NEW JAPAN AND INNOVATION IN PRO-WRESTLING
- INTRODUCTION -
There was an audible pop as boot met flesh, and Okada tumbled to the canvas, devastated. The crowd, enraptured by every strike, let out an awe-struck gasp (this knee was particularly vicious). That gasp spread out as a wave within the arena, and then fractured into light clapping and sporadic cries of "Kennnnnyyyyyy!"
My jaw was firmly on the floor. My eyes were stretched wide, straining to confirm what they had just seen.
Was this real? How could that have just happened?
Well...yes, it was real. It was New Japan Pro-Wrestling. And I was in love.
For the past two weeks, I've been perusing New Japan's streaming service, New Japan World, familiarizing myself with the promotion's style and its wrestlers. The process has been gradual, and thoroughly enjoyable.
New Japan's perspective on professional wrestling is, very simply, that pro-wrestling is a sport and that pro-wrestling is real.
It is an unapologetically mature sports-centric take on professional wrestling. There is certainly some comedy and absurdity in the promotion, but the perspective remains firmly grounded by the importance of competition (even in the silliest of circumstances). This perspective informs not only the "strong-style" of the actual matches, but the camera-work during a match and the presentation of vignettes and interviews. Everything about it is designed to make the viewer feel as though they are entering a serious world for serious people; a world of athletic honor and violence.
This is a traditional perspective of professional wrestling performance, and yet New Japan makes it all feel entirely new. In fact, professional wrestling feels so new in New Japan that as I watch it, I feel as though I've been transported into the distant future where super human warriors are doing battle for championships and prestige.
If you want to know what the future of professional wrestling looks, sounds, and feels like, watch New Japan.
I've noticed, even in my short tenure as a fan, that New Japan's innovations are not limited to its camera-work, characterizations, or its sports-centric point of view (although all of that plays a large role in making it feel fresh). Even the phrase "strong-style", which is a stiff, hard-hitting form of pro-wrestling with many legitimate slaps and kicks, does not adequately describe what sets New Japan matches apart from those of other promotions.
There are two common, recurring elements I've noticed in New Japan matches, and these elements can help elevate the art of professional wrestling in the future.
I will refer to these two elements as "interruption" and "spacial potentiality".
- INTERRUPTION -
"...what begins as blatant defiance for its own sake gradually evolves into a subtler refinement of artistic possibility."
When any art has been around for a while it starts to develop some recognizable patterns and conventions. The practitioners of that art settle into those comfortable patterns. Excelling in that art becomes about refining the use of such patterns to the point where it's seemingly impossible to improve upon them. These patterns also condition audiences to expect certain things from certain arts at certain times; everyone becomes trapped in a kind of robotic complacency.
Inevitably, along comes an artist who bravely defies all of these conventions, shattering the comfortable creative patterns. This kind of artist is often met with intense skepticism (perhaps even disdain) for defying the established norms of their art. If that artist breaks these traditions with skill, however, that artist will reveal an entirely new way of creating in that particular medium. Future generations of artists will be inspired by that creativity, and a renaissance naturally follows.
This break with convention represents a kind of interruption in the flow of a particular medium's consciousness.
Without that deviation from the norm it would be impossible for innovation in that art. These interruptions often result in great, surprising works that stun audiences precisely because they defy the audience's deeply ingrained expectations.
These interruptions are also iterative; what begins as blatant defiance for its own sake gradually evolves into a subtler refinement of artistic possibility.
Pattern-recognition in pro-wrestling is encoded into the wrestling fan's DNA. We have watched pro-wrestling for so long that we anticipate an equal and opposite reaction to every action. The especially observant pro-wrestling fan isn't just watching a move that is currently happening; they are also envisioning the next few moves in a larger, more elaborate sequence or narrative. Some styles of wrestling make that pattern-recognition easier than others, and sometimes that ease of recognition is very effective.
For example, a wrestler may catch their opponent's foot after a failed attempt at a kick. Their opponent bounces on one leg for a few moments. Just before the wrestler moves to strike, their bouncing opponent will leap up and counter with an Enzuigiri (a sweeping kick to the head with their free-leg).
This sort of pattern occurs so often that fans are inured to it. Wrestlers eventually figure out that the fans are inured, and so wrestlers find new ways to execute this kind of familiar "spot". Perhaps the wrestler who performs the Enzuigiri misses because the other wrestler ducks or the wrestler who's holding the foot kicks the other foot out from under their opponent or maybe the spot is reimagined as the counter of a hold.
Oftentimes in modern pro-wrestling, the expected counter is countered, resulting in a pop from the crowd, and sometimes that second counter is also countered a third or forth time. The goal with each new counter is to continue wowing the audience. The resulting action is attempting to subvert expectations, and can often be incredibly entertaining to watch. Still, adding more counters to a predictable sequence doesn't truly break a pattern - it simply lengthens a pattern by throwing in a few extra, fun steps, chasing a reaction that inevitably becomes increasingly elusive. It's very easy for counters upon counters to also become predictable over time, to the point where simply doing the spot in its original form becomes original again.
New Japan matches break from everything I just described. New Japan Pro-Wrestling takes the concept of artistic interruption and realizes it literally in the action of a realistic fight.
Rather than stringing together counters upon counters (although that also happens too), moves can be legitimately cut-off before they even start. Even if a fan is anticipating a counter, that counter never comes in the exact manner or with the usual timing fans may expect. Strikes are stopped mid wind-up with fierce chops, shocking knees, hard punches, and painful kicks. These sudden attacks have the ability to change the tenor of a match instantaneously.
The focus of the match is not on getting to the next big move or the next big "spot". The focus remains consistently in the present of the fight and anything can happen and anything can result in victory.
This "all moves are created equally" approach to pro-wrestling performance results in an unpredictable atmosphere that's synonymous with legitimate sport. Competitors, in real life, always have more than one or two ways to win. New Japan's wrestlers adopt that philosophy and work it into their portrayal of wrestling. At any time there can be an "interception" that dramatically shifts the momentum of a fight.
It's not as though Omega or Okada don't try to finish a match with their respective "finishers". Wrestlers certainly return to that convention and consistently try to land their "best shot". But the finishing move is not treated as the primary way to win a match. The "big moves" are treated with reverence and significance, but not at the expense of every other move executed during a bout. Every offensive or defensive event radiates with opportunity.
This viewing experience will fundamentally challenge the way many fans process a wrestling match. Past a certain point in these battles, a clothesline may be just as powerful as a massive slam off the top rope due to the shear amount of tangible damage that's already been done. Winning by any means is what propels matches forward, not performing a recognizable sequence to the delight of the audience.
This style is aided by the fact that the audience actually pays attention to everything that's happening in a match. The crowd is not listlessly waiting for the obvious "babyface comeback" or the next "high spot"; they are engaged in every single moment.
They actually appreciate what they're seeing.
New Japan matches and wrestlers are often criticized for the apparent "no-selling" of high-impact moves. This "no-selling" represents an interruption in the expected flow of a match, and can result in the fight feeling more realistic. These matches re-calibrate the meaning of damage, and redefine how damage effects a wrestler. The result is the portrayal of a wrestling match as if it is truly real, and a lot of damage must be done, regardless of how "big" or "small" a move is, in order to render an opponent down for the count of three.
It's not as though New Japan's best wrestlers don't sell the idea of pain. Their portrayals of pain are consistently visible in their expressions and gestures, escalating over the course of their battles. The difference in their style is that, at any moment, like a fighter in any real fight, these wrestlers can burst forth with sudden, devastating strikes and push the match in an unexpected direction. Or, wrestlers will pop-up after a move that we've been trained to regard as devastating, and then hit their opponent with a similarly devastating move. The way such spots are executed is not without regard to the battle that precedes a "no-sell" moment. Quite the opposite. Such moments are true to the nature of sport, where the athletes tap into a final energy-reserve after having had most of their energy sapped by a fight.
The only reliable pattern in these matches is that, eventually, the opponents will start trading legitimate forearms, slaps, or headbutts.
Aside from these typical "who's stronger" back and forth exchanges, New Japan matches consistently offer a version of pro-wrestling that refuses to adhere to familiar patterns whilst rigidly adhering to the portrayal of pro-wrestling as a real sport.
The other, more ingenuous way New Japan's wrestlers subvert expectations and bring realism to wrestling, is by using the entirety of their three-dimensional space.
- SPACIAL POTENTIALITY -
"They are painting on neglected parts of the canvas."
The average pro-wrestling match exists on a fairly rigid plane.
To illustrate, imagine looking down on a wrestling ring from directly above (see Figure A below). The canvas of a ring is a square with 90 degree angles, and there are ropes on each side of that square, and there are posts at each right-angle or "corner" of that square.
The center exists as a kind of invisible nucleus - an unconscious focal point of the wrestlers, their action, and the camera documenting them - and everything that happens in a typical match extends outward from, and then eventually returns to, the center.
The standard lanes of motion within this space run along the axis of an invisible cross-shape that bisects the square. Wrestlers typically bounce from the center of one side directly across to the center of another. This cross-shape then rotates 45 degrees throughout a match as the lanes shift from a "rope-to-rope motion" to a "post-to-post motion". This represents the horizontal plane of a typical wrestling match, and the limitations naturally imposed on movement within that plane.
To understand the vertical plane of that same match, imagine seeing a wrestling ring from the side. It is now a rectangle (see Figure B below). The wrestler's bodies move along the same cross-shaped lanes only you do not see those lanes as a cross. From this vantage, they are moving side to side and front to back without a perception of three-dimensional depth. In this plane there are three common vertical levels of action: low (down on the mat for holds and covers), standing (at full-height for punching exchanges and high moves), up (on top of the ropes or ring posts for superplexes, dives, etc).
Inevitably, because motion usually occurs only within these lanes and heights, there are gaps where wrestlers do not go.
To put this more simply; wrestlers don't really use the entire ring as regularly as they use these familiar pathways.
And they don't really need to. A lot of variety and ingenuity is possible within these well-defined lanes and levels of motion. There are also safety concerns when deviating from these lanes. Pro-wrestling has a time-tested choreography imposed on its literal map of action, and to deviate from that involves a certain amount of risk and coordination. But taking that risk can result in innovation in the art of wrestling, and that's exactly what New Japan's wrestlers have done.
They fill in the gaps. They are painting on neglected parts of the canvas.
The lanes and levels of motion are less clearly defined in New Japan, and the wrestlers are free to go almost anywhere within the horizontal and vertical planes of the wrestling ring. This is what I mean by "spacial potentiality". At any height, even those residing between "low", "standing", and "up", and at any point on the canvas, something spectacular can happen.
What does this actually look like in a match? Pictures, gifs, and videos will not do this justice. It must be seen in a match to be fully understood.
It looks like Okada ducking down after a typical Irish-Whip, sweeping around from one side of the ring to the next before ever hitting the opposite ropes, whilst crouching, and then popping back up into a sprint. It looks like Omega spring-boarding from the outside of the ring toward his opponent in the center, course-correcting mid-flight, and then kicking his opponent's ankle. It looks like Ishii suddenly barreling into a seated opponent, and extending his body into a sliding clothesline.
These changes may appear subtle at first glance, perhaps even unnoticeable, but they have a profound effect on the flow of a wrestling match, and particularly on the psychology of the viewer.
As every wrestler's action breaks, both literally and figuratively, the familiar reactions of their opponent, the fight becomes increasingly real precisely because it becomes so unpredictable. The truly unpredictable wrestling match is the one that is "doing the art of wrestling" best, because it is simulating the legitimate unpredictability of sport. The motion and action of New Japan's wrestlers eventually returns to the familiar lanes and levels, just as a wide receiver has a set number of predetermined routes. But the ability to move elsewhere and to do the unexpected remains ever-present.
This makes New Japan's style a delightful challenge to describe and analyze. It's best summed up with the exclamation, "Wow".
- CONCLUSION -
All sports have rules and imaginary boundaries. Within those rules and boundaries athletes improvise so as to achieve their desired goal. The rules and boundaries of pro-wrestling reside mainly in the minds of wrestling fans due to years of conditioning. New Japan's wrestlers improvise within those imaginary boundaries and the result is athletic authenticity and ingenuity within the art.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling subverts the viewer's expectations by interrupting the flow of traditional wrestling spots and by pushing the literal boundaries placed upon motion and action in a match. As a result, the promotion is venturing into the undiscovered country of professional wrestling with an inviting style and substance.
I am happy to have finally joined them, and I look forward to whatever comes next.
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