August has been a hell of a month for the old wrestling. Between the Princess Cup and the 5STAR, we’ve had loads of high-profile singles matches in the two big joshi companies, plus a load of exciting stuff helping elsewhere. It means this is a long one, but fingers crossed it’s also a good one, and there will be plenty for you all to get your teeth into.
Makoto, Kaho Kobayashi & Moeka Haruhi vs Saori Anou, Tae Honma & Maika Ozaki, Freelance Summit Vol. 2 (5/8/22), NOMADS’
There’s a real art to delivering the right match at the right moment. Yes, there are times when everyone on the card should be trying to steal the show and put on the craziest outing possible, but for a midcard bout at NOMADS’ second event, that’s not necessary. Instead, you want something like this. A match that isn’t going to make the end-of-year lists but was a joy to watch. I sat down to it on a Friday night, having already enjoyed a homemade pizza, and had a lovely old time.
And while they were all good, I wanted to take a second to point the finger of praise at Kaho Kobayashi. She was fantastic, winding everyone else up and anchoring the action. There isn’t anything concrete between these six to hang a story off, but Kaho stepped in to provide it, playing the role of the comedy prick, which gave her opponents (and, at times, her teammates) someone to go after. It wasn’t particularly complex or revolutionary, but she did a brilliant job and helped make this as enjoyable as it was.
Miyuki Takase & Natsu Sumire vs galaxyPunch! (SAKI & Hikari Shimizu), Freelance Summit Vol. 2 (5/8/22), NOMADS’
If you were attempting to figure out when my interest in Stardom dwindled by tracking when I stopped regularly reviewing them, you would probably (rightly) assume that the Bushiroadification of the company played an important part. However, if one was to think outside the box, one might also notice that since Natsu Sumire left the company, the number of shows I have bothered to write about has been relatively tiny.
And I’m not about to attempt to rewrite history and claim Natsu’s departure was the final straw for me because it wasn’t (for one thing, I still watch Stardom occasionally). However, symbolically, it was a pivotal moment. Natsu represents something very different to what 2022 Stardom is, and while I’m not suggesting they’re now a deadly serious promotion, it’s hard to imagine where she would fit in these days. That’s a state of affairs which (as a lover of all things nonsensical) is a problem for me. Natsu fucking rules, and if NOMADS had been purely a vehicle for her to return, they’d still be pretty high up my promotion of the year list.
It was a masterfully handled return, too, with the tone nailed from the bell. Natsu has never been a traditionally great wrestler, but she has mastered the art of chaos, bringing a slice of anarchy to the ring. It’s not just smacking opponents round the head with bouquets of flowers or cheating at every turn, but the complete lack of fucks that she manages to portray. Sumire has always given off a real wildcard vibe, as you’re never quite sure what she’ll do next.
That aspect of her personality makes me incredibly excited to see Natsu entering the freelance scene. Who knows where she’ll pop up, but the thought of her interacting with the Hibiscus Miis of the world is enough to get me very excited. I want her inventive streak unleashed on as many companies as possible. Whether that happens or not, it’s a delight to see her back in the ring, creating chaos once more.
Saran vs Totoro Satsuki, Ice Ribbon #1129 (6/8/22), Ice Ribbon
Saran’s opening matches on Ice Ribbon Dojo shows might be my wrestling happy place. So, when Totoro came out for this in a swimsuit carrying an inflatable shark, I already suspected I would love it. By the time Saran had nicked the shark and started beating Totoro with it, there was no doubt about it.
And there are many reasons I enjoy Saran’s matches, but the main one is that she wrestles like a thirteen-year-old kid. That’s perhaps pointing out the obvious, she is thirteen, but the people who train her aren’t. Most young wrestlers perform like little versions of those around them, which isn’t necessarily bad, but there is a joy to be found in watching Saran be a kid. She sells by hopping up and down on the spot, gets frustrated and sulky when things aren’t going her way and attacks by doing stuff only someone her size could do. Her childishness has become a pivotal part of her wrestling, and it’s helping her make this opening spot her own.
W-FIX (KAORU, DASH Chisako, Chikayo Nagashima & Megumi Yabushita) vs Team Marvelous (Takumi Iroha, Mio Momono, Maria & Leo Isaka), Marvelous (8/8/22), Marvelous
Thirty-six years, to the day, since her debut, KAORU hung up her boots in a glorious clusterfuck of a match. It hit every note I want a retirement to hit, be it callbacks to days gone by, everyone ganging up on the soon-to-be-gone wrestler or Mio Momono booting a panda in the balls. It was funny, heartwarming and a lovely old time.
Of course, there are always regrets and what-ifs, and Chigusa Nagayo missing it because of a positive COVID test was a bit of a bummer (not to mention the absence of someone like Mayumi Ozaki), but this still felt like a special moment. KAORU’s career spanned eras, and she wrestled with and against some of the greatest of all time. She deserved to go out on a high, and Marvelous delivered one. I’m going to miss her an awful lot, but I’m also glad we got her for as long as we did.
Tam Nakano vs AZM, 5STAR Grand Prix (11/8/22), Stardom
Tam vs AZM was a perfect tournament match. It was a tight, pacey affair that came in at under ten minutes and made them both look great. Generally, I don’t want the 5STAR (or any tournament) packed full of epics (although the occasional one can be okay), as it’s much better suited to hard-hitting sprints. Of course, it also helps that every AZM match I’ve seen this year has been great. With Starlight Kid distracted by her awful heel shtick (have I mentioned how much I dislike that?), her eternal rival has been pulling away and becoming one of the Stardom wrestlers whose big matches are always worth a watch. It’s hard for me to name someone from that company as one of my best of the year because I only dip in and out, but a great 5STAR might make it difficult to exclude AZM from the list, and so far, she’s delivering that.
Suzu Suzuki vs MIRAI, 5STAR Grand Prix (11/8/22), Stardom
I sometimes forget how big a prick Suzu Suzuki can be. Here she is, walking into the 5STAR for the first time, and she went straight into mocking the clap that has played such a big part in getting Mirai over with that crowd. Not just once, either. Suzu was gleefully antagonistic in this match, leaping at every opportunity she had to get under MIRAI’s skin. She loves being a bellend, and I feel similarly about watching her be so.
Suzu’s menacing wasn’t only fun but played a part in making this match as good as it was. MIRAI is a natural babyface, her shy, slightly bashful aura working best when it is up against arrogant and brash opponents. These two are already a natural fit, as they’re both physical, hard-hitting wrestlers, but Suzu’s bellendry added the sparkle the match needed to hit the next level. It’s not only something she excels at, but it got the best out of her opponent, making everything pop.
And while I have no wish to see Suzu sign full-time for Stardom, I hope this is a pairing they return to over the years. They’ve met twice in the last few months, but I could happily watch a dozen more. It’s something we never expected to see, so let’s be greedy and get as much of it as possible.
Both of these wrestlers also had great matches against Hazuki this month, which are well worth checking out.
Mei Suruga & Masa Takanashi vs Yuna Mizumori & Sayaka Obihiro, ChocoPro 247 (11/8/22), ChocoProLIVE!
There are certain people (among who these four would rank highly) who you can send out for a ten-fifteen-minute main event on the Ichigaya mat, and rest safe in the knowledge that it’s going to be a lovely time. That wee venue is a second home to them, and they’ve all wrestled each other in there so many times that they could breeze through a good match in their sleep. It also means, perhaps unfairly, that they have to do something exceptional or different to stand out, as their excellence has become routine. So what did this do? It featured Mei Suruga playing the role of ‘The Smallest Emi Sakura’.
And while that was a throwaway gag, made because Mei was in a rare team with Masa Takanashi, I was genuinely impressed by how good Suruga was at it. It wasn’t just that she performed Emi’s moves, but that she nailed the mannerisms which I consider all so Sakura. Her haughty dismissal of Obi in the early going, looking shocked when she dared to fight back, perfectly mimicked Emi at her oni best and suggested Mei has been keeping a very close eye on her teacher over the last few years. It’s also proof that while Suruga has grown into a very different wrestler from Emi, her core is still Sakura through and through, which is an excellent thing for it to be.
Max The Impaler vs Pom Harajuku, Princess Cup (13/8/22), TJPW
Max The Impaler’s TJPW debut was a perfect wrestling match. The second they stepped through the curtain, you could tell there was something different about them. It’s not just the look, which stands out in the cutesie world of Tokyo Joshi, but their whole demeanour. They stomped about the place, roaring at fans and looking ready to destroy poor Pom. Within five seconds, Max convinced me that they should wrestle everyone on the roster.
Then there was the match itself, in which two people who could not be more different came together to create something magical. Pom was incredible here, bumping around like crazy and acting like the devil had popped up to give her a beating. In one of the match’s many highlights, she fled the ring only for Raku, who fears no monster, to drag her back and send her to her doom with a がんばって. I’ve been yelling about Pom’s improvement for so long that I assume everyone has got the message, but it’s in matches like this that you see how brilliant my favourite clown truly is. I don’t think there’s a wrestler around who would have sold Max as a monster as well as she did.
As for Max, they were equally wonderful. I loved their selling of the shin kicks, giving everyone a bit of hope that Pom could survive only to crush it seconds later. Most importantly, though, this wasn’t just someone brutishly destroying an opponent (which would have also been great), but a performance full of character. The look of utter bafflement on their face when Pom began beating the drums on their chest will make me giggle for a long time. In less than five minutes, Pom and Max created something I’ll be watching for years to come.
Suzume vs Yuka Sakazaki, Princess Cup (13/8/22), TJPW
There was, understandably, a heavy focus on Miu and Suzume’s Princess Cup arcs, but I think that led some people to ignore that Yuka was on a journey too. Sakazaki has had a rough few months. She travelled to AEW to try and qualify for the Owen Hart Cup but fell at the first hurdle. Then, on her return to Japan, she lost her Princess of Princess title challenge at Cyber Festival and, soon after, dropped the tag titles to an inexperienced team. By Sakazaki’s high standards, she’s having a shitty middle of the year, so coming into a tournament that she’s never won before, there was every reason for her to be desperate to win it.
Then, something interesting happened. Sitting backstage, Yuka would have watched Mizuki drop out due to illness, Rika’s loss to Suzume and Shoko’s to Miu. Her closest friends and rivals were dropping like flies, while the generation of wrestlers who have always seemed a dozen steps behind was snapping at their heels. Is it any wonder that she would bring the pain? That when Hikari Noa dared to stand up to her, she snapped, unleashing hell on her and showing that she’s still Yuka goddamn Sakazaki.
What I loved about this match was that Suzume wrestled like someone who had seen that and adjusted accordingly. She knew there was no chance of going out and fighting Yuka head-on. Yes, Sakazaki was once a nippy wee wrestler, but those days are long behind her, and she’s now a bully, capable of clobbering everyone else on the roster. So, Suzume focused on fighting from underneath, wriggling and twisting her way out of moves to bundle Yuka up and catch her with sudden blows. It was an incredible defensive display as the bee fought on the counter, looking for an opening to turn something Yuka did against her.
Of course, it wasn’t to be, as all it took was Sakazaki getting one chance to brute force her way to victory and Suzume was in trouble. However, this was a perfect example of a match that got both people over. Sakazaki looked like the badass veteran, but Suzume showed how she could approach this again in the future. There is now a path she can walk down that may well lead her to beat Yuka on the next attempt. She’s slowly catching up, and the look of relief on Sakazaki’s face as the bell rang suggested she knows it.
Miyu Yamashita vs Miu Watanabe, Princess Cup (13/8/22), TJPW
I suspect most TJPW watchers have fallen in love with Miu Watanabe over the last few years. It’s hard not to. She’s a ball of excitable, positive energy that has embraced wrestling with all her heart. It’s not just that she’s improved, but the pleasure she gets from having done so, building her muscles and discovering new things she can do. However, if that had somehow failed to charm you, then I can’t imagine coming out the other side of this match and not having been won over.
Because when battling the Ace, Miu put on the definition of a heroic performance. She may no longer be the champion, but Yamashita is still near-indestructible. Over the last few years, we’ve seen wrestler after wrestler step up to her, perform near-perfectly, and still not have enough to get over the line. Because when Miyu turns it on and unleashes the monster within, being your best isn’t enough. You need to be better than your best to stand a chance.
On this day, though, Miu dug deep, and she took what Yamashita had to give and found a way through. There was more than one occasion where I sank back in my seat, assuming it was the beginning of the end, only for Miu to pull herself back up and keep going. While Watanabe would go on to have a better match the next day, this was the performance that removed any doubt about her ability to be at the top of the card. I bought 100% into the idea that the wee hoss was giving her heart and soul, and when she managed to hit the Tear Drop, I leapt out of my seat in joy.
And I’ve said it before, but what could be better than that? Wrestling is never better than when it catches you hook, line and sinker, pushing your buttons and having you dance to its tune. It’s what I want it to do, and if Miu can bring that out of me, she’ll be a favourite for years to come.
Max The Impaler & Yuki Aino vs Shoko Nakajima & Rika Tatsumi, Princess Cup (14/8/22), TJPW
Max’s arc over their two-show TJPW tour was perfect. In the first match, they hinted at everything they could be in an incredible performance against Pom (see above). Then, in the second, Max paid off all those hints, delivering the comedy, power and general badassery they’d promised. It was wonderful!
Of course, some credit has to go to the other three. On a weekend when people accused the TJPW old guard of holding people back (nonsense), Rika and Shoko fully embraced being dominated by Max. Aino, meanwhile, proved an inspired partner, managing to give off the perfect combination of bemused hopefulness and abject terror. She wanted to be Max’s friend, but she wasn’t sure how.
Really, though, Max was the star, and I’m quite happy to already declare them TJPW’s greatest-ever import. Everything about them being there works, as they’re such a violent contrast to the rest of the roster that it somehow means they fit in perfectly. Thankfully, visit number two has already been scheduled (for Wrestle Princess), and I hope it is the start of a long and beautiful friendship.
Miu Watanabe vs Yuka Sakazaki, Princess Cup (14/8/22), TJPW
When you boil down the bulk of the discourse around this match, you have to conclude that people don’t think wrestling should make them sad. Maybe it’s a hangover from growing up watching Hulk Hogan and John Cena, who (no matter how bad the odds) always prevailed, or a lingering belief that wrestling is a crude art form, but fans seem to believe that if they come away from a match feeling upset, it has failed. They wanted Miu Watanabe to win (a perfectly legitimate emotion), so when she didn’t, they felt TJPW had let them down.
Here’s the thing. Sadness and pain aren’t just essential storytelling techniques but the best ones. Ask any sports fan to talk about a time when their beloved team was screwed over, and no matter how much other success they might have witnessed, they’ll still angrily rant for half an hour about whatever it was that led to their downfall. Happiness and joy are great, but they’re fleeting. Pain and sadness, meanwhile, stick around. Christ, it’s why Bryan Danielson became a hero to WWE fans while Roman Reigns got booed out of buildings. One marched to the top with success after success, and the other had to battle for every moment, playing out his disappointments in front of us.
That’s where Miu Watanabe is right now. Before this year’s Princess Cup, she held two victories over senior wrestlers, one of which was in a lockdown tournament packed with unusual rules. In many ways, Miu had already won by beating Shoko and Miyu, proving she belonged among TJPW’s best. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I wouldn’t have been over the moon if she had taken home the cup, I would have been, but the sadness that came with the three-count will stick with me a lot longer than the joy would have. And when she does win a big one, it will make the celebration even sweeter.
Miya vs Mei Suruga, ChocoPro 248 (14/8/22), ChocoProLIVE!
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a new Gatoh Move rookie, so I was very excited to meet Miya. Of course, there’s only so much you can tell from a three-minute exhibition, but I thought there were some positive signs here. Firstly, she didn’t look particularly nervous, perhaps benefitting from the lack of a live audience. That’s a guess, she might be similarly unbothered by a crowd (in fact, later in the month, she was), but it probably wasn’t a bad idea for her to start in a less intimidating environment. Secondly, she showed some fire in this speedy showcase. When the bell rang to signal it was over, Miya wasn’t done and came flying into Mei with a dropkick. She then had to be dragged off The Big Apple as she tried to follow up with a pin. It’s a little thing, but if it hints at her future attitude, I could easily see her becoming a favourite.
Miya went on to have another two exhibitions against Mei later in the month, in which she repeatedly attempted to choke out the Apple Goblin and confirmed my early hunch that she’ll be a favourite. They have also announced that she’ll make her official debut against Emi Sakura at Gatoh Move’s 10th-anniversary show.
Mei Suruga vs Kakeru Sekiguchi, 7th Anniversary (17/8/22), SEAdLINNNG
High Speed matches (specifically those that take place under the watchful eye of Natsuki Taiyo) are a constant source of people wrestling for the joy of wrestling. Yes, everyone is trying to win, but you go into them expecting inventiveness and, well, to be honest, massive pests. It’s an environment that certain wrestlers thrive in, with the likes of Tsukushi becoming a Taiyo favourite. However, with Skoosh now retired, it seems likely that one Mei Suruga could be the heir to her affections.
And a match like this is a perfect example of why. I don’t think Mei is a flippant wrestler, and I always believe she’s trying to win, but she’s also a bloody menace who takes nearly as much pleasure from being so as she does from victory. She wasn’t so much Sekiguchi’s opponent as her tormenter, running rings around her, gnawing on her arm and forcing her into ‘cute on purpose’ poses. On top of that, there aren’t many wrestlers currently going who are as inventive as Mei, and she dragged Taiyo into more than one sequence that saw her take advantage of her willingness to get involved in unusual ways.
To be clear, though, this wasn’t just the Mei show. Her antics required a straight opponent to bounce off, and Sekiguchi was brilliant in that role. On top of that, she easily kept up with Suruga, which is no mean feat. The first few minutes flew by in a flurry of action that had me breathing heavily, so the fact it was the opening act is quite frankly astonishing. These two looked like they could have kept that pace up all day, bouncing off each other in a perfect blend of styles. It was a brilliant display of why the SEAd High Speed division is as exciting as it is, and let’s hope Taiyo’s influence remains strong for years to come.
MomoRingo (Mei Suruga & Momoka Hanazono) vs Beast Friend (Hiroyo Matsumoto & Kaori Yoneyama), Plum No Hanasaku OZ No Kuni (21/8/22), Oz Academy
There was a moment in this match where Hiroyo, having just had to deal with Mei Suruga, rolled her eyes in a mixture of confusion and frustration as Momoka Hanazono ran around her, refusing to engage and entering full pest mode. It was a look that perfectly summed up what I assume wrestling MomoRingo is like. These two nuisances beat you not through superior wrestling ability (although they’re both brilliant) but by being bloody annoying.
And while at the time of writing, they have only had six matches as a pairing, I am already more than happy to put them up with the Team Eccentrics and HENA-Centrics of the world (two of my favourite teams of all time). It’s not just that MomoRingo are funny, but that everything they do is masterfully delivered. Yes, they’re pests, but there is a method to their madness, as in among all the nonsense they are constantly looking to win. Mei and Momoka are not averse to wrestling for the joy of it, but most of these sequences set up a roll-up or an attempt to sneak out with the win. It isn’t just them having a laugh (although I’m sure that’s a part of it), but a legitimate tactic.
And to return to what I said at the start, every opponent they’ve had so far has masterfully sold their shtick. Hiroyo could want nothing to do with this (although, from what I know about her, that would be unlikely), but she was more than happy to go along with it and even be on the losing side. Then you have Yoneyama, who in these two nuisances must see kindred spirits, and I can only assume she was more than willing to take the pin from Hanazono. Together with MomoRingo, they made sure that six matches into their career, they’ve delivered six delights, and I’m struggling to imagine a world where the seventh isn’t one too.
Mio Momono vs Ai Houzan, Shinkiba (23/8/22), Marvelous
I wrote a lot about this match in my review, so I’ll keep it relatively short here, but Mio vs Ai is the showdown I have been waiting for since Momono returned from injury. It’s no secret that I have taken Marvelous’s latest rookie to heart, and a big reason for that is Mio’s obvious influence on her. You can see her fingers all through Ai Houzan’s style as she’s growing into the role of a relentless menace who doesn’t understand when she’s beaten. Ever since I came to that conclusion, all I have wanted is to see how Ai does up against the original, and this match delivered on that promise.
And I’m already a sucker for a student vs master showdown, so it’s no surprise that one between two of my favourite wrestlers would work for me, but this delivered everything I wanted. Ai was the perfect cocky wee pest, bundling Mio up from the bell and exuding rookie arrogance. Momono, meanwhile, knew exactly what she was doing and slapped it down, stamping on her toes and taking control of the match. At times, it almost felt like a training session, Mio letting Ai have a go before showing her how it’s done. You sensed that she wanted to give Houzan the space to breathe while also making sure she never got too big for her fancy new gear.
To be clear, I don’t want Ai to become the next Mio Momono. I’d much rather (cliche incoming) that she became the first Ai Houzan. However, if you’re picking a base to build off in 2022, there isn’t a better choice than Mio. Ai is learning at the feet of a wrestler I am happy to call the best in the world, and while matches like this show how far she has to go, they also prove that she’s doing a hell of a lot right.
Mei Suruga, Yuko Miyamoto & Isami Kodaka vs ChieDK (Chris Brookes, Masa Takanashi & Chie Kosihikawa), Chris Brookes Birthday Special (24/8/22), ChocoProLIVE!
As this match began, I like to imagine that somewhere on the other side of Tokyo, Hikari Noa had a shiver of unexplained excitement as her deathmatch senses told her that someone connected to TJPW had just debuted a pair of baggy trousers which, in the right light, might just look like deathmatch gear. Because yes, this is the match where Mei Suruga teamed up with two bigger boys, pulled on her yanki pants and tried to run CDK over with a scooter. Do I need to say anything else?
What made this work was the sense that Mei had unleashed something she couldn’t control. For Brookes’ birthday, she’d brought along Kodaka and Miyamoto to help her give the giraffe who has bullied her for so long a bit of a beating. And while that started great, and she was having fun cosplaying as a badass, it all went a bit off the rails when they started smoking in Ichigaya Square. At that point, rebel Mei vanished, and the Mei, who has a sense of self-preservation (and knows that Emi Sakura is watching), kicked in. There are lines you don’t cross, no matter how baggy your trousers might be.
Pom Harajuku vs Miyu Yamashita & Raku vs Yuka Sakazaki, Perfection (27/8/22), TJPW
TJPW have never been shy in embracing their nonsense division, but it seems like the last few weeks have seen them ramp up the extent to which they appreciate the contribution of Raku and Pom. I suspect the widespread adoration for Pom vs Max played a part in inspiring that, but they’ve deserved it for a while now. Those two have been working their arses off in the undercard, consistently putting on entertaining showings, no matter who they’re facing.
And it’s not that I expect either of them to headline Korakuens or regularly get marquee matches (although I wouldn’t complain if they did), but I do like to see their efforts getting appreciation, and giving them spots like this is a great way to do so. Matches with the Miyus and Yukas will always get attention, and the two of them making space for Raku and Pom’s worlds (albeit in very different ways) made it even better. TJPW doesn’t ask anyone to change based on who they’re facing but allows them to show how they can merge that style with the more ‘serious’ wrestling, which is how we end up with Miyu being infuriated into going full killer and Yuka beating Raku in her sleep.
It’s also an integral part of TJPW’s identity. They’re not the only promotion to embrace this stuff, but I think they’re one of the best at doing so, and it helps makes them them. In my mind, Pom and Raku are as important a part of that company as Miyu and Yuka, and while the vast majority might scoff at that, it’s nice that the people in charge appear to appreciate them as much as I do.
Everyone knows that the fans are an integral part of live wrestling, but I think people still sometimes oversimplify the impact they can have on a show. Yes, a hot or cold crowd can save or kill a match, but more so than that, the atmosphere coming off them can dictate the feel of the entire event. On this show, which was women only and where tickets were free, that atmosphere was joyous, which spread throughout the whole affair.
And you could tell the wrestlers were loving performing in front of them. I’m sure they adore their usual crowd too, but when these young women looked at that room of female faces, many of whom were kids or seeing them for the first time, they lit up. They saw people like them, looking up to them as heroes, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every match was brilliant. It inspired them to go out and give everything they had because they wanted these women and girls to return again and again.
I hope they do, too. I also hope that some are inspired to pull on a pair of boots themselves, something Yuka invited everyone in attendance to do after the show. For too long, joshi has been a scene primarily watched by people who look like me, and while I hope I don’t bring anything negative to it, plenty of men do, and having more women to counteract that can only be a good thing. Events like this are required to make them feel safe to do so, and if even a handful are convinced to come back the next time that TJPW is in Korakuen, then it will have done its job.
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