Japan Trip 2016: Top 10 Matches Part 1 (Live)

Like last year, I was lucky enough to spend two and a half weeks in Tokyo to close out 2016 / start 2017. During this trip I saw 12 shows from 7 promotions with 71 matches featuring 148 wrestlers.

Slightly less shows and matches than the first trip, but interestingly because of adding in NJPW Wrestle Kingdom (with it’s 11 matches and entirely filled with wrestlers I wouldn’t otherwise see during my Joshi-centric schedule) I actually saw a few more different wrestlers this time.

Here’s a breakdown of matches by company: Gatoh Move: 14 matches, Ice Ribbon: 19 matches, Marvelous: 6 matches, New Japan Pro Wrestling: 11 matches, Pro Wrestling Wave: 8 matches, Tokyo Joshi Pro: 7 matches, and World Wonder Ring Stardom: 6 matches.

Happily, once again the vast majority of what I saw was extremely good. So it was VERY difficult to choose my favorite matches. In fact, things were so close this year I’m doing a Top 10 instead of 5. Even then there are still a lot of worthy wrestlers and matches that won’t be mentioned here, and the order is highly subject to change.

Match reviews copied / modified from my show specific blogs when possible/appropriate.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how many rookies made this list. I did a spotlight on several of them, all of which have bright futures ahead. Check it out here.

This entry will cover honorable mentions and #6-10.

 

Honorable mentions:

Survival Ribbon – Ice Ribbon 1/3/17 

Ice Ribbon’s entire 1/3/17 event gets a mention here, as everything was connected and the appeal was in the whole concept and execution rather than an individual match. Two teams of six were formed, split based on time in IR, with opposite team members randomly paired off in singles matches with the winners advancing to a tag main event. The atmosphere was incredible, with both teams at ringside cheering their side vocally and some fun pairings. Fantastic themed show.

 

Kairi Hojo vs Nana SuzukiStardom 12/22/16

In her debut match model Nana Suzuki got to get in the ring against one of Stardom’s aces, Kairi Hojo, in a singles contest. Nana actually played her role as an overmatched but determined underdog well and the match was quite good. Kairi rightly dominated most of this, but the story was well told and Nana got the crowd behind her comeback spots. Nana seems like she could make the transition and wrestle regularly if she wants to.

 

Misaki Ohata 10th Anniversary Match: Misaki Ohata & Mayumi Ozaki  vs Hiroyo Matsumoto & DASH Chisako – Wave 1/2/29/16

As no Sendai Girls shows fit my schedule, it was a real treat to see Dash chosen to be a part of this match (which I was already excited for as Misaki’s a favorite of mine) and thus give me one opportunity to see her wrestle. This was a fitting and fun “tribute” match.  All four wrestlers were clearly enjoying themselves, particularly Misaki having an absolute blast playing heel alongside Ozaki.

 

Top 10:

10. Ice Cross Infinity Title Tournament Finals: Tsukasa Fujimoto vs Risa Sera – Ice Ribbon 12/31/16

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Technically speaking, I thought this was a great match. It would likely be even higher on the list if not for the atmosphere and lack of crowd heat, as I thought it was pretty much the epitome of the “wrong match for the wrong crowd.” More specifically, it was the wrong match for the story they chose to tell.

It was instead exactly the match they should have had under the original trajectory of Tsukka’s title reign. This match would have been PERFECT as the end of Tsukka plowing through everyone else on a quest to best her own defense record just to run into a determined Risa dead set on proving she could reclaim her title from the woman who dethroned her.

However without Tsukka’s streak still in tact to add drama and uncertainty not one person in arena bought a Tsukka win here. The tournament was sold on the possibility of the unexpected, which made a back and forth contest between determined rivals the wrong framework for the finals. Both competitors should have been conveying desperation here (or better yet someone else should have advanced to face Risa, or the whole tourney been skipped). All that said, the wrestling itself again was great. And this will likely play better on disc.

 

9. Gatoh Move Tag Team Championship: Aoi & Obi (c) v Riho & KotoriGatoh Move 12/24/16

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Aoi is a personal favorite of mine, and this was unfortunately the only chance I had to see her wrestle this trip. Thankfully though it was a main event match in with three other excellent wrestlers, and as such was great.

Both teams were sharp and this was exactly the quick paced, hard hitting main event it should have been. Kotori having a bit of a chip on her shoulder and something to prove was a nice undercurrent, and Riho and Aoi had some fantastic exchanges down the stretch.

 

8. Team REINA (Makoto, Mari Sakamoto, & Hirori) vs Team Gatoh Move (Emi Sakura, Aasa Maika, & Mitsuru Konno) – Gatoh Move 12/24/16

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This 6-woman tag was elimination style, with over-the-top rules in addition to pin/submission. Interesting set up here, with Gatoh Move’s founder and two of her trainees against Reina’s reigning Champion (who was also GM’s IWA Triple Crown Championship) and two of hers. I’d of course seen Emi and Makoto last trip, and also saw Mari when she came to New York with Syuuri last year. Hirori, Aasa, and Mitsuru were all new to me.

The story of the match was phenomenal, with both teams showing real desire to prevail in the inter-promotional contest. The seconds on the outside for each team were visibly engaged and cheering their promotion, which really added to the atmosphere and the sense of something important being at stake here, even if it was just bragging rights.

 

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The action was great too, with everyone looking sharp, things going back and forth nicely, building drama around the eliminations, etc. Makoto’s presence and mannerisms as a cocky heel were several levels better than what I saw of her in a babyface role last year. Aasa got a nice spotlight at the end being the last member of her team left trying to topple Makoto before coming up just short, and her ring style as a pint-sized powerhouse suits her extremely well. I’d like to see more of Mitsuru too in the future, as she looked quite good in the little time she had before being the first elimination.

 

7. 7-Way: Hiroe Nagahama vs Kyuuri vs Maika Ozaki vs Mio Momono vs 235 vs Tequila Saya vs Uno Matsuya – Ice Ribbon 12/31/16

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This was originally scheduled to be a six-woman tag match, but shortly before the event Mio Momono was added to the match and it became a 7-way contest where eliminations could happen by pin, submission, or being thrown over the top rope to the floor. I’d been at Mio’s pro wrestling debut in NYC as well as seeing her in a fantastic opening contest at Marvelous’ Christmas Eve show (more on that later 😉 ), so was quite excited for her Ice Ribbon debut.

It was an extremely fortuitous change, as they really made the most of the format and this was much more interesting than IR’s traditional random 6-man would have been. EVERYONE got a chance to shine at various points, including Ozaki showing off her strength with a double torture rack, innovative multi-person moves and pin attempts, and an incredible sequence where Uno was thrown to the apron and went crazy trying to stay in the match running halfway around the ring on the apron while everyone inside tried to knock her off. The effort from all seven wrestlers was phenomenal, and they really got the crowd fired up for several sequences.

Excellent match overall, and one of my favorites of my trip. In the end Saya got to look strong somewhat surprisingly hanging in until the final two competitors, but the expected (and rightful) wrestler won when Kyuuri pinned her with the Fisherman suplex. Great showings for all involved. Really hope to see Mio continue to wrestle in IR.

 

6. Emi Sakura, Sayaka Obihiro, & Mitsuru Konno vs Riho, Kotori, & Aasa Maika  – Gatoh Move 12/31/17

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This was my favorite Gatoh Move dojo match of the trip. Obviously they all know each other extremely well and have great chemistry together, which led to an thoroughly exciting contest with innovative multi person spots and use of the venue. Riho’s double knees to an opponent seated against the wall looks so vicious.

Towards the end Emi and Kotori tumbled out of the window into my (hastily vacated) seat. Kotori held Emi outside to prevent her from making a save as Riho pinned Misturu. Little things like that are excellent uses of the uniqueness of the environment.

 

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I  was blessed to have such a great opportunity to visit Japan and see so much phenomenal wrestling. I hope you’ve enjoyed my look at some of the best of the best. Will be back with Part 2 featuring my top 5.

Hellequin: With Silent Screams Review

“Sure, do you have a plan?”
“No, I was hoping you did.”
“Excellent. This should be fun then.”

With Silent Screams is Nathan Garret’s third adventure. It’s a complete story on its own and does a good job of explaining the key concepts and characters, but tons of significance and context would be lost without knowing Nate’s background first. Best to not start here – go back to Crimes Against Magic (book 1). Also see my review for Born of Hatred (book 2).

 

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An old friend’s murder throws Nate into a long battle of move and counter move all connected to a series of grizzly murders he helped investigate thirty years ago. The care and expertise with which McHugh plays with and builds off of these cliched starting points makes With Silent Screams an incredible ride and easily the best of the Hellequin series thus far. The pace is breakneck without glossing over anything or losing the reader and a fantastic level of tension and intrigue permeates the book.

One of the best things abut this installment is the flashbacks and current time are equally interesting. Don’t know is McHugh is just finding a better balance, if the proximity to current day of the flashbacks helps, or if it’s because of how completely the stories are intertwined. Probably all three. The net effect is that I didn’t experience the slight drag the previous books had whenever going to the past timeline.

Although did I notice on rereading the previous two books I was more invested in those past events than the first time through, and in this one knowing how things would turn out took just a little of the reading urgency away. All three held up very well overall though and I’m glad to discover I’ll enjoy revisiting these, likely regularly.

The supporting cast is developing wonderfully and there are both great new additions and reappearances from old favorites. The mythos is expanding naturally and logically and everything from the magic system to the way various mythological figures coexist is compelling and engrossing.

Overall this third Hellequin novel brings the already strong series up several notches and builds great momentum for future books. Highly recommended.

Hellequin: Born of Hatred Review

This is Nathan Garret’s second adventure. It’s a complete story on its own, but does build off of events in Crimes Against Magic (book 1). Better to start there.

 

Nathan Garrett’s former identity is dead and buried. But when a case he takes for a friend recalls elements of one from his past involving an evil even Hellequin had trouble with, Nate might need the edge and ruthlessness he once had.

 

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This second installment if the Hellequin series is slightly more straight forward than the first, with fewer surprises and more full blown exposition. However the disparate mythologies blend even better here and a great batch of new characters carry things along nicely. We find out more about Nate’s world, the different creatures that inhabit it, and the societal structures that go along with it all. I really like how things are developing in a world building sense.

The past admittedly still somehow drags compared to the present despite a lot of action and danger. It does pick up eventually and everything comes together nicely in the end but it is a small mark against the book as it’s roughly divided in half between past and present and one is far more interesting than the other. Overall it feels very different from Crimes Against Magic, but I enjoyed Born of Hatred just as much and it continued to establish Hellequin as one of my favorite series.

 

Hellequin: Crimes Against Magic Review

In early 1400’s France a wandering warrior with Chinese weapons faces werewolves among a massacred city. In present day Southampton a thief with no past and a secret talent for magic charms his way through heists and carefully deals with the dangerous family ties of his associates.

 

 

If it sounds like I’m describing the premises of two different books I understand – that’s how I felt reading for a majority of Crimes Against Magic. The two parallel tales are connected of course, but the general atmosphere and tone was so different the switching back and forth was somewhat jarring. The past timeline also became much less compelling than the present during the middle of the book. Despite plenty of action and solid plot progression it still seemed to primarily exist for exposition.

I’m mentioning this all up front because it’s directly connected to trying to give an idea of what the book is about and is worthwhile criticism to mention. I don’t want to give the wrong idea though – Crimes Against Magic rises above these small issues and is a pretty great read overall.

A large part of that success is due to a variety of engaging and intriguing characters, particularly our narrator Nathan Garrett. He has as much to learn about himself and the strangeness of his world as he already knows, but he’s experienced enough to make things interesting even when in over his head. McHugh gives even minor characters little touches of depth that add significantly to the narrative and connection with the reader.

Like with the characters and some general plot elements, the world building take familiar elements from various genres and combines and uses them to great effect in unique ways. Concepts and folklore are pulled from some many sources there are almost too many mythologies and creatures blended in, but as it all connects logically and is tightly connected to the plot and characters it ends up working well.

One last thing I’d like to praise is the storytelling. Mysteries are unraveled gradually and with careful precision. My favorite type of book is one that foreshadows enough that I piece together some of the major developments from provided hints but still manages to surprise me. I got both here in abundance, including a couple of wonderfully shocking turns and a strong ending that have me very excited about continuing with the series.

So while it does feel at times that the author tried to fit a little too much in one book, I really enjoyed Crimes Against Magic and it’s an easy recommendation for any fan of urban fantasy.

Japan Cuts 2017: Over the Fence Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and is ran through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here and on last year’s starting here. This year I’ve previously seen and reviewed Mumon, Tokyo Idols, and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue.

 

Divorcé Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) has settled into days spent at a vocational school learning carpentry as part of his unemployment benefits agreement. When a fellow student invites him out to pitch something better, an unusual bar hostess (mating) dances into his awareness.

 

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Over the Fence is another adaptation of Yasushi Sato’s short stories of the northern port city of Hakodate. I’ve previously seen one of the other two, The Light Shines Only There, which was one of my favorite films of 2015’s Japan Cuts. This is another story about two broken people coming together, but it feels quite different. We learn less about what causes the leads’ character flaws here, and the situations and personalities involved are simultaneously more low key and stranger. It also seems a bit lighter overall, despite heavy themes and volatile dramatic scenes.  The humor’s well integrated and the acting superb, particularly from both leads. Yu Aoi (playing the eccentric Satoshi Tamura) has numerous intense and/or weird scenes and traits to convey, and her devotion and skill in doing so makes even absurd spectacles like her frequent recreating of bird mating dances captivating.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t quite do justice to her masterful performance. More background was needed for Satoshi to help explain her point of view and actions. It wasn’t enough to demonstrate that she’s (partially) crazy, that she knows it, and it deeply bothers her (all of which were done quite explicitly and appropriately).  Some context was needed as to how she got to that point for the conflicts between her and Yoshio to resonate properly, and to make her a fully formed character instead of being defined by a single, negative characteristic (even if it manifests in a few different ways). What should have been powerful scenes often seem like weirdness and conflict for its own sake. Aoi did an amazing job with what she was given, but the plot let her character down.

The core story and its unique perspective were interesting, the acting excellent, and the key scenes filled with emotion. But there are some slow parts, and again the film’s main weakness is not giving the viewers enough background to truly connect to the characters and empathize with their struggles. As such this was a decent movie that could have been great with tweaks to the pacing and writing.

 

Actor Joe Odagira received Japan Cut’s Cut Above award before the screening and had a Q&A afterwards. The questions were varied this time, with honestly a lot of stuff that would have been more appropriate to ask a director, not the lead actor. He broke out laughing a couple of times as he tried to process what he was being asked, but generally responded well and made the most of each to say something interesting (or at least a polite acknowledgement, as in a gracious response to someone who raised their hand to complain about the editing).

 

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I’ll be back later with thoughts on two more films from this year’s festival.

Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery Review

“How do you solve your own murder when you are the only suspect?”

 

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David Bagini thinks he’s a homicide detective who just woke up on a strange planet and is not particularly fond of clones or clone contracts. It actuality he’s the 42nd clone of David, created from a sample years old, who’s been given life for one reason: to find his original’s killer.

Prime Suspects is a neat blend of science fiction, mystery and police procedural. The world Bernheimer set up is imaginative and captivating, with long lines of clones of exceptional people acting as a type of indentured servant. David Forty-Two’s struggle to learn about the society he now lives in and his expected role is wonderfully told and nicely balanced with a suspenseful, twisting investigation.

I’m a big fan of all the genres touched upon in Prime Suspects, and really enjoyed the way they were blended. Add in an engrossing story, solid writing and unique characters and ideas and it’s an extremely interesting and compelling read.

 

Hellequin: Promise of Wrath Review

This is Nathan Garret’s sixth adventure. It’s a complete story on its own, but several long running plotlines are coming together in this penultimate book in the series. Do not start here – go back to Crimes Against Magic (book 1).

 

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The former and once again Hellequin, Nate Garrett, has gathered allies to respond to impending events that would threaten the balance of power in Avalon. His enemies have careful plans though, and things never go quite as Nate intends.

As usual for the the Hellequin series Promise of Wrath goes back and forth between the present and related events in Nate’s past. Various schemes of Nate’s enemies are building to a crescendo so there are a lot of important developments and reveals in all of the various times and places featured. Several long running themes and story threads come together here, as appropriate for the series’ penultimate adventure.

I found Promise of Wrath to be a bit of a return to form for the series after the last installment (Lies Ripped Open). That book was ok overall, but it felt a bit stagnant as well as ending with a development I didn’t care for at all in the context of the series. The plot recovers nicely here, with said development actually leading to unexpected and intriguing story points. I hope things continue in this vein in the final book rather than going with the climax I expected.

There are still a multitude of things to explain and deal with in the remaining book, but McHugh’s juggled a lot in each installment so far and I feel like he should be able to bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion. Looking forward to it and I hope things don’t run out of steam as this highly enjoyable series wraps up.