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Japan Wrestling

“I really think… wrestling was fun” : Farewell to Mitsuru Konno

“Gatoh Move is a company I enjoyed a lot and immediately became a big fan of during my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 / early 2016. When I returned a year later the first show I saw of theirs had an interesting interpromotional 6-woman tag team match featuring respective veterans of REINA and Gatoh Move Makoto and Emi Sakura teaming with rookies from their promotions.

Emi’s partners were both new to me, and made an immediate positive impression. One was Mitsuru Konno, just a couple of months from her debut, who was eliminated first yet had a striking aura about her and has since become an absolute favorite of mine.”

I wrote the above words two years ago to open my look back on the career of Aasa Maika in the wake of her retirement, and they are perhaps even more fitting to preface this piece written in light of Mitsuru’s own retirement announcement.

I mentioned shortly after that trip that Mitsuru already projected a distinct no-nonsense aura in the way she carried herself in the ring that nicely complimented her intense strikes and smooth holds. She made an immediate impression through the few matches I saw of hers with under six months experience and became an instant favorite of mine, which she remained.

It was a treat to see her skills further develop and the following year I was lucky to see Mitsuru in longer and more challenging contests against veterans including excellent showings against Gatoh’s ace Riho, the incredible Masahiro Takanashi and Gatoh’s founder / Mitsuru’s trainer herself Emi Sakura. Mitsuru’s determination and fire in the face of stronger opponents was always apparent and made her matches truly engaging.

I was back in Japan during Spring of 2018 for the wedding of some dear friends of mine. During that trip I was able to see Gatoh Move’s annual mixed tag team Go Go Green Curry Koppun Cup tournament for the first time. The show was a delight, with a field of excellent matches of different styles, great booking, and incredible action. The tone was set right away with the first match of the tournament seeing Riho & Golem Thai vs Mitsuru & Sawasdee Kamen in a fantastic display of everything intergender wrestling can be. I adored the match and Mitsuru was continually pushing herself and wrested like someone with much more experience than she had.

For that first match teaming with Sawasdee as the Heroes, Mitsuru got fully into the superhero spirit and came to the ring in a great mask styled like Sawasdee’s but incorporating her crane motif.

A few days before the 5/4/18 show Mitsuru had announced on Twitter that replica’s of her mask, made by the original mask maker (the incredible Demonio Blanco / Bacchanales Tokyo), were available for special order. I put in an order but expected to have to pick it up during my next trip (whenever that ended up being). In a wonderful, greatly appreciated gesture a point was made of finishing it so it could be delivered before I returned home and Mitsuru surprised me with it after the show. It’s a wonderful keepsake of amazing quality and a centerpiece addition to my collection, and will be a treasured memento.

As a final fantastic bit of amusement, Mitsuru had her own mask with her and had us both wear them when I got a pic with her later on, then signed with “we are heroes!” It was fun to a be a sidekick for a moment.

Mitsuru’s matches continued to be a highlight of the shows I saw, and constantly became more varied in both style and concept. I saw her in things such as Akki’s first intergender singles match (1/2/19), a delightful tag match that saw Riho & Hagane Shinnou play the villains to her Heroes team (1/13/19), a shot at TropikaWild’s Asia Dream Tag Team Championship, and so on. The intensity she brought to everything she did was amazing, and her holds kept looking more and more vicious and her strikes more and more brutal every time out.

For a majority of Gatoh Move’s existence, their clear ace and star was Riho. In Spring of 2019 it was announced that she would be leaving to go freelance in early July. The landscape of Gatoh changed dramatically after her departure and the subsequent debut of six rookies from Sakura’s casual training program DareJyo.

Mei Suruga and Yuna Mizumori, both with under a year and a half of experience, suddenly became senior to half the roster. In the same instant at around three years of experience Mitsuru immediately went from being fourth senior out of six on the roster to third out of eleven, and often effectively second after Gatoh’s founder and near twenty-five year veteran Emi Sakura (as Sayaka Obihiro was sporadically out with injury).

Mitsuru Konno PSC by Juri H. Chinchilla.

In addition to being great to see all the new rookies in action, it was interesting to see the effects of the new dynamics when I went back to Japan in December 2019. Gatoh Move had not only survived but thrived in new ways, and the importance of Mitsuru, Mei, and Yuna as pillars of the company were apparent. Mitsuru and Mei main evented Gatoh’s year end show at Shinkiba 1st Ring in a battle of wrestlers trying to prove their place as the new ace. This had been built to wonderfully, with Mei consistently having a bit of an edge on Mitsuru despite having less experience. A few days prior the two battled to a draw in an intense tag match (Mitsuru & Rin Rin vs Mei & Actwres Girlz’ Saki). 

The big match featured excellent work all around from both, and the underlying story of Mei trying to outlast and outmaneuver an angry, driven Mitsuru was pitch perfect. They took advantage of the spotlight and this was seen as a strong indication of a bright future ahead of Gatoh Move. I was thrilled (as well as a bit surprised) to see Mitsuru finally get a big win, and it felt every bit deserved.

Four days after her victory Mitsuru faced another big challenge in the form of a singles match against Chris Brookes. It was all about Mitsuru’s fire and defiance as a counter to Chris’ size advantage, including her unloading at various points with heavy, vicious strikes. I adored the inventive submissions and counters from both that anchored the match throughout, and Mitsuru got a chance to really shine against a stronger opponent and looked fantastic even in defeat.

Both Mitsuru vs Mei and her battle with Chris were among my favorite matches of the year and are well worth seeking out.

That trip got both derailed and extended a bit due to me coming down with the flu around New Year’s. I was lucky enough that after I recovered (and after Mitsuru herself returned from some time out sick) I was able to catch one last live Gatoh Move show with her on it right before I left. It was a tag match that saw Mitsuru team with rookie Tokiko Kirihara to face the dominant Hyakuen Thunders (Emi Sakura & Masahiro Takanashi). Mitsuru & Tokiko were a good team featuring complimentary styles, and it was great seeing them get to mix it up with the veteran team. I of course didn’t know it at the time, but that match would turn out to be the last time I got to see Mitsuru wrestle live. 

Mitsuru was always incredibly friendly and happy to meet with fans. She introduced new things like her “cheers chekis” as an add on for Gatoh Move’s usually available mini-polaroids with wrestlers where fans would receive a beer and all drink a toast together with Mitsuru (which could also be filmed, another cool unusual detail). While undoubtedly primarily driven by her love of beer, this was also another cool little way to connect and celebrate with fans.

Mitsuru also works at Swandive, one of the bars run by the wrestling promotion DDT (that Gatoh Move regulars Takanashi and Antonio Honda work for), and will continue to do so after her retirement from competition. Swandive is an awesome little bar and I had a great time there the couple of visits I was able to make.

In most cases, this would be around where I’d be wrapping up my personal look back with a quick look at the subject’s last match. But 2020 has been an unusual year, and while last January was the last time I saw Mitsuru wrestle live there’s still a bit to talk about along the way.

Covid restrictions obviously had an extreme effect on wrestling, as with the rest of the world. Faced with a home venue far too small to have a crowd under such conditions, Emi Sakura started ChocoPro at the end of March as a new effort to bring live wrestling from Ichigaya to fans all over the world, specifically tailored to the unique opportunities of wrestling without an audience. It also varies from Gatoh Move in that it’s more a complete intergender promotion (as opposed to Gatoh being a Joshi promotion with frequent male wrestler guests).

In the relatively short seven months since its start, ChocoPro has already run 72 shows and counting, with each “season” being 18 episodes/shows. It features a variety of amazing guest competitors, incredible wrestling, and compelling performances. The shows are well designed to draw the viewer in, in a lot of ways feel like being there, and are all presented for free on YouTube (with various support options available if fans are inclined).

Mitsuru missed a majority of the first season with dental problems, then returned with a vengeance in season 2. She struggled at the start, winning against the rookies but having less success in big matches like her return against Antonio Honda and another great match against Chris Brookes. It led to a lot of anger to deal with at points and an intensity that couldn’t be matched. Her frustration and determination bubbled over in a crazy match teaming with Yuna Mizumori against Pencil Army (Lulu Pencil & Emi Pencil (Sakura) ) where she ended up pinning Sakura. She then had a string of impressive, intense singles matches against Mei, Yuna, and Akki that are all must watch. Her fire and ever increasing mastery of her skills was noticed and appreciated, and she was the fan-voted MVP of the season.

Mitsuru continued to impress during the early part of season 3 in a mix of different match styles. She had a strong showing in a tag match teaming with Makoto against Ryo Mizunami & Hanako Nakamori on Emi Sakura’s 25th Anniversary show amid wrestlers with much more experience.

ChocoPro 44 was a milestone event: ChocoPro’s first ring event. Held at Shinkiba 1st Ring instead of Ichigaya Chocolate Square but still with all the ChocoPro hallmarks (no audience, camera work and other production aspects tailored to streaming, etc), this momentous show would be headlined by a long awaited tag team clash of Best Bros (Mei Suruga & Baliyan Akki) vs Mitsuru & Chris Brookes. Unfortunately Mitsuru injured her ankle while training for this match and has been out since, and recently announced that she will be retiring.

On ChocoPro 43 Mitsuru teamed with Yuna Mizumori against Emi Sakura & Mei Suruga. It was, as to be expected from four wrestlers who have so much chemistry and shared training, another fantastic encounter. And as in now clear, it was the final match of her career. Short of an actual, planned last match one with this particular group of wrestlers was perhaps the most appropriate sendoff she could have had.

Gatoh Move 6 card PSC “puzzle” by Juri H. Chinchilla.

While she will be unable to wrestle a farewell match, Mitsuru will have online stream sessions and other things planned to say goodbye during her official retirement date in January. During the announcement video she also said that she still plans to be connected to Gatoh Move, but she has decided to try something new from here on out and will not be returning to in ring competition.

Mitsuru has repeatedly said in the past that she’s never enjoyed wrestling itself, but was determined to stick with it and improve until she understood what everyone else said and finally found it fun. During the post announcement questions Minoru Fujita kind of surprised everyone by asking Mitsuru if she had any fun memories from pro wrestling (not knowing about Mitsuru’s previous statements). With some thought Mitsuru said that looking back, “I really think… wrestling was fun. 4, 5 years of it the whole way. Every moment of it was fun.” It’s wonderful to hear her say that, and Emi Sakura can be seen trying not to tear up with emotion next to Mitsuru.

I’ll really miss Mitsuru, and quite honestly Gatoh Move won’t be the same without her. But I’m happy she’s doing what’s right for her and wish her a speedy recovery and all the best in the future. Cheers.

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Japan Wrestling

Heartbreaking

I barely know where to begin here. Part of me doesn’t want to write this. And part of me has to.

A short while ago it was confirmed that Hana Kimura has passed away.

Hana wrestled for Stardom and was the daughter of retired wrestler Kyoko Kimura. She had been wrestling for four years and was one of my personal favorites in the promotion. She always made an impression, and seemed to have all the potential in the world. The last time I saw Hana was at Stardom’s American Dream 2019 show in NYC. I commented about how over she was, how far she had come as a performer since I’d seen her in her rookie year, and how impressive her character work in particular was. Her charisma was striking and she always seemed to go out of her way to be friendly to fans and make sure everyone was having a good time.

Earlier in the day Hana posted some worrying tweets indicating self harm. She had been the target of extreme cyberbullying, in part in relation to her appearances on the show Terrace House. Her tweets were shortly removed (possibly by Twitter, who has a reporting function for self-harm tweets to try to extend help) and numerous fans and others who knew Hana tried to reach out to those who could contact her as well as tweeting messages of love and support.

Further details about her passing have not been official released at the request of her family and I won’t speculate further, but felt it important to mention the circumstances briefly.

Her loss is beyond tragic, particularly so young. Underneath the rising wrestling superstar and reality tv personality was a 22 year old woman having a harder time than anyone knew. Please think of the person on the other side of the computer screen, and never wish or encourage harm on anyone. Words cannot express my anger and total lack of comprehension towards those who would wish such things on another. There are also important issues to look at in entertainment industries and the presentation of and support systems available to performers.

On the other side of things, if anyone is ever in trouble and things seem hopeless, please know that you are not alone and there is hope, and please reach out for whatever help and support you need.

I feel a terrible sense of loss and heartache for Hana and wish things had been different. My thoughts are with her family.

Rest in Peace Hana. You will be greatly missed.

——-

Edit 1/21/21:

Since I wrote this Hana’s mother Kyoko has spoken out about a variety of factors potentially contributing to Hana’s suicide and is pursuing legal remedies for justice in Hana’s name, as well as setting up a non-profit to help prevent such things. Those who wish to help can purchase official Hana t-shirts and/or calendars/prints (proxy required for international shipping) to directly support Kyoko.

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Japan Wrestling

The NXT Step for the Sun God

WWE and AEW have both signed a number of incredible wrestlers lately. But with all due respect to the rest, none are quite as exciting as the confirmation that Sareee is headed to the US as part of WWE.

My first time seeing Sareee was during my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015. She was a few months under five years experience at the time, and featured in matches spotlighting young talent with fellow Diana rookie Meiko Tanaka against Rina Yamshita & Kaho Kobayashi at Wave’s Young Oh! Oh! 12/25/15 and against Yuuka at Ribbonmania 2015. She displayed great innate ability and instincts, and I was excited to see what the near future would hold for her.

Unfortunately, my opportunities to see Sareee for the next few years were sparse. In summer of 2017 I caught her during her brief tenure in SEAdLINNNG in hard hitting tournament semi-final against Marvelous’ Takumi Iroha. In spring of 2018 I lucked into seeing her at Pure-J in an interpromotional tag team main event alongside Actwres girlZ’ Mari against Manami Katsu & Rydeen Hagane. She was definitely showing all the hallmarks of fully capitalizing on her potential and was an obvious superstar in the making.

I was thrilled to get to see her regularly in 2019. Her tightly contested, visceral title match at Sendai Girls’ 1/6/19 show against Chihiro Hashimoto might have been my top match of that entire trip, yet was just a glimpse of how fully Sareee’s mastered a variety of aspects of her craft. She was wrestling’s next big thing, and it was only a matter of time before everyone noticed.

My best matches of 2019 list reads like Sareee’s resume, and I imagine I sounded like a bit of broken record last year repeating my belief that she’s one of the most compelling and impressive athletes and the biggest rising star in all of wrestling.

Her grasp of the nuances of technical skill, timing, etc is really amazing, as is the intensity she brings to it all. Similar to another personal favorite of mine recently signed (Timothy Thatcher), one of the keys making Sareee so incredible is that she fights over EVERYTHING. The smallest exchanges are still struggles towards getting an edge progressing to the ultimate goal of winning the match. It makes such a difference in believability, and Sareee’s one of the very best at it. Of course she can also hit just the right notes in lighter, more comedic matches, and that versatility will undoubtably also serve her well.

A clear indication that I’m not alone in my opinion of Sareee is the apparent and repeated shows of confidence in her from veteran Japanese wrestlers. During a chunk of 2019 she was simultaneously reigning champion of both Kyoko Inoue’s and Meiko Satomura’s promotions (Diana and Sendai Girls respectively). She even won the Diana title back from the person who took it from her, the legendary Aja Kong.

In my write up of Diana’s 5/12/19 show at Korakuen Hall that Kong vs Sareee main evented, I commented:

“Sareee is wrestling’s next big star, and everyone clearly knows it. She recently won said double title match so is currently a reigning double singles champion across two companies. On her way to the Sendai title she pinned their legendary owner Meiko Satomura, as well as DASH Chisako and other top competitors. And of course any sort of victory over Kong is a huge deal, let alone a singles pinfall. The important part of course is Sareee’s completely believable and natural in this role, with both the technical skills and charisma/mannerisms to pull it all off.”

The mentioned match against DASH Chisako happened a few weeks prior at Sendai’s 4/27/19 show and was yet another stunning display. This featured two of my absolute favorite wrestlers and I actually traveled out to Sendai specifically to see it. It was an incredibly hard-hitting, wonderfully escalating contest that was everything I hoped for. They would meet again in a title defense for Sareee at Korakuen Hall in a match that from all accounts was somehow even better.

I was also lucky enough to see Sareee in a variety of great tag matches that paired her up with unusual opponents and showed even more of her variety and skills. One fun one of note saw her teaming with Pro-Wrestling Eve’s Yuu against Meiko Satomura & Gatoh Move’s Mei Suruga at Sendai’s 5/18/19 show.

During the summer it was reported that Sareee had met with HHH, and the rumors started in earnest. With heavy indications that her time in Japan might be wrapping up, she held a special self produced show in early December entitled Sareee’s Special Night. And it certainly was. 😉

In addition to tearing the house down in the cross promotional main event dream tag team match (Sareee & Syuri vs World of Stardom Champion Mayu Iwatani & Regina di Wave Champion Takumi Iroha), Sareee also showed she could put together a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable card from top to bottom. There was a little bit of everything, with multiple match styles and stories being told, special significance to things such as Jenny Rose’s return to Japan to face Marvelous’ Hibiki (formerly Diana’s Meiko Tanaka) and the injured Natsumi Maki still appearing as the ring announcer, and generally great action all around.

In early January Sareee officially announced she’d be leaving Diana in February and going to the United States. Today it became official that she is indeed WWE bound.

So in what ended up being my last time to see Sareee wrestle live for a while, I attended my first Diana dojo show on 1/19/20. It was a blast and Sareee’s excellent tag encounter alongside her trainer Kyoko Inoue against Actwres girlZ’ Champion Miyuki Takase & Diana rookie Haruka Umesaki was a great note to go out on for now.

There’s some admittedly justified trepidation among fans when independent talent gets signed by WWE considering their less than stellar track record with using people to their full abilities, but I’m still extremely happy for Sareee and hopeful that she will excel in the all the ways she’s clearly capable of. Best of luck to the Sun God in the next phase of her career.

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Japan Wrestling

Thank You Liger: Farewell to a Childhood Hero

I became enamored with professional wrestling as a kid, and while great many of my tastes have changed there have been some eternal constants. Wrestlers, styles, etc that transcend time in a sense.

When I was young I had only watched American wrestling, in the form of (then) WWF and WCW. Bret Hart, the Midnight Express, Mr. Perfect, and other wrestlers who combined athleticism and in-ring storytelling were among my favorites. I’d seen a little bit of the Great Muta in his WCW appearances, but that was largely it as far as non-North American talent went.

Then Superbrawl II started off with Jushin Thunder Liger vs Flyin’ Brian Pillman in a match (rightfully) still lauded to this day as perhaps the greatest opening match of all time. Liger was like nothing else I’d ever seen. Combining precision flying and hard strikes with uncanny psychology, and of course an incredible, striking presence, Jushin Thunder Liger was a superhero come to life (literally, as his persona was based off of an anime character). The match, and Liger, obviously left quite an impression on me and remains one of my all time favorites.

From there I would occasionally hunt down bits of his matches in Japan, and while I never quite saw as much as I wanted the sampling was invariably impressive. He was always captivating, and I have distinct memories of rewatching certain moves and sequences over and over in awe.

Flash way forward to 2015 and NXT Takeover Brooklyn would end up being my first time seeing Liger live, somewhat surreally in a WWE ring no less. His style had understandably changed over the years, but it still felt like a Liger match, and a very good one at that. Tyler Breeze was a great choice for his opponent and it was a treat to be there.

The following year at ROH/NJPW War of the Worlds 2016 I actually got to meet the legend, and then I was lucky enough to be able to attend Wrestle Kingdom 11 on 1/4/17 finally see him wrestle in Japan (albeit in limited fashion as part of a battle royal). As it happens it would end up being the only time I saw him wrestle live in Japan and the final time overall.

Throughout my changing tastes and focus on different parts of wrestling, I’ve remained a huge fan of Liger and am extremely happy he was able to keep wrestling for as long as he did, and for the times I was lucky enough to see him live.

Earlier this month Liger finished up his 35 year career. With Wrestle Kingdom 14 becoming a two-night event Liger’s farewell was unusually spread over three days, with his last two matches at the two WK shows on 1/4 and 1/5/20 and his retirement ceremony being held at a separate event than his final match at New Year’s Dash on 1/6/20.

I sadly was unable to attend the 1/5 show as planned due to illness, but watching online still conveyed the weight and emotion of the occasion. Liger wrestled with and against several of his compatriots on 1/4 in the star studded Jushin Thunder Liger, Tatsumi Fujinami, Tiger Mask, & Great Sasuke vs Shinjiro Otani, Tatsuhito Takaiwa, Naoki Sano, & Ryusuke Taguchi, then put over the next generation in a tag match on 1/5 teaming with Naoki Sano against Hiromu Takahashi & Ryu Lee. While many hoped he had on last singles match in him, these carefully chosen tag matches were a great, fitting way to say goodbye.

It’s almost as weird to see Liger go as it was to have him in wrestling at the level he was for so long. All that’s really left to say is thank you to the legend for everything, particularly the memories.

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Japan Wrestling

Farewell to a Gran Maestro Part 2: An Emotional Two Months

Two months ago I wrote Farewell to a Gran Maestro, a look back on Tequila Saya’s career just before her planned retirement date of October 12, 2019. As I mentioned towards the end of that piece, things didn’t go as planned. A typhoon caused that show to be canceled, and the following day Saya’s regular tag team partner (who was scheduled to tag with Saya in her final match) abruptly left the company under unusual circumstances.

After the dust settled a bit Saya announced she was postponing her retirement until the end of the year and would be stepping in to honor her former partner’s previously scheduled commitments. This was a big gesture on her part, and visibly greatly appreciated by the company and fans alike.

No matter the circumstances surrounding Saya’s short career extension, she certainly made the most of it. One of the previously mentioned commitments she took over was a spot on Rising Slam, a free to attend event in Italy aimed at spotlighting Joshi Puroresu live for the first time in that country. Saya was joined by fellow Ice Ribbon roster member Tsukushi, Actwres Girlz’ Mari, Tae Honma, Misa Matsui, & Saki, and freelancers Makoto and Rina Yamashita in traveling to Italy for this unique show. It would be Saya’s first and only international expedition as a wrestler. She also ended up doing more matches outside of Ice Ribbon than she ever had before, including a singles match against Yumi Ohka in Wave among others.

Saya would also win her only career singles title during the overrun, taking the Triangle Ribbon Championship from someone who debuted shortly after her and was as often a rival as a partner, Uno Matsuya (the match also involved Tae Honma). It was well deserved and wonderful to see this opportunity seized out of unusual circumstances.

She was involved in a wild champions vs challengers 8-woman tag at the December 14th show, defended the belt against Uno and Satsuki Totoro at her final P’s Party show (as an active wrestler) on Decemeber 18th, and lost the title to Tae Honma on Ice Ribbon’s December 21st show at Shinkiba 1st Ring (in a match that also involved Kaori Yoneyama).

From a selfish standpoint I must admit to being happy that the extension would allow me to see Saya wrestle live few more times before she finished up. Her final dojo match against Tsukasa Fujimoto was all kinds of fun, including a particularly amusing section where she tried, rather unsuccessfully, to imitate the signature moves of all the other wrestlers at the show. Tsukka then invited them all in to demonstrate all the correct versions on Saya.

Her final match was earlier today, a special 38 (plus a few) person challenge that saw Saya face everyone consecutively in one minute time limit sections. A mix of some competitive sections, lighter comedic ones, and some old familiar faces just coming back to say goodbye, it was a perfect way to say farewell to the Gran Maestro.

The last two sections saw Saya gaining her only pinfall over Ice Ribbon’s ace Tsukka with the “Gran Maestro de Tequila,” then falling to the rookie she’d given the moves to as Suzu Suzuki showed she also mastered Saya’s “Tequil Shot” variation.

The show drew 1,384 people, making it the largest crowd ever for Ice Ribbon at Korakuen Hall and their forth largest crowd ever.

It was an honor to be in attendance to wish Saya well, and I hope whatever future lies ahead for her after wrestling is a bright one.

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Japan Wrestling

Farewell to a Gran Maestro: Tequila Saya’s Retirement

During my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 I became an immediate and big fan of Ice Ribbon. A few months later, on March 12, 2016, a wrestler called Tequila Saya made her debut for the company.

I saw Saya wrestle for first time when I returned to Japan the following December. She made strong positive first impression in a tag match teaming with Kyuri against Uno Matsuya & Maika Ozaki on 12/24/16 and a great 7-way at Ribbonmania a week later, with both matches involving several other rookie talents.

The immediately striking thing about watching Saya is her infectious charisma. She always seems to be having fun and excited about whatever she’s doing and there’s an engaging quality to her performances. Her expressions and body language are great in helping to tell the story of her matches, and a distinct style and personality make her a compelling performer.

One of my favorite examples of the fantastic little details she adds to her matches is from Survival Ribbon during that same trip. Saya was drawn first for her random match and entered the ring visibly confident and psyched up. She then absolutely crumpled in the corner in resignation seconds later when it was announced her opponent was Ice Ribbon’s resident powerhouse Kurumi Hiiragi. In mere seconds with no words she emphatically and completely put over the notion that Kurumi’s a monster and the enormity of the task in front of her.

Saya continued to impress in all the subsequent times I’ve been lucky enough to see her wrestle, including some particularly fun matches this past January.

In Spring of 2018 Saya started producing a series of biweekly shows called P’s Party (“short” for Peace Party) initially focusing on talent with less than three years experience (although as time passes some of their core roster are obviously passing that particular hallmark), with some vets mixed in for them to work with. The concept is fantastic and I always enjoyed the shows of theirs I saw.

This Spring P’s Party had their first larger, non-dojo show as part of the Yokohama Wrestling Festival during Golden Week. Yokohama Party was a really enjoyable event, and it was great to see them get an opportunity in front of a larger audience. Saya wrestled in the main event alongside Burning Raw tag team partner Giulia again Rina Yamashita & the debuting Yappy.

Around the same time as starting up P’s Party, Saya also opened a bar close to the Ice Ribbon dojo. Continuing the theme it’s called After Party, and is a cool little place with a nice atmosphere. It reminded me a bit of bars back home, and Saya’s a great bartender in general in addition to it being awesome to have the opportunity to hang out with other fans and chat with them and Saya a bit. There were frequent guest events and other wrestlers helping out, and I always had a lot of fun when I went.

Both P’s Party and After Party have dates set for October post Saya’s final match, but it’s unclear how long either will continue (particularly the bar, which has already scaled back its open dates to solely post Ice Ribbon/P’s Party dojo shows).

I didn’t know it at the time, but from her announcement up until this week I thought the Lovely Butchers (Hamuko Hoshi & Mochi Miyagi) vs Burning Raw on 5/28/19 would be the final time I’d see Saya wrestle live. If so it would have been a great little opener and a fine note to go out on. I adored Burning Raw as a team (despite the nonsensical name lol) and this was really the start of their push to the International Ribbon Tag Team Titles, which they would win from Azure Revolution (Risa Sera & Maya Yukihi) in July and lose back to them a month ago. After the match Saya announced her impending retirement.

Of course in light of this week’s events that match becomes a bittersweet memory. Saya’s final match was scheduled to be on October 13, in which Burning Raw would face Uno Matsuya & Satsuki Totoro. That show was canceled due to a typhoon, and the expectation was that it would be rescheduled at a later date.

Instead the next day Giulia attempted to terminate her Ice Ribbon contract, and showed up at Stardom the day after that. There is a lot of turmoil and speculation surrounding her departure, which is of course outside the scope of this piece. Last night Saya announced she is postponing her retirement until the end of the year and will be wrestling in the previously committed matches Giulia was scheduled for. Whatever the situation this is a big, and appreciated, gesture on her part towards the company and the fans. Her new retirement date is set for Ribbonmania on 12/31/19.

Saya’s indicated that she planned to wrestle for three years from the start, and while I’ll miss her I’m glad she was able to realize her goal. Wishing the Gran Maestro de Tequila all the best in whatever’s next, though I do selfishly hope she’ll remain involved in Ice Ribbon in some capacity post her in-ring career.

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Japan Wrestling

Last Song for You: Riho’s “Graduation” from Gatoh Move

Later today (7/2/19) Riho, Gatoh Move’s ace, will have her final match with the company. She will be “graduating” (the term used in Japan when someone leaves a company to move on, whether it’s for retirement or a case like this) to go freelance.

 

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Prior to my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015, I was primarily only had seen Joshi wrestlers that had come stateside for Shimmer. So, as I mentioned in my look back on Kotori’s career when she retired, I was largely unfamiliar with the professional wrestling company Gatoh Move and their wrestlers when I attended my first show of theirs on 12/22/15.

On that show freelancers Hikaru Shida and Makoto, who I knew from Shimmer, were on opposite sides from each other in a tag match paired with Gatoh Move roster members Kotori and Riho respectively.  It was quite good, and in particular Riho stood out with skills and instincts that seemed beyond what her 18 years of age would have implied.

 

 

And with good reason. “Young” in Joshi doesn’t necessarily correlate to experience, and Riho was in fact the most senior competitor in that match with nearly 10 years as a wrestler, incredibly starting at the age of just 9 years old. She grew and honed her craft under the training and tutelage of the incredible Emi Sakura, first in Ice Ribbon then following her mentor when Sakura split with the company in 2012 and started Gatoh Move.

 

 

So in my initial exposure to Riho, she was already an accomplished, polished veteran. And boy did it show. Particularly later that trip when I got a chance to see Gatoh Move in their home environment. The 12/22/15 show had been a “traditional” wrestling show with a traditional wrestling ring. The reason I specify is that Gatoh Move’s home venue, Ichigaya Chocolate Square, is a small room with no ring and two large windows on one wall which are removed for the shows. The crowd itself is effectively the “rope break” marker and the wrestlers will sometimes use the front row to bounce off of for “running the ropes” and the windowsills to jump off of for high risk maneuvers. The limitations of the venue restrict the action in ways compared to “normal” matches, but also provide opportunities for creative variations on standard wrestling elements.

It’s such a unique environment, that not only provides something special for the audience but also forces the wrestlers to push themselves and adapt to the unusual constraints. And Riho is an absolute master of it. Her athleticism, creativity, and precision always combined in fantastic fashion as she bounced around the confined space, often utilizing not only the windowsill but also her opponents and partners as platforms to launch herself off of in lieu of ropes and turnbuckles.

 

 

As such, some of the most memorable moments of Riho in Ichigaya for me came from Gatoh’s incredible 6-person tag matches, including  Riho, Kotori, & Aasa vs Emi, Obi, & Mitsuru on 12/31/16, a similar variation two years later of  Riho teaming with Emi & Obi against Mitsuru, Mei Suruga, & Yuna Mizumori in a special “Old Gatoh Move” vs “New Gatoh Move”  match on 12/31/18  (which is up on Gatoh Move’s YouTube channel!!!), and a fantastic match from just  last month  of Riho, Baliyan Akki, & An-Chamu vs Emi, Masahiro Takanashi, & Mei (also up on Gatoh Move’s YouTube channel!!!).

 

 

At the risk of getting overly cliched, Riho has the presence of a star. The audience reactions when she appeared at other promotions, such as in a pair of great tag team title challenges in back to back years in Tokyo Joshi Pro’s biggest events, was always incredible.

 

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Riho’s greatest strength may be her ability to make whatever story she’s telling in the ring accessible and convincing. She’s believable as a threat, even against far larger opponents and in the many intergender matches she’s had. A particular favorite of mine was her no-rope match against Yaso Urano at Basara’s 12/28/17 show.

 

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This Spring I was extremely lucky to be able to attend some of Riho’s last matches in Gatoh Move, and there have certainly been a lot of high notes to go out on. At the beginning of May she faced DDT wrestler and regular Gatoh Move guest Masahiro Takanashi in an incredible encounter that’s one of my top matches of the year thus far. A few days later she won Gatoh’s annual Go Go Green Curry Cup (a mixed tag team tournament).

 

 

And just a month out from her final match, in her second to last “traditional” show for Gatoh, she successfully defended her Super-Asia Championship against rising star Mei Suruga in a wonderful match, after which she relinquished the title.

Tonight Riho will wrestle her trainer Emi Sakura one-on-one in her final Gatoh Move match. I can’t think of a more fitting farewell.

 

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Riho has already given fans a little glimpse of what’s to come after Gatoh Move, as she’s had a pair of good outings with AEW. She’s implied in a recent interview that she doesn’t intend to sign anywhere full time just yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if/where she wrestles in Japan in addition to continuing with AEW in the states (as of now nothing else has been announced/scheduled). It will also be interesting to watch Gatoh Move change and adapt after her departure.

I look forward to the continued success of both.

 

Categories
Japan Wrestling

Farewell to an Angel: Yuuka’s Retirement

During my first trip at the end of 2015 to Japan I became a huge fan of Ice Ribbon, and follow them to this day. I had my first exposure to several would-become-favorites during that time, including the then reigning Ice Cross Infinity Champion and recently retired Aoi Kizuki.

During my first Ice Ribbon show, which was also my first ever live show in Japan, there was another wrestler who really impressed me in the same tag match as Aoi. But in contrast to Aoi being a 10-year veteran, this was a relative rookie with just under 2 years in the sport.

 

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Yuuka, nicknamed the “White Angel of Ice Ribbon,” wowed me with her instincts and level of skill for her experience and 17 years of age. She presented herself in a way that made an immediate impact, including a ring style that showcased hard strikes and fierce determination in a thoroughly compelling manner.

Throughout the trip I got to see Yuuka in four other matches. On Neko Nitta’s Produced show she faced normal tag partners Risa Sera and Maya Yukihi in an interesting triple threat, and my final Ice Ribbon show of the trip saw her team with Hamuko Hoshi opposite Aoi again, this time in a 6-woman tag with Maruko Nagaski as their third and Akane Fujita & Mochi Miyagi on Aoi’s side.

 

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In between those shows were two matches I look back on particularly fondly. On Risa Sera’s 2nd Produced show Yuuka was part of a rather hilarious cell phone destruction match, and on Ice Ribbon’s biggest show of the year Yuuka got nice singles spotlight against fellow up and comer Sareee in perhaps my favorite of the live matches I saw with her.

 

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I wouldn’t return to Japan until the following holiday season, so those were my only opportunities to see Yuuka wrestle live. But the first half of 2016 held a number of other interesting things for her. She had a fun rivalry/partnership with another favorite of mine in Wave’s veteran Misaki Ohata (who also recently retired … been a rough year or so), won the Young Oh! Oh! portion of Wave’s annual Catch the Wave Tournament, then was built up to challenge Risa Sera for the Ice Cross Infinity Championship to main event Ice Ribbon’s 10th Anniversary show in what has to be considered her career highlight.

Yuuka had an energy and commitment to whatever story she was telling that was captivating. Little details in her matches, her body language and facial expressions, and the general way she carried herself added tons to her character and made her a joy to watch.

 

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Yuuka’s last match was in mid-July 2016, after which she went on hiatus for undisclosed reasons. But she was still listed as part of the Ice Ribbon roster on their webpage with an implied possibility of return until recently. On March 25, 2019 her retirement was officially announced. She was one of the young wrestlers who left a great impression on me, and I’ve mentioned before she certainly had the potential for a big career ahead of her if she continued.

 

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While it’s a shame that didn’t come to pass and I miss seeing her in the ring, I’m always happy and supportive of seeing people do what’s best for them and I wish Yuuka all the best in whatever’s next.

Categories
Japan Wrestling

Beautifully Bloomed: Farewell to Misaki Ohata

On December 29, 2018 one of my favorite wrestlers said goodbye to the ring after twelve years. Here I’d like to take a personal look back on the career of Misaki Ohata.

 

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My first exposure to Misaki was via Shimmer DVDs, starting with her debut for the company on Volume 29 in April 2010. She showed a high energy, exciting moveset that took advantage of her small size in interesting ways, like with her trademark crossbody to an opponent seated in the corner. Misaki had been wrestling a little under four years at the time, yet already wrestled and came across like a well established professional. It was extremely interesting to see both her ring style and character evolve over the years, from the exuberant babyface character she had at this point to the additional variety of personas she developed later on to use as needed depending on match, company, and story. Her time in Shimmer was highlighted by a tag team championship reign with fellow regular Hiroyo Matsumoto as 3S (the Seven Star Sisters).

 

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Misaki stopped coming to Shimmer before I started attending (in 2013), so I didn’t see her wrestle live for the first time until her special one weekend return for Tomoka Nakagawa’s retirement weekend in April 2015.  It was a nice spotlight weekend for Misaki with great singles matches against Nicole Savoy, Heidi Lovelace (now WWE’s Ruby Riot), and Lufisto, as well as being part of a fantastic Joshi 8-woman tag in Tomoka’s second to last match reforming 3S (with Hiroyo Matsumoto) and teaming with 3G (Kellie Skater and Tomoka herself) against Joshi legends Aja Kong, Dynamite Kansai, Kyoko Kimura, & Mayumi Ozaki.

 

 

As it turns out later that same year I’d make my first trip to Japan, and among all the excellent wrestling and promotions I experienced for the first time, I was thrilled to see Misaki and others I was familiar with from Shimmer wrestle in their home promotions (and in some cases against each other).

During that trip Misaki and her Avid Rival partner Ryo Mizunami challenged Best Friends (Tsukasa Fujimoto & Arisa Nakajima) for Ice Ribbon’s International Ribbon Tag Team Championships at Ribbonmania 2015 in what ended up one of one of my favorite matches of all time. All four were masters of their craft, and this and every subsequent time they faced each other was magic. A year and a half later I’d make a special trip to Japan planned largely around seeing two of the three fantastic rematches they had.

I truly believe Avid Rival was one of the best tag teams in the world, with incredible chemistry as partners and an enthralling, evolving moveset that they seamlessly integrated into well built, captivating matches.

 

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I was also lucky enough to see glimpses of some of Misaki’s championship runs and other accomplishments live, including being crowned Wave’s Zan-1 fan voted champion at the end of 2016, an excellent defense of her and Mizunami’s International Tag Ribbon Championships against the Lovely Butchers at Ribbonmania 2016 just days later (while they also held Wave’s tag team championships), and defending Wave’s top singles belt against Yumi Ohka at their biggest show of the year to end 2017.

 

 

There was a careful precision to everything Misaki did in the ring, with her incredible body control making her crossbodies, bridges, and numerous other key elements of her trademark moves particularly crisp and beautiful, greatly adding to the level of immersion of her matches. She was incredibly versatile, both in character and ring style. Misaki played comedy and intensity with equally adeptness, from hyper babyface to more crafty and controlled veteran, from a certain masked character in a certain promotion to often being the “straight man” of Avid Rival to Mizunami’s antics (or perhaps participating in said antics as need be), and so on.

 

 

It was really just a footnote in Misaki’s twelve year career, but a personal highlight for me as it wound down were her interactions with Ice Ribbon’s sub promotion P’s Party and specifically their rookie Asahi this year. Seeing what the newer generation can do in with an experienced wrestler can be quite interesting, and is also a great opportunity for them to learn and grow.

Asahi is an extremely promising young wrestler and Misaki clearly had fun in the both the singles contest I saw between them  in April and their teaming against Arisa Nakajima & Karen DATE in October. Misaki’s  final P’s Party appearance saw her face three opponents she had never previously wrestled in subsequent matches, and it was fun to see back to back matches with different styles from her against P’s Party’s producer Tequila Saya, Totoro Satsuki, and Maika Ozaki a little over a week before her career ended.

 

 

Misaki retired at Wave’s year end show for 2018 on December 29th. Her final match against regular partner Ryo Mizunami was phenomenal, as well as a bit different. Since it was for Mizunami’s recently won Regina di Wave title, it was (appropriately) a straight up, competitive title match missing a lot the “normal” retirement match touches (like non-participants splashing the retiree in the corner, for example). They clearly still had some fun with things though, such as when they brawled to the time keeper’s table and Misaki rang the bell directly in Ryo’s ear (ouch!). But it was all in the context of a match befitting the prestige of Wave’s top title.

As to be expected from two wrestlers of this caliber that know each other so well this was an excellent, hard hitting, back and forth encounter. Misaki eventually busted out a rolling variation of her Sky Blue Suplex (!!) and just wore the champion down until a final Sky Blue Suplex with bridge gave her the win and saw Misaki retire as Regina di Wave champion. Fantastic match and a well deserved honor Misaki on her way out.

 

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Misaki was in good spirits and joking around a bit during her retirement ceremony (even while her poor partner cried goodbye), a nice sign of her being satisfied with her career and ready to proceed to whatever’s next.

 

 

This was the third retirement show for the year for me after Mika Iida’s in May and Aoi Kizuki’s in October, and although it was a bit sad to say goodbye to them all I was extremely lucky to be able to attend their farewells.

I wish Misaki all the best in whatever life holds for her after wrestling.

Categories
Japan Wrestling

Hikaru Shida’s 10th Anniversary Show 10/9/18

I’ve been long familiar with Hikaru Shida from Shimmer, as well as here and there after I started coming to Japan. When I was planning my Fall trip (largely around Aoi Kizuki’s retirement show, which featured Shida in the main event), I noticed I could catch this special anniversary show the night before I returned, and decided to check it out. Looked decent on paper, with a variety of match types and surrounding intrigue featuring wrestlers from various promotions, although I honesty wasn’t 100% sure exactly how well it would all come together.

 

 

Things started out interesting right away with a pairing of two incredible wrestlers who clearly weren’t entirely thrilled to be teaming together. Mio Momono & Rina Yamashita walked the fine line of maintaining a certain level of disrespect for each other throughout their match against Kaori Yoneyama & Koharu Hinata while still remaining competitive and properly recognizing their opponents as a threat.

Mio continues to be particularly fantastic, and I hope she recovers quickly and completely from her recent knee surgery and is able to return to wrestling. Great spots like Mio playing jump rope with their opponent during a Rina giant swing and her “helping” Rina during a submission hold by pulling Rina’s hair for “leverage” were made even better by the charisma and ttitude she brings to them. Really well done overall, with Mio & Rina staying serious enough despite their egos and issues that their eventual victory was still believable and didn’t make their opponents look weak.

 

 

So Misaki Ohata, Hiroyo Matsumoto, & Buffalo vs Yako Fujigasaki, Gabai Ji-chan, Toru Owashi was that good balance of ridiculousness and action that I desperately look for in most of my comedy matches. While not all of the humor was to my personal tastes (I tend to find Ji-chan amusing and annoying in equal measure), this turned out quite fun overall.

The foil cone “weapon” being aimed at people’s backsides was a focal point several times, as was Misaki’s engagement. Her partners sacrificed themselves to an attack with it to protect her at one point, and later when Misaki herself stole and wielded the weapon Toru put on a mask of Misaki’s fiance Makoto Oishi to dissuade her from attacking. Toru’s strategy was unsurprisingly unsuccessful.

It was really nice to see 3S together one last time before Misaki retired, and I enjoyed a lot of this. Also, seeing Misaki absolutely SPIKE Ji-chan with her crucifix bomb for the win was really satisfying.

 

 

In what may have been my personal most anticipated match of the night, Ice Ribbon regular Maika Ozaki got a chance to face reigning Sendai Girls’ champion  Chihiro Hashimoto (in non-title competition of course). It’s not a pairing that would normally be likely given the lack of crossover between the two companies at the moment, and one I was extremely excited to see. This was a great showcase for Maika against one of the very best power wrestlers in the world, and she pushed the beast that is Chihiro to the limit before Sendai’s champ finally put down the upstart.

 

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I swear I’ve seen Madoka announced under like five different names in various matches, and a quick search shows he has like ten. Here, as Hagane Shinnou, he teamed with Risa Sera against Aja Kong & TARU. No illusions about what kind of match this would be, as Risa was bloody in under two minutes. They fought all over, inside and outside the ring and right by me a few times, spreading chaos all over the arena.

This was all about Risa & Madoka trying to survive the monsters, and as such it had a fire absent from some of the other hardcore matches I’ve seen recently. Easily the most compelling performance I’ve seen from Risa all year. Risa can be incredible in this kind of match, often in my opinion when she’s more the underdog, and was both here. This was a “the journey is as important as the destination” type of match, and going to a draw with the monsters made Risa & Madoka look like stars.

 

 

In the main event Hikaru Shida seemed to be setting out to exorcise a personal demon against Naomuchi Marufuji. They had faced earlier in the year, with Shida getting knocked out in under two minutes. I could feel the pressure weighing on Shida as she looked to prove herself by at least putting up a better fight here. The right story, well worked, makes all the difference and they built off of that feeling of insecurity to craft an excellent match in both story and action.

 

 

Marufuji looked great, and it was nice to see him wrestle live again many years after seeing him in ROH. While testing Shida he certainly wasn’t holding back, and his onslaught of chops left Shida’s chest a painful to look at vivid red bruise.

This was really well done, and one of the best matches I’ve ever seen from Shida. She gave Marufuji a real challenge in a believable way and battled for eighteen minutes, but eventually came up short and Marufuji emerged victorious.

 

 

I’m honestly kind of surprised how great this was from top to bottom. Everything clicked, being really well booked an executed in terms of stories and action within each individual situation and avoiding potential pitfalls. Generally everyone just made the most of their opportunities, and this was a high note to end this particular trip on.

 

 

 

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Ninja Mio sees you…