Hunter Byron Smith reports on a violent spectacle of sweat, blood, and crazy that is unparalleled by anything else you will find in Nagoya
Scurrying out of the subway in Shinsakae, I weaved past the remaining press of street vagrants. Others were already past foreplay with the night’s vices of choice, but I was sheepishly late for mine – and, moreover, a bit lost. As I made a second or fifth round through the refuse, I found what I sought in a chain smoking, heavy-set Japanese man standing outside of an office complex. It’s not what you think! It wasn’t his steely gaze or rippling physique that piqued my interest, but rather the well-worn hoody he was so precariously tucked and folded into. Emblazoned across the front was BJW in a swath of blood red. After a false start with my abominable mix of Japanese/English, he snubbed his cigarette, eyed me curiously and grunted, “Puro Resu?” I nodded, he smiled, and then led me inside.
Although the ‘Big Japan Wrestling’ company was not unknown to me in my life outside of Japan, it wasn’t until I saw a flyer in Sakae that I gave serious thought to actually going. I mean, why not? It’s right here in Nagoya. Just the possibility of seeing professional wrestling again warranted many memories: acrobatic dives from ring posts and ladders, flips and kicks – and, of course, forcibly choking someone with a dirty-sock-covered hand while masked in leather. When I was growing up (see: young and stupid), American pro-wrestling was something amazing. It was ridiculous and fantastic, and it never needed to be anything else. Wrestlers, with exotic and idiotic fictitious backgrounds, contended in classic beat-em-up competitions; each match stylized by some sort of effective gimmick, growing more and more absurd until our youthful minds stunted trying to imagine anything grander (or worse, for that matter). But then, of course, in stepped Japan.
While American’s tradition of excess might lead toward some enormous strong-man, capable of battering a bewildered two-man team, Japan would opt for the route of a man dressed as a lizard… or maybe an inflatable sex doll… or an invisible man. Or maybe even the infamous Japanese wrestler Hard Gay, who ravaged his opponent’s faces by nestling them longingly and tightly next to his spandex clad genitals. In comparison, American concepts became tame and yawn-inducing. Our simplistic ideals of surrounding a ring in a steel cage had nothing on the Japanese position of ‘anything is okay.’ Cactuses, crocodiles, ‘landmines’, glass panes, unwieldy giant cartoon-hammers, barbed wire, razorblades, and the endless creativity of fan-made weaponry; all of these were regular staples (including staples, of course) of the creative, but small, ‘Japanese Deathmatch’ scene. Our modest attempts at ‘hardcore’ wrestling were toppled by Japanese entrepreneurship in goofiness and insanity. But what could I expect at this show? Undoubtedly, with the once popular fad of American wrestling long past its golden years, surely Japan’s counterpart had suffered. So, what exactly was left to behold?
I followed my large conspirator into a desiccated, small elevator; its stained floor and half-gnawed posters providing me with entertainment as we ascended up and up. Eventually, the doors clicked open onto a dingy corridor. Here, my associate rushed ahead and then paused, before looking back and waving me over frantically, all smiles and reassurance.
As I bought a ticket, I could hear a rhythmic pounding beyond a set of closed doors. Tallying through the myriad obscure venues I could otherwise mistakenly be stumbling into, horrid yet tantalizingly perverse things began to slink and slither into the reaching darkness before my eyes. I mused about what niche-fashion, transgender charade I was about to bare my virgin soul to as I pushed my way past and inside.
Reserved and composed, the small audience sat in silence. Clean-cut wrestlers tossed each other around in standard fare, but to my dismay, there wasn’t a hint of gore or high-flying acrobatics to be seen. I seated myself in that serene crowd, the intensity and focus on their faces as they watched was a compelling slice of delight, but as an experienced pro-wrestling fan, the pervading atmosphere of politeness and respect was unheard of. Where was the blood? Where was the complete ridiculousness I’d always heard associated with Japanese wrestling? It was certainly a new experience; a far cry from the rowdy drunkenness of an American crowd (at damn-near any event for that matter). But as the match continued, crew members crept amid the dimness to monkey with barbed-wire and plywood on the sidelines. Then, I recalled the standard practice of a warm-up match, and I knew that soon my fears of finding only a docile display would shortly be but a passing concern.
With the next match came the night’s first installment of bloodied barbed-wire – and lots and lots of metal-folding chairs. And, it naturally follows that this eventually led to a combination of the two. The satisfying echoes of several men thudding thin metal encrusted in wire against muscle left me pondering the parallels of pro-wrestling and sadomasochism. Now, with the introduction of melee weapons, the placid demeanor of the audience crumbled. From behind me, the trill voices of Japanese women carried on the tradition of heckling, something that was interesting to hear in a foreign tongue for the first time. Good guys versus bad guys have always been the foundation of any fight, and the women’s home-crafted battle mantras filled the tiny arena, urging on favorites while calling for the castration of villains. As the night progressed onward, the athletic stunts grew more magnificent and painful. Wrestlers took turns throwing one another off of various heights and into make-shift piles of death, only pausing to deliver the wrestling equivalent of a B-Movie one liner.
In one match, one wrestler flung another off the top ring post, over his shoulder, and down onto a bed of plywood and barbed wire held up by chairs and glass. It’s no wonder the bodies of these deranged men are a virtual pocked and scarred map of their deathmatch careers. And, here in Japan, the blood is very much real. The entire premise of the performance is to actually do these things, just rigged in a way that is less painful (and lethal) than how it looks. But these Japanese athletes are a bit less cautious, specifically the deathmatch performers. You soft-bellied wusses my be unaware, but bleeding can become a little chaotic and unpredictable when you’re trading blows with ladders and throwing yourself into razorblades and glass. The crowd in attendance knew this, which is why they shielded themselves with newspapers and ponchos whenever the action spilled out into the seats, sending sweat, blood, and other mysterious elements splattering upon enraptured faces.
Time quickly became irrelevant. All watched, fix on the constant tight-rope blend of physical slapstick and daredevil stunts. One minute, the crowd counted blows delivered with a street sign and baseball bat to an unfortunate man’s genitals. A collective gasp rose from the onlookers as one wrestler summersaulted off a ladder to land knees first on his rival who was stretched out below, ironically on top of another ladder. But, it wasn’t until the staff began to decorate the entire ring with a spool of razor wire and stacks of fluorescent light tubes that I knew something special was coming. “Crazy Monkey” Jun Kasai and “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa entered the ring, tag-team partners in tow, for the final event. Both renown for their self-abusing styles, they wasted no time flinging one another into the ropes, the glass tubes exploding into glittering mists. Blood washed down each man’s face, their exhausted grins becoming something nightmarish and mesmerizing. Jaki screamed in half-delight as Jun Kasai raked broken glass back and forth across his forehead. Kasai’s mismatched eyes searched out the crowd for approval, and when joyous cries spurred him on, he shot a discolored tongue through the missing front teeth of his battered face, and smiled in ecstasy. And then he was hit from behind with about twenty glass tubes taped together.
When the lights came on and I walked with the rest of the crowd out to meet the night’s performers, they had already changed outfits. Gone were the modern coliseum combatants, replaced by battered and still-bleeding human beings that do this as a profession. It’s fascinating that even for a tiny crowd of two-hundred fans these men are willing to butcher themselves for the sake of entertainment.
Regardless of the cuts and bruises, the heart and creativity that goes into these matches is the cornerstone of admiration for the close-knit following of devoted fans. And, the violent spectacle of sweat, blood, and crazy is unparalleled by anything else you will find in Nagoya. So, keep your eyes pried open, and when the time comes grab your rain/blood slicker and come out to Club Diamond Hall in Shinsakae, where Big Japan Wrestling will throw your quivering mind from the top ropes. Oooooohhhh yeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!!