Lords of Pain is proud to present the July 2014 Column of the Month, by the now 6-Time winner and part of LOP Radio's Right Side of the Pond, 'Plan
July 2014 CotM: Just Business: The Match That Made Me Love Puroresu
Aug 17, 2014 - 10:35:50 AM
Just Business: The Match That Made Me Love Puroresu
Two syllables I have fallen in love with over the last few years.
Unfortunately, due to limitations on my time and on my resource, I cannot dedicate as much of my life as I would like to on those two syllables. I don’t know a great deal about any promotion that falls under the umbrella, though I would certainly like to. I can’t write about its history or its stars or its general make-up because I wouldn’t even know where to start. What I can tell you, though, is that I love puro.
There are many reasons why. I love the respect it deals in. I love the seriousness with which it considers itself. I love the physicality of it, I love the relentlessness of it and I love the impenitence of it. I think I love most of all that those attributes filter through into how it is received. I am unqualified to talk to you about whether it carries the same melodrama of Western pro wrestling, just as I am unqualified to tell you about whether or not it strives for similar story-telling to the promotions many of us watch every week. I cannot understand Japanese and therefore I cannot understand how puro is related to its audience. I can understand the work though. I can understand the meaning of it, as an audience member. I can learn from it just as easily as I can the more artistic work of WWE, or those promotions similar.
For those of you that don’t know me, or that do not read my work in the CF, you should know briefly that I approach professional wrestling slightly differently; I approach it, treat it, talk about it and analyse it specifically as performance art, not as simulated sport. To me – admittedly a rather poorly-read, lifelong WWE-centric fan – professional wrestling has evolved as an industry to a stage where its brightest future is in the potential to receive any given pro wrestling match in the same way you would a classic piece of literature or a historic reel of celluloid. Like all great art, professional wrestling matches can be examined for metaphor, for comment and for social history. At least, they can in WWE.
Understand at this juncture that, in the CF, I have made a name for myself over the last three years through my reviews of wrestling matches precisely because my approach is different, but when I won my sixth Columnist of the Month Award down in the Columns Forum I knew I wanted to write something different for my Main Page piece. Combining that element of my amateur column writing career here on LOP with my interest and love for puro I realised that the something different I wanted to do was to take a look at the match that made me fall in love with puroresu in the first place, and try my hat at reviewing it. Part of the intrigue for me in doing so was to discover whether or not professional wrestling on its literal physical level can cross language barriers. More importantly, though, I wanted to clarify in my own mind the essential differences between professional wrestling in the lands of the rising and setting sun.
KENTA vs. Naomichi Marufuji
GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship
World Junior Heavyweight Championship
Championship Unification Match
October 25th, 2008
I wrote above that I am not a well read pro wrestling fan. By that, what I mean is, while my knowledge of WWE is enough to qualify my opinions on that promotion in any guise, outside of the world’s most prominent wrestling promotion my knowledge is very limited indeed; especially when it comes to puroresu. It seems ironic to me, then, that the match that made me fall in love with what is ostensibly still now a world shrouded in mystery for me is one that is very much an opposite to me; this is well read professional wrestling at its brightest.
At sixty minutes long, one may be forgiven for being put off by its demand for commitment and attention. Certainly, to relatively young fans such as myself, who are so brutally conditioned to the more hyperactive modern style of the Western hemisphere, sixty minute matches are a rarity. Personal tastes dictate that I for one always thoroughly enjoy them – in many ways actively prefer them, in fact – but I do not think the same condition can be attributed to the mass pro wrestling audience this side of the globe. Iron Man matches in WWE, for example, are a rarity, and even when deployed will 99% of the time offer up a definitive winner, be it in the confines of those sixty minutes or in overtime. Not in this case; though I do not know if sixty minute time limit draws such as this are commonplace in the world of puroresu, I know that its chosen end result would be something vehemently avoided in more familiar promotions.
Unlike many of the aforementioned Iron Man matches however, this is not a match that struggles. There is no sense of special event here – at least beyond what it’s impeccable quality dictates anyway – and, even when watching now so many years after the fact and after my discovery of it, effortless is a word that still springs to mind. Such is another irony: though it seems both men take the high physical demands of a performance such as this well within their stride, and all rather comfortably, their performances themselves portray anything less than the effort of a lifetime.
I am essentially going the long way round to saying that this well read wrestling is composed by two dangerously informed professional wrestlers, whose knowledge of the sporting aspect is as startlingly impressive as the majority of their countrymen’s so often seems to be. It remains a refreshingly alien experience for a fan with my limited disposition to watch any wrestling match so inviting of variety because of the manner in which my tastes are conditioned on a weekly basis. To witness such varied content play out with relative normality essentially creates a great equaliser. It feels like a far less self-consciously structured form of the art, with less semantic importance placed on some of the moves deployed. That is to say, it remains clear that finishing moves are still finishing moves, but they’re not so garishly marked out as meaning so much more than everything that preceded them. It is through the more substantive content that the subconscious semantic merit of every offensive manoeuvre utilised is either lessened or increased, with a much smaller differential across the board between the kinds of moves fans like me are so often tempted to categorise with labels such as transitional, signature or finishing. All of these factors allow the bigger moves to stand out naturally, simply by virtue, without necessarily needing the artificial support of a label generated by post-modern thinking; a big kick feels as likely to end the bout as a GTS or Busaiku Knee, or a big spot to the outside or gruesome submission.
Such a level playing field therefore generates a greater sense of patience in the narrative, which is perhaps what makes the sixty minute story arc feel so effortless. The action is more of a prolonged weathering than a disjointed tempest, where submissions and strikes, no matter how simple or extravagant, feel designed more to bruise muscle than tear it. The approach is cumulative, leading to an intrinsically more intriguing, exhausting, gritty and, yes, realistic ride. The drama is therefore far more organic, even more unpredictable, and certainly less reliant on the self-conscious bad habits many other professional wrestlers – and almost every wannabe fan analyst – have developed in recent years. Thus, when there is a heavy use of finishing moves in the final few minutes of this epic, the match avoids the desensitised doldrums that bouts like The Rock vs. John Cena suffered from at Wrestlemania 29, and the reason for that is the action actively dissuades you from “smart” thinking. You’re not sat thinking, “Man, I wish they’d not have to use so many finishers to get the crowd interested.” You’re simply thinking, “Man, this could end at any minute!” It sounds simple, and an obvious objective, but from someone writing in the unique position of a fan largely unaware of puro trappings, the difference is a marked one.
As mentioned, realism is the most essential result of all this, but what struck me as remarkable was the extent to which that realism is micro-managed in order to make the slog that much more affecting and, coupled with the characteristic strength of the style, legitimate. Not only can you hear the smack of skin on skin with every strike, but even on the otherwise theatrically demanding submissions you can almost see joints pop; every yank and wrench is as enthusiastic as the rest, all visually striking enough to make you wince feverishly. Yet, even in the face of such careful attention to detail, there is a noticeable absence of melodrama throughout. Every time a participant crawls for the ropes, the crawl is methodical but no less paining. Adherence to the rules is rarely, if ever, circumnavigated simply for effect or a momentary reaction. Even count-out breaks, always left perilously close, go unimpeded by the man with the advantage and happen without any flailing or over-acting.
On the simplest level, it does of course help that the execution is, from start to finish, utterly pristine. From ring positioning, to timing, to delivery, there is rarely any example of miscommunication. Impressively, the high standard is maintained throughout too. Sequences are no less choreographed, expedient, acrobatic or precise as the bout progresses, and exchanges spliced together in the fortieth, fiftieth and sixtieth minute are as capably played out as those we witness in the first ten. There are a number of moments too that see the story unravel as the sort of mental chess game more familiar promotions often aim at accomplishing in their own compositions, but there’s none of the weird telegraphing or slightly off timing. Every spot is executed with literally dazzling speed and precision, evoking a naturalistic portrayal of gut instinct. Essentially, the action plays out as entirely improvisational – and again, here is another irony – because of its surgical choreography.
It is important to realise also that, again 99% of the time at least, movement around their environment is dictated primarily by the action, not the other way round. When ring positioning alters, it is because one man is about to either land a move or is directly setting up for his next. “No wasted motion” is a phrase often deployed, rarely accurately, but here it is never truer. There are no strolls around ringside in the name of character, or leading one man down the aisle for five minutes to insert some unfeasible high spot into events. There is instead a tapestry of realism, a dance of legitimacy, which means the action never appears to lull for you as the viewer. You remain engaged, enticed, on the edge of your seat and, crucially in the face of its general methodical tempo, never bored; an accomplishment even more impressive to say a huge swathe of the story is as one-sided as the maligned boredom of Lesnar/’Taker was at Wrestlemania XXX. Perhaps that was a bout that would have benefitted by taking a cue from puro efforts such as this.
Another part of your perennial engagement stems from a very clever trick the two men are able to pull off on various occasions throughout their discourse in the ring. Emphasis is as often born from when they don’t move and from when moves don’t connect than it is when they do. These two athletes are clearly masters of the tease many lesser American performers only know how to get out of ten minutes of false finish. It examples an artist’s grasp on knowing that sometimes more is said precisely because nothing is, and that when everyone is shouting no-one is heard. KENTA and Marufuji will tease you and not deliver. Then they’ll make sure to tease you and deliver in a way you weren’t necessarily expecting. Their approach isn’t apparently to craft their own complex psychology as it is to simply bully yours, as the viewer, by toying with it.
Perhaps what helps on that front is that, for a fan completely unaware of context in this instance, solely through the physical action there is no clearly identifiable moral divide. I am unable, using definitions of the terms as I have come to know them be used, figure out if either man is playing the part of the babyface or the heel specifically. Whether that is an accurate observation or not is for someone else to tell me, but I think it helps in an odd way. Instead of a morality play, there is a competitive atmosphere. Marufuji comes off as the more cerebral of the two, but KENTA is allowed to look tougher and grittier by virtue of his prolonged disadvantage through the central, naturally emphasised portion of this physical parable. Such an even playing field means the eventual ending – a tie – is nothing if not fitting. The final act feels very much designed to portray both men as equals, particularly during a prolonged sequence that sees both competitors assault the other with their stiffest shots, though neither falls; they both waver a little, but neither falls. It is as aggressively unrelenting as the very style of which these men are masters, with the story portraying an utter stalemate in the climactic moments. Any sense of progression fades, replaced instead with desperate clamour, where drama is again as much born from stillness than from the action.
Let it be said outright then: this is a masterful match. There are moments where the speed and precision are hard to keep up with, others where the stillness is just as striking; indeed, there’s some irony again for you: caution expressed through expediency. The stiff strikes are complimented by rigid submission work, and the switches between both are for more regular than you may find in promotions closer to home. So the match weaves, bounces and plateaus, but all without seeming to exert any more energy than is necessary. Sequences and exchanges of offense are fluid, liquid almost, reading as more calligraphic than the sometimes robotic functionality I am used to. Though for all its superlative achievement, it is nevertheless an approach marked by its subdued sadism, performed with clinical precision and peppered with high points that explode through the narrative like hand-grenades in a glass house; Marufuji’s moonsault from the ring apron straight into the second row is one such hugely impressive moment.
This is as real as professional wrestling gets. That means the drama feels real, which means the crowd response – theirs, yours and mine – is real. So the stakes matter and, therefore, so does the match; a match designed to wither more than it is to entertain, with masochism at its heart and sadism in its intention.
You will have to forgive my gushing, dear reader. I had only seen the match once before prior to my watching it for the purpose of this column, and that had been some years ago. I had forgotten how awe-inducing an effort it was, and how utterly dumbstruck it left me after its conclusion. I do not know if it is the best indicator of puro’s approach, or the Japanese pro wrestling philosophy; I may never know how representative it is of those things. I do know it is what made me fall in love with puro though, and I do know it is what made me want to check out more of it. So I do, where I can, and though my exposure is limited I consider myself a better pro wrestling fan for it. If you check some out yourself, you may just find the same.
Or maybe you already do, in which case I doff my cap and say simply, “Be sure to teach someone else and spread the word.” And the word is: inspiring.