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Torch Column: Drastic changes in Japanese wrestling - 5 Yrs Ago

Jul 13, 2003 - 10:20:00 AM
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The following is a reprint of Chris Zavisa's Torch Newsletter column from five years ago this week.

-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor

* * *

Torch Newsletter Archive
By Chris Zavisa, Torch columnist
Column: Update: Drastic changes in Japan
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #503
Cover dated: July 18, 1998


The highpoint in Japanese women's wrestling came on Nov. 20, 1994 as 42,500 fans paid over $5 million to view a ten hour All Japan Women's event at the Tokyo Dome. While the lowpoint cannot be so specifically cited, it most certainly came at some time during the last half of 1997. With the notable exception of the GAEA promotion run by Chigusa Nagayo, it appeared that the only news on Japanese women's wrestling cards was bad news.

All Japan Women, the nation's oldest surviving promotion, nearly collapsed and saw most of its workers leave when paychecks stopped early in the year. Their front office staff, once considered to be one of the best in wrestling also left for greener pastures. Less than a dozen wrestlers remained and the group having a future was highly improbable.

JWP, the second women's group, was hit hard by early retirements from two of its younger stars, Candy Okutsu and Hiroumi Yagi. One of their biggest names, Dynamite Kansai, had health problems for most of the year and worked a limited number of dates restricting her activities once in the ring. Their finances, which were never good at any time in the group's existence, were said to be especially tenuous late in 1997. LLPW and JD were anchored by aging workers whose glory days were a decade ago. Neither had a regular TV program and often borrowed from other groups to fill out larger cards. For all of women's wrestling, average attendance hit the lowest figures in decades with some shows even failing to sell out the once automatic confines of Korakuen Hall.

What would 1998 hold for women's wrestling? Would the downward spiral continue or would there be a reorganization and renewal of energies resulting in stronger promotions? Would the flood of retirements continue and how many promotions would close their doors? Towards the end of the year there was at last some positive news. Two of AJW's former stars would start their own promotions with outside financial backing. Both were former WWWA World Champions who enjoyed national name recognition and the allegiance of many of AJW's former workers.

Kyoko Inoue formed the NEO Ladies Japan promotion while Aja Kong formed ARSION. Both premiered in early 1998 and recently released commercial videotapes of their cards. Viewing the actual product clears up some questions about their style.

Kyoko Inoue got the jump on Aja and debuted her promotion at Korakuen Hall on Jan. 9 of this year. Nine women worked the card and all were former AJW wrestlers. The event was imaginatively dubbed "First Kiss" and its romantic connotation was not lost on anyone. Inoue presented five matches on the card with the format, style, and presentation being nearly identical to what AJW has done over the last two years. The show and its video version were highly professional with excellent production standards. On the surface, it looked as good as anything AJW has released.

With only nine workers and five bouts many worked more than once. In fact, only two women - Genki Misae and Saya Endo - worked once. Everyone else did double duty and Inoue went out for a third time. I once saw Al Snow work five times on one of his own cards in Lima, Ohio and Kyoko's first effort was reminiscent of that. The show was overall a fairly good one with a lot of fast-paced wrestling done by hard-working wrestlers displaying a high level of professionalism and skill. No bout was shorter than 14 minutes and the longest just under 22 minutes. In that respect it resembled a JWP card.

The undercard workers - Yuka Shina, Saya Endo, Tiny Mouse, Toshiko Tamura, and Genki Misae - have not significantly changed since their AJW days. The only one who showed any improvement in their work was Misae who lost a singles bout to Inoue. The other change came from Tanayama, still saddled with the horrible Tiny Mouse gimmick. She now has a shorter tail emerging from her backside.

Other than Kyoko, the stars of the show were the team of Etsuko Mita and Mima Shimoda. They worked the last two bouts on the card for a combined 40 minutes of hot action. They continued the bad girl, ECW style tactics that made them the most watchable thing in women's wrestling last year. They joined with Endo in the night's main event opposing Inoue, Chaparita Asari, and Tamura. It was the usual AJW four star match filled with hot action, brawling, and a build-up of dramatic near falls with lots of saves and last-second kick-outs.

The main event, much like the entire card, gave us nothing new or different or groundbreaking. It was simply the very good wrestling we have grown accustomed to with AJW. Only now it is from NEO Ladies of Japan.

On Feb. 15, they returned for a second card and on paper it appeared to be a much stronger line-up. Instead of the usual nine, they borrowed from other groups and had 15 wrestlers. The seven match card had another title that sounded like it came off a paperback romance novel - "Seven Chocolates." In addition to Inoue's regulars were four wrestlers from JWP - champion Hikari Fukuoka, Tomoko Kuzumi, Tomoko Miyaguchi, and Kanako Motoya. Jaguar Yokota and Chikako Shiratori were imported from JD and even Lioness Asuka and Shark Tsuchiya also were in the building and did a run-in.

Based on my 1997 ratings, that gave the card four of the top ten women's workers in Japan. But the taste of Seven Chocolates was not as sweet as that of First Kiss. Three of the seven bouts could be rated as good to very good bouts. Kuzumi vs. Shina and Fukuoka vs. Inoue were both solid efforts while falling short of anything spectacular or memorable. They staged a four-on-two elimination match pitting Mita and Shimoda against the quartet of Mouse, Asari, Shina, and Misae. While it had plenty of action and the work by all was good, the booking was uninspired making the same mistakes that AJW has made over the last two years.

Everyone's favorite badgirls won the match in four straight falls fought over 32 minutes. The younger girls were merely cannon fodder for the established stars. It would not have been difficult to make one minor change in the match and produce the same winner but a far different result. The veteran heel team could still go over, but could have elevated one of the other women at the same time. Instead of four straight falls, the fourth could have seen Asari or Shina pin either Mita or Shimoda setting up a dramatic finish with a one-on-one series of near falls. A pinfall by one of the younger workers would have elevated them in the eyes of the fans and made for a far more interesting finish. Instead, they opted for the easy and less imaginative way out.

Aja Kong's ARSON debuted on Feb. 18 from Korakuen Hall to a sellout crowd. They are partially sponsored by a casual clothing company called BADBOY and did a lengthy pre-show introduction with everyone showing off a BADBOY outfit. The show was creatively dubbed as "Virgin" and the poster advertising it featured topless photos of six of the more attractive fighters with arms folded across their bare chests. The poster is now a difficult-to-get collector's item and has been banned in several cities. Kong is not one of the six.

ARSION is subtitled as "hyper visual fighting" and attempts to combine a bit more of shoot fighting moves and submission into their style. The presentation was reminiscent of the second incarnation of the UWF or Akira Maeda's promotion RINGS. The style borrows heavily from the AJW foundation but with more matwork and deliberate pacing. The best match on the card was the opener, a 15 minute draw between Candy Okutsu and Yumi Fukawa.

Okutsu retired last year from JWP citing her back as the reason. Her main finisher with JWP was a German suplex that was repeated in rapid succession sometimes reaching a series of seven in just 30 seconds. It is not difficult to see that resulting in severe stress on her lower back. In this bout she stayed away for the suplex series, but did execute at least a half dozen high impact move off the top ranging from superplexes to missile dropkicks. Her back seemed to hold up just fine.

Her opponent, Yumi Fukawa, is a diminutive high school type whom AJW tried to push as a heroine to the younger girls in matching school uniforms. Her ring work ranged form subpar to passably mediocre and despite a promotional push never really caught on. Against Okutsu, she showed tremendous improvement, having never looked better. The match combined solid wrestling exchanges with a lot of top rope moves and even some limited work outside the ring as well. If Fukawa had worked under a new name and hood, I never would have thought it was her.

Joining the AJW refugees are Mikikio Futagami and Michiko Omukai from LLPW. Aja is attempting to push Futagami as a new Dynamite Kansai since she has a strong physique and good kicking skills. She defeated American Jesse Bennett in a mediocre outing. Omukai was paired against ARSION's founder and "fighting producer" Aja Kong. Aja gave Omukai a lot of offense and sold for her making it an interesting and competitive match. Omukai is an attractive woman who has some of the best facial expressions in the business. She reminds you of All Japan's Tsuyoshi Kikuchi at his peak. She may be the best "actress" in women's wrestling.

Aja finished off the Virgin debut with a six-woman bout that was pure AJW in style with hot moves and a lot of near falls. The style was a bit of a clash with the first four bouts but the work was good and ended the card on a high note. Kong debuted a new feature that I have not previously seen anywhere in wrestling. Each wrestler is introduced by name and their ARSION license number. For the record, here is the roster and appropriate license number. Aja Kong 1, Mariko Yoshida 2, Mikikio Futagami 3, Rie Tamada 4, Michiko Omuka 5, Yumi Fukawa 6, Candy Okutsu 7, Reggie Bennet 8, and Jessie Bennett 9.

Since April, ARSION has stumbled along presenting cards usually made up of only four singles matches and crowds usually below four figures. Several of the workers have suffered injuries causing them to miss cards or hamper their work in the ring. If ARSION is to become a long-term concern, Aja needs to issue more license numbers fast. And Kyoko has her own problems feuding with the front office personnel of NEO LADIES. More than a few eyebrows were raised on June 27 in Nanyo when Inoue had four singles bouts against Moue, Genki, Tamura, and Endo. Just over 1,000 were in attendance. The tiniest of the women's groups, JD, recently announced that their cornerstone and one of the truly greatest wrestlers of all time, Jaguar Yokota, would be retiring before year's end. That leaves a huge question mark if they can survive without her name and drawing power.

On Aug. 14 in Kawasaki, a reunion will be held with many of the all-time greatest of women's wrestling going back to the 1970s. Among those who will be there are the Beauty Pair, Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda, Dump Matsumoto, Bull Nakano, and Yakari Omori. It is a sign of the times that the biggest card in women's wrestling in 1998 is going to be composed of long retired legends, many of whom are now mothers and housewives. We are a lot more than four years away from the Tokyo Dome spectacular. In fact, it seems like it was an entire era ago.

Chris Zavisa of Plymouth, Mich. has been a Torch columnist since December 1990. He has travelled to Japan to cover professional wrestling events and has worked as a manager on independent wrestling events in the U.S.


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