During my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 I had great interest in Joshi pro-wrestling but only a little familiarity. Ice Ribbon is a favorite promotion of the friends I was traveling with (and would become one of mine as well), and as such we were scheduled to see several of their shows. I was already a big fan of Tsukasa Fujimoto via her appearance in Shimmer, but was unfamiliar with the rest of the roster. The very first show I saw in Japan was an Ice Ribbon dojo show on 12/19/15, and among a really fun night and a talented crew all around, reigning champion Aoi Kizuki made a particularly strong impression.
Her natural charisma and unique moveset, including her impressive top rope moves where she spins on a vertical axis rather than a horizontal one, gave her an immediately engaging presence. She was naturally friendly when I got to talk to her post show too with an enthusiasm that’s infectious, and overall was one of the big parts of that first trip getting off to a great start for me.
I saw her wrestle five times during trip (including an appearance at Wave), with her biggest and best match being in the main event of Ribbonmania 2015 where she lost the Ice Cross Infinity title to Hamuko Hoshi. I was a bit disappointed at the switch, but clearly understood in retrospect a few days later at the 1/3/16 dojo show when Aoi announced her “graduation” from Ice Ribbon to go freelance after 10 years. The timing was pretty wild, as I just barely got introduced to her at Ice Ribbon before she left.
Custom Funko Pop made of/for Aoi.
When I returned the following year Aoi was primarily wrestling at Oz Academy, who generally doesn’t run during the holidays, so my chances to see her were quite limited. Over that 2016/2017 holiday trip I was supposed to see her wrestle only twice times, and some unfortunate trouble finding the venue for a Diana show brought it down to a single time, at Gatoh Move’s Christmas Eve show at Itabashi Green Hall. The good news was that in that one match she was once again main eventing a show I was at with a title defense, and her & Sayaka Obihiro against Riho & Kotori was a great, quick paced and hard hitting contest. Although I did start joking at the time that I only ever seemed to come to see Aoi lose titles. :p
While that was the only match of hers I saw, Aoi also had a Christmas event that year I attended. It was a fun evening of singing and photos and me struggling to parse Japanese. ^_^; One really cool thing was Aoi talking about her goals and expressing a wish to wrestle in the US, a wish that would come true the following November at Shimmer’s Fall weekend taping in Chicago.
I adore Shimmer and was really happy for Aoi’s debut. She had a strong debut match in a against the newly proclaimed “Joshi Gatekeeper” Mia Yim despite coming up short, showed off her aforementioned unique offense and enthusiasm in a pair of establishing wins over Veda Scott (who Aoi had worked with in Japan) and Chelsea Green in decent affairs, and teamed with a returning Joshi (and Shimmer mainstay) Hiroyo Matsumoto against Chelsea and her tag partner Britt Baker (known as Fire & Nice) to finish the weekend. The tag match was largely comedy, allowing the four to play around a bit with a lot of antics centered around Hiroyo’s Godzilla mask. Aoi seemed to be having a blast and was really excited about being there, which was wonderful to see.
During the 2017/2018 holidays I saw Aoi at Ichigaya for the first time in a amusing comedy match against Antonio Honda in which they were trying to “recreate” a Kagami mochi by getting a hat that looked like mochi onto Obi’s head (Obi was sitting apparently passively in a corner of the mat), then whoever placed an orange on top of the hat to complete it would win. As ridiculous as it sounds. I was then lucky enough to make a trip to back Japan this Spring for the wedding of two dear friends of mine. I’d see Honda and Aoi together again, this time as partners for Gatoh Move’s Go Go Green Curry Cup mixed tag tournament against Emi Sakura & Masahiro Takanashi. These comedy heavy matches were a bit different than the previous matches I’d seen of Aoi’s (as was the unique and fantastic “high speed” 6 woman tag I saw her in at SEAdLINNNG), but were highly enjoyable none-the-less and it was cool seeing her clearly having a blast.
During that Spring trip, and just a few days before fellow Joshi Mika Iida’s retirement show, Aoi announced her own retirement show titled “Final Happy” for October 7th. At the time I had no plans to be back in Japan until the December holidays, so managed to add in a Pure-J show on May 6th, to perhaps see Aoi wrestle one last time. She was involved in a surprisingly fun gauntlet battle royal, but as it turns out it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her after all.
I am extremely fortunate to have been able to arrange to come back to see Aoi’s final show, and the lead up was equally wonderful. Given how I initially became a fan of hers, it was particularly great to see her return to Ice Ribbon for a series of events this summer, and Ice Ribbon was among the companies that hosted a final appearance for Aoi during the week I was here before her retirement show. Not only was it a joy to see her last shows for Ice Ribbon, Pure-J, Wave, and Gatoh Move, but after some of the sparse appearance trips I’ve had the last couple years just seeing her wrestle so many times in general before she finished up was a special treat. I even missed a couple shows she was on due to other commitments, so Aoi’s schedule was certainly packed.
Aoi’s self-produced retirement show was on October 7th, 2018 at Shinjuku FACE. In the main event Aoi teamed Riho & Mei Suruga against Emi Sakura, Hikaru Shida, & Makoto. It was a perfect way to finish up and a nice tribute to her trainer (Sakura) and other wrestlers she had a long history with. The sole exception was Mei, a rookie who became Aoi’s tag partner and seemingly something of protege since her debut this spring. Mei’s already incredible for her experience level and seems to have big things ahead of her. The fact that Aoi ended up having her final singles match against Mei on October 5th (and put the rookie over to boot) and included her in this main event illustrates how close they became. In a particularly sweet gesture, Aoi gave Mei her rainbow “wings” from her entrance gear. Mei’s excitement about it as she wore them not only for this match but at Gatoh Move later in the day was clear and contagious.
The match was great and an appropriate end cap for Aoi’s career. Emi Sakura, bad back and all, gave 110% to give her former trainee a proper farewell throughout the match and busted out a freakin’ 450 to pin Aoi to end it. All of Aoi’s trademarks were also on display, including one more glimpse of her rare, incredible spinning top rope splash. Fun, emotional stuff from bell to bell.
The post show retirement ceremony was likewise emotional and a treat to be at. All in all it was a wonderful, bittersweet, and fitting show see Aoi off.
Although I’m sad to see her go, Aoi had a great 13 year career and I’m really happy I had the opportunity to say goodbye to her in person and wish her well. Whatever the future after wrestling holds for her I hope life is happy for the Happy Maker.