Segunda Caida

Phil Schneider, Eric Ritz, Matt D and occasional guests write about pro wrestling. Follow us @segundacaida

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Embrace of the Backstroke: NOAH “Great Voyage in Tokyo ‘09″, 9/27/09

Consistency, uncertainty remain in Misawa's wake

I find NOAH to be one of the easiest promotions to watch: there’s a predictability to their format and booking that’s approachable (if frustrating to some), and their roster is deep. This may prove less the case in the months to come: it’s been speculated that without their flagship television, talent will be cut. Conspicuously absent from the card were Takuma Sano, Masao Inoue, and Ippei Ota. Solid hands Tamon Honda, Junji Izumida, Kentaro Shiga, and Kishin Kawabata were reduced to an untaped tag opener. In what some are calling the last time NOAH will ever sell out Budokan Hall, this first in a pair of Misawa memorial cards proved a mixed bag that signaled neither certain doom nor a turning point for the company. It was largely the same familiar NOAH that always goes down smooth. What can I tell you: sometimes grits are all you’re hungry for.

Akihiko Ito vs. Genba Hirayanagi

Genba is a sometimes fun version of Dick Togo still in search of motivation, not likely to ever find Togo’s breakneck pace or precision. Ito works so light that dropkicks which connect perfectly well still look like they’re rolling over Genba’s form like waves in Bermuda. They try the rudo spot of Genba grabbing the ref to avoid being taken to the mat before being bridged for a pin. It ended up looking like Ito playing hopscotch, which for those of you under 25 is kinda like Dance Dance Revolution on pavement. This is the first boring Hirayanagi match I can recall, one where his heel act of not giving a damn felt like legit apathy or laziness.

Atsushi Aoki vs. NOSAWA Rongai

Nosawa’s a hooligan character. When reading his name here I thought of him being dragged into an interrogation room.

“Who are you?”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

Aoki’s entrance music is a Japanese pop-punk cover of “Hotel California”. The point of this match is to make Aoki look great by jobbing out a known, overconfident outsider. Preferably by tapping him with an armbar, which Aoki has successfully made NOAH’s first over submission. Instead this was worked as competitive, with a stilted momentum stemming from Nosawa’s comedy and lack of fluidity. Aoki gives Rongai most of the match, coughing up a lung when kicked and writhing in pain when “caught” in limp crossfaces. The inevitable deadweight section of modern Japanese juniors wrestling, in which two men play Triple H and hit a series of Irish whips that go nowhere, was here followed by something far better: believable nearfalls which did hype Aoki’s armbar as instant death. In a match against a guy who takes himself too seriously but is engaging to watch vs. a cad getting polite applause out of crowds, I’ll take Gary Sinise over Drew Carey. And I will stand by that half-baked analogy considering how much Rongai’s mugging resembles Carey’s.

Tsuyoshi Kikuchi/Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. Ricky Marvin/Taiji Ishimori

Kikuchi has always had stubby crooked arms, but his entire physique has now become a knotted slab. His trot around the ring and perpetual shaking of cobwebs are reminiscent of Rick Steiner, his face equally canine. Ishimori hit several flashy psych-out non-moves that clearly weren't really going to be executed and thus psyched out no one but his opponent. Marvin in contrast is far better at telegraphing one move, and surprising a crowd by delaying, biding time, then hitting something different and more impactful, as he does with a tope to Kanemaru. What I said about juniors sharing Hunter’s Irish whip overkill does not apply to Marvin, who should be throwing them all the time after killing Kanemaru with one into the guardrail. The Kikuchi-as-dog phenomenon continues when he bites Marvin’s hand and is reprimanded by being swatted on the snout. This being a Sunday, any section of the paper would have fared better rapping against Kikuchi’s skull. Marvin’s rope running and flips were great as ever: he is too agile and precise in movement to have a bad match right now. I’m a sometime defender of Kanemaru, but he was the weak link throughout, hitting cross-bodies that looked like curtsies and no-selling so as to sneak in bad lariats. This was the first match on the card to feel like an actual Misawa tribute, or proxy tribute to King’s Road, as the story told was that of Kikuchi’s resilience, and willingness to take offense as stiff as Ishimori’s brainbuster. The vaudeville finish of dudes beating on each other while they literally ran offstage and crashed into the company logo worked.

Bison Smith vs. Shuhei Tanaguchi

Smith is a fine photocopy of a boardwalk caricature of Vader. He’ll likely never have a match as good as Misawa’s GHC defense against him. Tanaguchi is a petrified goober, Mike Graham with a bleached mushroom cut. Bison quickly press slams him from the ring to the ramp, powerbombing him back into it, on and on in a series of moderately impressive displays. Watching Smith, this seems a new world order, in which the monster gaijin is no longer the menacing foreign invader: this audience’s grandparents are dead, and this Coloradan Caucasian wears both the American and Japanese flag on his trunks. In fact, Smith gets the biggest round of applause thus far off his running shoulder tackle tope from ramp to ring. They go through the motions of a comeback, but all we learn is that Tanaguchi is presently a third-rate Sugiura who can lift heavyweights up for timid backdrops. Smith tires of this and hits an impressive lariat from his knees. That he then wins with a Styles Clash feels meager and out of place, like Sherlock Holmes ruminating over a bubble gum cigarette.

Jun Akiyama/Minoru Suzuki/Takashi Sugiura vs. KENTA/Takeshi Rikio/Mohammed Yone

If you’ve seen Sugiura and/or Yone wrestle tags in the last few years, you know how this starts: rope running from both, leg drops from Yone, and frenzied swing-and-miss Yakuza kicks from Sugiura. This doesn’t get going until several minutes in when Suzuki and KENTA square off. Both fake hatred well: Suzuki in particular has built this autumn of his career on getting into a Sheriff of Nottingham-level quantity of slap fights. The story told throughout the match of Suzuki taking the piss out of Akiyama fizzles, even if Akiyama gets that someone has to play the rube for the bit to succeed. Rikio has gotten an unfairly bad rap in the past, but his face is too soft to play ringleader of the motocross gang, or whatever gimmick they’ve got him penciled in for. Your heel Cena can’t look like Lou Albano. His ring work is equally uninspired and brings the match to a halt. KENTA on the other hand shines no brighter than in tags, this one no exception. Even Suzuki and Akiyama failed to match his viciousness. Were Marufuji a better face-in-peril, the two would today make a premier team. This slogged to the finish line, with everyone killing time and looking out of position, none moreso than the ref who glaringly ignored Rikio’s rope break, presumably thinking they were going to the Sugiura tap out victory earlier than they were.

Kensuke Sasaki/Takeshi Morishima/Katsuhiko Nakajima vs. Genichiro Tenryu/Yoshinari Ogawa/Kotaro Suzuki

From the outset Sasaki surprises: he asserts his size advantage over Suzuki on the mat and throws a series of quality chops. Tenryu takes some bumps from Morishima, drawing less crowd sympathy and humor from his begging off than expected. But the interplay of Tenryu as Nakajima’s drunk, berating uncle pays off: when they finally tussle, Tenryu’s chops and lariats blister. Nakajima sells Tenryu’s double chicken wing for lack of anything else to do: he is stuck. Later, Ogawa’s eccentricity is apparent in a shot of Tenryu on the apron that pans shortly to Ogawa chewing tape off his fist. Sasaki and Tenryu have a chop battle here that can stand toe-to-toe or higher (ankle-to-ankle) with every other time that bit’s been done in NOAH. The difference is Tenryu’s expressive bracing of himself with each chop, the tense willing of himself to press on. He hulks up at least three times here, each better than the last. The finish is disengaged routine, but the Tenryu vs. KO clashes are too deep to not name this fight of the night.

Kenta Kobashi/Yoshihiro Takayama vs. Keiji Mutoh/Akira Taue

Kobashi sporting a shiner was weird, as if one’s senile grandfather took a spill. This isn’t much until Kobashi and Mutoh lock up, and even then the awe isn’t there. Mutoh’s offense is too loose and sloppy for this setting, especially considering he dwarfs Kobashi in height and mass, a surprise even when considering Kobashi’s cancer. Kobashi’s selling of these moves is admirable, but can’t hide Mutoh hitting shining wizards and bulldogs with the wobbly tentativeness of a modern Mick Foley. The timing of tags throughout feels arbitrary. Takayama and Mutoh have had two exciting, violent singles this year. Yet when they lock up here, Mutoh settles for sitting in a weak STF. The crowd is up for this match but is given little to applaud: these are broken men performing an act too hobbled to be drama, and too humorless to be comedy. The highlight is Kobashi’s selling while stuck in Mutoh’s figure four: a testament to his expressiveness that’s been at times lost or taken for granted in recent years, but which now seems his greatest asset entering this pseudo-Baba phase of his career. The hold is broken in an illogical moment of Kobashi reversing the figure-four, and Mutoh reversing a second time, yet for some reason going for a rope break, even though it should be he who then has the leverage over Kobashi. Taue improves as the match progresses, getting a huge pop for his Shining Wizard and taking an insane Kobashi rana from the top rope perfectly. Like Kobashi, his selling made this all that it was. The ending is weak and too sudden, ironic given how overwrought NOAH finishes can be. While it may seem naïve to expect more from four wrecked workers, an excess of workrate or brutal head drops is not what’s missing, but a lack of storytelling, as if it was thought that simply putting these cogs together several years too late would suffice.

Go Shiozaki vs. Akitoshi Saito (GHC Title)

It’d be easy to give this one high marks for sentiment, but initially it really does click on several unexpected cylinders. Saito’s kicks are very stiff, and the backdrop driver is teased appropriately as a big deal. Even the test of strength works well. Shiozaki’s execution is still lacking, and for a presumed ace his size, his strikes still lack fire. The story early on is of Saito working over Shiozaki’s arm for several minutes. When Saito is on offense, Go sells. When Go is on offense, he does not.

One misunderstanding in the ongoing debate regarding selling in Japanese wrestling is the idea that if someone sells, they’re doing all that can be asked of them. Yet like any aspect of any emotive performance, selling can be convincing or unconvincing, effective or ineffective. Shiozaki recognizes that he is supposed to be selling, and makes a sporadic effort to do so, but like a goon actor whose crocodile tears we don’t buy in a romantic comedy, continues to chop with the right arm at full blast. If anything the strikes are stronger after the arm has taken a thorough mauling. The logistical flaws to such un-selling are often dismissed with the false ideas that a) Japanese audiences don’t care about selling, b) because they don’t, neither should anyone else watching and/or critiquing the match, and c) that wrestling is like a sport, and in sports, athletes play through pain thanks to grand intangibles such as “heart” and “adrenaline”. Option C is not a terrible story to tell in professional wrestling. Yet it seems obvious that the telling of that story would be more engaging were the worker persevering through pain visibly express that anguish, as Kobashi, Tenryu, and Kikuchi all did earlier on this card. It would ring false for me to criticize any of them for making will-powered comebacks given that all expressed how brutal the ass kicking they had taken was. For Shiozaki to use the arm as if nothing has happened negates the work Saito has put into clobbering it: from a kayfabe perspective, Shiozaki’s weapon is his right arm, and Saito aims to neutralize it. Good selling achieves two apparent, crucial goals: it gets over the offense of one’s opponent, and in turn gets over one’s self for being able to endure what is being dramatized as devastating. The issue isn’t that Shiozaki uses his arm to win with a proverbial Hail Mary: it’s that he uses the arm crucially in nearly every single move he hits through the remainder of the match, and after a minute or so of selling gives no indication that the arm has been damaged.

That said, Shiozaki does take a true beating, and the middle section of this isn’t bad. Modern Japanese wrestling is often dragged down by the compulsion to have a long-as-fuck epic, and in doing so fill the middle of the match with a bunch of wind sucking and lollygagging. Saito is capable enough to know that if you’re gonna catch your breath, it helps to break up the monotony with a vicious lariat or two. In what can be taken as a tribute to Misawa in itself, Shiozaki’s elbow smashes are the best strike he throws, something he should add to his arsenal. Using your destroyed arm to hit a handful of quick, nicely executed elbows also seems less glaring than using it to hit a half dozen lariats in succession. And while the victor of the match is never in doubt, Saito’s last stand is well executed, hitting a great suplex and as stiff a scissor kick as I’ve ever seen. His performance was not merely one those sympathetic to woe he’s expressed over hitting Misawa’s deathblow could pat him on the back for. This was an inspired performance by one who NOAH would do well to depend on as a maestro guiding the next generation for whatever time the promotion has left.

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Blogger ¯\(°_0)/¯ said...

The [figure four leglock] is broken in an illogical moment of Kobashi reversing the figure-four, and Mutoh reversing a second time, yet for some reason going for a rope break, even though it should be he who then has the leverage over Kobashi.

I feel as if I have seen Mutoh do this exact same thing in a few different matches, which means he has probably been doing it for some time, since I have not seen a Mutoh match since 2006,

4:02 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

this was one of the more engaging wrestling reviews i've had the enjoyment of reading on a long time.. - good stuff..

12:11 PM  

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