good friend we all hoped he was. Frustrated by the defeat, he delivered a genuinely brutal post-match rant in Lulu’s direction (which sounded like it had been lifted straight from Reddit) before taking a pair of scissors to the hat she’d given him, ending Chris Pencil once and for all. It appears their long feud is not over yet (more on that later), and honestly, I hope it ends with someone ramming a cap down Brookes’ throat.
We’ve had a host of new people popping up in Chocolate Square recently as both Heat-Up and AWG have stopped by to say hello. To my delight, everyone who has turned up so far has got it, slotting into that weird and wonderful world like it’s their second home. However, I’m not sure any of them have got it to the extent that Rina Yamashita has got it.
As far as I know, this was Rina’s first time wrestling in Ichigaya and her first time facing off with either Mei or Akki, but you would never have guessed. By the end of her opening exchange with Suruga, which finished up with them growling at each other, she already felt like a cool as fuck part of the furniture. It’s such a unique environment to work in, and building the action around the camera must require a rewiring of your brain, but she took it all in her stride. By the time she was appreciatively watching Akki and Fujita’s shadows go at it through the window, she might as well have been a ChocoPro original. That’s before we even touch on her and Mei’s genius spot between the glass and the shutter, Emi having to pull up the ChocoBouquets so we could see what was happening. You might have to go back to Fujita himself to find someone who so quickly slotted themselves into this world.
Even outside that sprinkle of ChocoPro magic, the match fucking ruled. Rina is in that top group of wrestlers who can be dropped into any situation and instantly make it better, so that’s not surprising, but the speed at which she clicked into gear with Mei, in particular, was incredible. Suruga has been fully embracing her goblin side recently (more on that below), so giving her a mountain to try and batter proved the perfect move. I don’t care if it’s a tag, singles or just the two of them having a bicker; we better get them back in the same ring sooner rather than later.
Mei Suruga has never been a true babyface. She is a goblin, a menace and as likely to stomp on your foot as she is to shake your hand. However, since winning the Asia Dream Tag Titles, I think it’s safe to say Mei’s been getting worse. She’s turned into that mate who spends every night out picking a fight with anyone who looks at them funny. It doesn’t matter if said person is twice her size or wielding a baseball mat, Mei wants to go all Scrappy-Doo on their arse, and it’s generally only Akki dragging her away that stops it from happening.
That might seem like a small change, but Mei’s willingness to lean into her aggressive side has opened her character up. Before this match began, she declared (in a moment that sent pots and kettles flying everywhere) that she hates loud people. Seconds later, Rina would sing her way to the ring (and damn, can she sing), perhaps proving to one of the few people who can compete with Suruga for the amount of personality bursting out of them. It was the perfect set up for a bout between two wrestlers whose characters clashed perfectly, Mei as the violent goblin and Rina as the over the top lover of fun. It almost didn’t matter what the wrestling was like (although it was great) because there was so much joy in simply watching these people interact. I’ve spoken before about Tokyo Joshi’s strength coming from every wrestler knowing who they are, and this brought that to mind. It was two great talents bouncing off each other and seeing what happens, and I loved it.
Mid-card titles need an identity. It’s why two of my favourites belts are DDT’s Extreme and Ice Ribbon’s FantastICE, their unique stipulations preventing them from simply becoming less prestigious versions of the big title. However, it doesn’t have to be that out there. Traditionally, WWE positioned the Intercontinental Title as the wrestler’s belt, while the World was the one for the superstars. In a more recent example, Arisa Hoshiki’s White Belt reign in Stardom was defined by the tighter, aggressive matches she put on, which always felt different to what was happening in the Red Belt picture.
I think it’s safe to say that when Kamiyu won the International Princess title, it didn’t have an identity. They’d tried bringing in people like Thunder Rosa and Nightshade to challenge for it (and in Rosa’s case, win it), but it was starting to feel like a cursed belt. Between injuries and pandemics, no one could settle in and begin to mould it in their image. Kamiyu changed that. Much like Hoshiki, she turned the focus towards a different style of wrestling that leaned towards shorter matches which played to the strengths of both champion and challenger. The perfect example is her defence against Mirai Maiumi, a hard-hitting battle where Kamiyu’s brain outfoxed Maiumi’s power. It went under ten minutes and stood out for being both a brilliant match and for how different it was to the TJPW main event scene.
Kamiyu did lose said title in this match, which continued the theme of those earlier encounters and also drew a bit of Hikari’s hardcore love into proceedings, but I think it’s important to praise the work she did. I have full confidence that Noa will go on to be a brilliant champion, bringing a bit of herself to the International Title, but Kamiyu is the one who planted the seeds for that, and wherever it goes from here, she’ll be able to lay a large claim to its success.
I love Miyu Yamashita. I love that Tokyo Joshi has this one, basically unstoppable wrestler. Yea, she’ll lose now and then, dropping a fall in a tag or being caught off-guard in a tournament, but when it comes to big matches, the number of people who can beat her can be counted on one hand. In fact, at this point, you can probably count them on one finger. Yuka Sakazaki. That’s kinda it.
And this match was a showcase of how incredible she is. Rika Tatsumi’s title reign had been extraordinary, as her defences against both Miu and Itoh are genuine contenders for my match of the year. She was coming into this on an all-time high, at the top of the company and finally ready to prove that she could defeat Yamashita. The table was set for the changing of the guard, and then she got kicked in the head. Rika did everything right, gave this match all she had, but it just wasn’t enough. Sometimes life doesn’t care how hard you try or how good you are because there is someone better than you, and, in TJPW, that someone is Miyu Yamashita.
There is a simple joy in watching two very tall people boot each other in the head. I recommend it if you’re feeling down.
Beyond that, though, this was a match that aimed to show us how brilliant Saki Akai is. Last month I talked about how Brookes has used his produce shows to pull people up with him, and this was another example of that. Saki is fantastic, but as the one woman on the DDT roster, she doesn’t get the opportunity to show it as often as she should. This went all out to give her that chance, not only showing off what she can do but also letting her display an aggressive edge that we perhaps don’t often see from her in her underdog babyface role. She got to add a bit of pep to those boots, and while Chris probably wasn’t a fan, I certainly was.
Now, put her in the D-OH, Takagi, or I’ll be very angry with you.
One of ChocoPro’s greatest strengths comes from Emi Sakura’s ability to put together a show that, on the one hand, feels light and bubbly, but on the other, is seeped in long-running stories with characters that make perfect sense. Sakura understands the value of patience, which is why Lulu Pencil is still yet to get a win and why this match had me out of my seat, pumping my fist.
Ever since Sayuri came into ChocoPro in June last year, she’s had one goal: to hit a bodyslam. Nearly every match she’s had has seen the cry of ‘let’s bodyslam’ ring out, only for it to be countered or broken up. It’s one of the first things most wrestlers learn, but it became Sayuri’s Moby Dick, leaving new fans baffled as to why everyone was so desperate for this lass to hit a basic move.
And that story could have been throwaway. It could have lasted three, four shows and Sayuri would have hit the move, everyone would have cheered, and the whole thing would have been forgotten. Except, that’s not what it was. Because rather than tossing it away, ChocoPro held onto it for nearly eleven months, teasing it time after time and keeping it in their pocket. It never dominated the conversation, but every Sayuri match asked whether this would be the day. Well, this was the day, and it felt amazing.
A wrestler hitting a basic move on someone the size of Kaori Yoneyama shouldn’t be (WWE speak incoming) a moment, but ChocoPro made it one simply by being patient enough to wait for it. While massive companies chase that buzz, desperately trying to manufacture it, Sayuri did it by simply not using one move. There is a lesson in that, isn’t there?
2021 is the year that Madeline has entered the group of wrestlers who I will watch fight anyone. Don’t get me wrong, I was a fan of hers before, but it feels like she is putting everything together now, and her Golden Week was quite extraordinary. Between Diana and Ice Ribbon, I saw her wrestle six times, and each match brought something slightly different (and not just with her gear, although I also don’t think she wore the same outfit twice).
Against Thekla, we got to see a bit of MMA Maddie. She certainly walked to the ring with her serious face on, a visual not at all compromised by her also holding the wand Fairy Nipponbashi passed onto her. Fighting for the WUW title, Madeline was in grapple mode, taking Thekla down and twisting her up. One of the things I’ve often praised about her is that she’s an MMA fighter who doesn’t always wrestle like one, but if anyone doubted her ability to do so, this should have shut them up.
What truly makes Madeline appointment viewing, though, is her ability to surprise you. While she started this match by grappling, it wasn’t all she was prepared to do. When Thekla used the WUW title’s underground rules to start choking her with a belt, Maddie snapped, vanishing from the ring before reappearing with a massive pair of scissors. It was a moment so divorced from the serious wrestling that had kicked this off that I burst out laughing, not in mockery, but joy, as Madeline and Thekla introduced a streak of chaos to something that I was already enjoying the hell out of. More of that, please!
Towards the end of this match, Jun Kasai was perched on top of a ladder, ready to take flight with the Pearl Harbour Splash. Before he could, though, a battered and bruised Suzu (who had skewers rammed not only into her head but also her mouth) let out a roar and rose up, climbing the ladder to meet him. I’m not sure what Kasai said as Suzu pulled herself towards him, but I would guess that he was asking what the fuck she was doing back on her feet.
It was a moment that captured why Suzu’s foray into hardcore has been so exciting. The deeper into this she gets, the more she seems able to click into the intensity and ferocity needed to make these matches thrilling. Suzu hasn’t yet gone out there and broke fifty light tubes over her head before bumping on a board of knives, but she is putting her heart and soul into it. You can see the passion she has for the genre and every match sees her push herself that little bit further. Back in that first outing against Yuko Miyamoto, she would have already been done as Kasai climbed that ladder, but the battles she’s had have already hardened her, making her a tougher competitor.
The joy in the first two matches of Suzu Suzuki’s hardcore trial series came not so much from the action itself as the chance to see Suzu living out her dream. Yuko Miyamoto and Takashi Sasaki understood that and put her through the hardcore ringer while also giving her a chance to experiment. Now, though, these matches are proving to be brilliant in their own right, and if you have even the slightest stomach for hardcore wrestling, then I’d make sure to check them out.
God, that Chris Brookes is a right bastard, isn’t he? This match would end in chaos, as he took his anger at Pencil Army out on Emi, Lulu, Mei, Fujita and even his friends and partners, Masa and Yunamon. What a bellend.
That’s not what I want to focus on, though. I’ve never been shy in shouting about Emi Sakura’s genius (see above), but I don’t think I’ve ever given her nearly enough credit for how brilliant Emi Pencil is. This isn’t simply a case of Emi pulling on a pair of dungarees and acting a bit weaker, but a drastic reworking of her style. It struck me in the opening minutes of this match, as she worked over Chris’s feet with a series of stamps and stomps, that she’s basically a different person, wrestling more like a weak pest than the unbeatable badass that we know and love.
The place this shines through the most, though, is in her selling. Being well aware of Emi’s various injuries, there were moments in this match where I found myself getting genuinely worried for her. There is a panic to the way Emi Pencil sells that tugs on my heartstrings, the wild screams from a simple arm wringer making it feel like there has to be something wrong with her injured shoulder. It’s also the perfect way to put over the horrible prick that is Chris Brookes, as it only heightens his aforementioned bellendery. That’s something that badass Emi Sakura could never do, so it’s a good thing Emi Pencil is around to help.
I adored the intensity that Momo and Inaba brought to this match. With it only going ten minutes (the Young Block is being worked under ten-minute Ironwoman rules), it would be easy for that to feel forced and inauthentic. However, with both wrestlers going after their opponent’s leg, they earned that aggression. We got two highly skilled rookies working a combination of strikes and holds to try and keep the advantage. While Inaba would prove to be the more adept as time went on, eventually forcing the submission with only seconds remaining, they both proved themselves more than capable of doing so. It was everything I want in this environment, a simple, competitive and well-structured match that shows off the strengths of both competitors.
It was also a perfect example of why letting the rookies have a mini-tournament is a great idea. The eight wrestlers involved all got the chance to work three ten-minute matches against opponents that they’d often never wrestled before. That’s an invaluable experience for people who are young in their careers, and while most of the matches weren’t as good as this one, they all gave the kids a chance to spread their wings.
With ChocoPro having a tiny roster plus a few regular guests, it’s near impossible for there not to be repeat matches. They rarely have access to everyone, so those who pop up more regularly will wrestle each other a lot. Thankfully, Emi Sakura has made sure to have those matches mean something. She doesn’t throw big stars together but instead uses these bouts as milestones to mark the progress of her younger wrestlers. It’s why we’ve seen Chie vs Yunamon or Sayuri vs Emi multiple times, but perhaps the most successful example of it is Akki vs Otoki.
Akki and Otoki have faced off six times in ChocoPro (Akki winning every match), and this was their second main event, but it was the first one that felt like the main event. They were given the time to spread out, leaning into the submissions and kicks that they’ve made their signature. For the first time, Otoki felt like she was pulling herself up to Akki’s level, teasing the possibility of an unlikely win. Having gone into it expecting a good match, but nothing new, they caught me off-guard, drawing me into the action and keeping me hooked.
And while Akki obviously plays a big part in that, the real triumph is Otoki. She is a phenomenal pro-wrestler at this point, someone capable of flipping between the nonsense of Black Comaneci and the seriousness of this match at will. I’ve argued before that she is ChocoPro’s great success story, and while I think you could twist nearly every roster member into that role, I stand by it. She’s the one who has come the furthest in my evaluation of her, and she looks unlikely to stop anytime soon.
I wrote last month about the joys of a mischievous Raku after she attempted to use her teddy to blunt Rika’s Diamond Ass, and the mischief was back for this one. The bell rang, and Raku waved goodbye to Kamiyu, vanishing under the ring as her opponent looked on, confused. When she reappeared, she not only attempted to hide behind Ref Kiso (something made difficult by her frilly gear) but had picked up Kamiyu’s eye-poking skills. Everyone’s favourite lover of trains proving she’s perfectly capable of bending the rules.
And I loved that dynamic. Raku is such an obvious sweetheart that watching her poke someone in the eyes is always going to be hilarious. On top of that, Kamiyu was a great foil, responding by putting her own twist on the Goodnight Express. They’re two wrestlers who look like they’ve come from vastly different worlds, so seeming them pull from each other’s shtick was a guaranteed winner.
Plus, when the mischief ends, Raku continues to put on really good performances. Her in-ring work has come on leaps and bounds in the last year, to the point where in a ten minute match like this, I’m expecting something good. She’s hit a period in a career where everything is clicking for her, and if she keeps giving us grin-inducing showdowns like this one, then we’re all in luck.
It feels like it should have got easier to write about Hana Kimura. That at some point in the last year, I’d have come up with the right combination of words to express my feelings about the person we lost. And yet, every time I sit down to try and do so, I come up short. Whether it be a tweet, an article, or simply answering a question from a non-wrestling loving friend in the pub, I haven’t yet figured out what to say. It still feels too raw, too real.
Because of that, I was dreading this show. I was always going to watch it, too caught up in this world not to, but I built it up in my head, turning it into something that needed to be overcome rather than enjoyed. If I struggle to get through a tweet, how was I going to spend a couple of hours drenched in those memories?
Thankfully, it turned out that I was worrying about nothing. They got the presentation perfect as Ian Riccabonni and Cheeseburger gently introduced themselves on commentary, setting the relaxed atmosphere from the first second and even admitting that they would make mistakes. It proved to be the warm hug that I needed it to be, an event that focused on laughs and friendship rather than tragedy.
In such an environment, wrestling was secondary, but it still delivered. We got the chaotic fun of the opener, the nonsense of a packed battle royal that saw Hana’s childhood friend Ram get the win and the emotional, incredible main events which brought with them the return of Hazuki and Kagetsu. It wasn’t just a blast to watch, but it was brilliantly booked, making sure to highlight people like Mika Iwata, Mio Momono and ASUKA. If you were someone who purely watched Stardom, you would come out of this show with a list of wrestlers you wanted to know more about.
Most importantly, though, it was clearly a show put together with love. Not just from Kyoko, who stood at ringside all night, even getting involved in the main event for a brief second, but from everyone involved. Love poured off the screen as Hana’s family and friends came together not to mourn her but to celebrate her. To shout as loudly as they could about this incredible person who we lost too soon.
As I said at the top, I still struggle to face Hana’s death, and this show didn’t change that. While I can’t sit here and claim she saved my life or influenced me in any significant way like so many people (understandably) can, she left an impact that I’m still figuring out. However, for a couple of hours, we were all given a chance to come together, thank her, and say matane. That’s important, and this is an event that will sit in my heart for a long time to come.
I already wrote at length about the story that surrounded this match but didn’t touch much on the action itself. Unsurprisingly, it was fantastic. Chris Brookes has found the perfect way to wrestle Lulu, tossing her around like the horrendous bully he is. More importantly, though, he peppers the action with Lulu hope spots, teasing us with the potential of the upset as he lets her catch him off-guard for just a second. Adjusting to match the skill set of an opponent is what makes a great, versatile wrestler, and he’s shown that ability when working with Lulu.
Outside of that, you had a shitload of talent in that ring who contrasted with each other perfectly. The effortless cool of ASUKA making the Pencil Army in their dungarees and hats look like the biggest dorks in school, ready to be brushed aside. Despite that, Pencil Army have become an excellent team. Putting Emi and Lulu’s weakness next to Fujita’s deathmatch bludgeoning makes for some fun setups, and them dragging out a table to attempt to put Brookes through it (sadly, it didn’t break) was a great moment. Lulu and Chris might have been the headliner, but they brought out some fantastic support.
A standing ovation for Makoto, please! She was in that ring with three of joshi’s best, and while she’s no slouch herself, that makes it very easy to gloss over her contribution. However, I don’t think this match works without her. ASUKA, Arisa and Nanae may have done the bulk of the flashy stuff, but it was Makoto who got the shit kicked out of her, building up to the moments where the others took over. She let ASUKA be held back, unleashing them at the right moments to show just how incredible they are. It might not be the most glamorous job, but she did it brilliantly.
And, of course, the others were fantastic too. Few people do violence like Nanae and Arisa do violence, the almost dismissive way they’ll cave a chest in somehow making it look even more impactful. They might have lost the titles in this match, but they still looked like killers, the only person able to outshine them being ASUKA, whose excellence is almost getting boring (that’s a lie, it’s not). They are working at an insanely high level this year, excelling in every promotion they step into. They are one of the few people who can step in the ring with Arisa and Nanae and hold their own, trading blows with them and looking just as powerful. Who can blame SEAd for wanting to put all the belts on that person?
It all added up to yet another standout SEAd main event, all four wrestlers putting in a hell of a shift and stealing yet another show (although, as noted below, there were at least two other matches on this card that are well worth your time). No one does this style of matches better than they do, and this might be my favourite one so far this year, so get on it.
For Mei Suruga’s third anniversary, the anniversary which means you’re officially no longer a rookie in Japanese wrestling, ChocoPro brought in her old training partner Haruka Umesaki, who started alongside Mei in Darejyo before joining Diana. As the numerous pictures and videos shared in the build-up showed, the two had been close friends and rivals before the careers split, the last time they wrestled each other being in 2019. Wherever they are working, though, it’s safe to say they are two of joshi’s brightest young talents and bringing them back together was always going to be great.
What made this match fascinating, though, was the differences between Mei and Haruka. Yes, you can tell they came from the same root, as the similarities in their styles and their comfort with each other shines through, but you can also see where they diverged. Where Haruka, training with the likes of Sareee, has leaned into the stiff, hard-hitting side of joshi (her forearms sound bone-breaking), Mei has (as I’ve talked about at length) gone down a tricksier route, embracing her inner-goblin. The influences they’ve surrounded themselves with post-Darejyo have altered them enough that their matches have only got more intriguing, the twists they’ve made on that starting block shining all the brighter because of their shared past.
And as much as Sakuraism has my love, that’s something worth celebrating. We’re in a period where there are a lot of joshi companies, all of whom bring their own style to the wrestlers they train and develop. When you then let those wrestlers loose on each other, you get to relish those philosophies bashing heads. That’s the reason a feud like GAEAISM works, and it’s why, as much as I would love to see Haruka wrestle everyone in ChocoPro, having someone like her branch out to Diana can only be a good thing. Wrestling is at its best when different ideas are being mixed together, and I hope we get to watch Mei and Haruka show each other the things they’ve been learning for years to come.
Best of the Rest
Tsukushi Haruka vs Ituski Aoki (4/5/21) – A great, hard-hitting main event from two brilliant wrestlers.
Saki vs Misa Matsui (4/5/21) – The perfect first defence for Saki.
Yukio Sakaguchi vs Yusuke Okada (9/5/21) – Okada tries to enter Sakaguchi’s world and gets punished for it.
Ayame Sasamura vs Rina Yamashita (26/5/21) – Sasamura proves she can hang with one of the best.
Rico Kaiju vs Yumiko Hotta (26/5/21) – Beast Kid does a decent job of bringing the fight to one of the biggest bads around.
Best Bros Birthday Gauntlet (30/5/21) – Best Bros are just showing off now.