The Unreality of Gatoh Move

There is a sequence in the episode 53 of Gatoh Move’s weekly #ChocoPro series where Mei Suruga attempts to pin Ryo Mizunami using one of the metal shutters that closes over the glass of the repurposed dentist’s office that is the promotion’s home in Ichigaya, Tokyo. As the referee counts to three on the shutter, Mizunami powers out in a squat position at 2.5, in a brilliant inversion of the test-of-strength cliche we see so often in professional wrestling.

Taken as a realistic representation of a fighting contest, it is patently ridiculous. How can you be pinned like that? Why doesn’t Mizunami just move? As a sequence within Gatoh Move’s zany and freeform universe, it works exactly as intended. It further amps up the drama, showcases Suruga’s ingenuity and makes ample use of the Falls Count Anywhere stipulation. This article is at once a love letter to Gatoh Move and a rumination on what we abandon when we place an exclusive focus on realism and immersion in our viewing of wrestling.

Realism in Professional Wrestling

The concept of realism has a long and esteemed history in professional wrestling. While some fans reference a time before the lid was blown off, before the business was exposed as fake, it is evident that there has always been some element of suspension of disbelief. How much effort has been made to give the impression of a real sport, and how successfully this has been achieved, has varied massively between decades, countries and promotions. For example: shoot-style wrestling giant UWFI may have seen success in this regard in Japan in the 1990s, but it is hard to say whether mixed martial-arts contributed to UWFI’s eventual decline because it was simply a more enjoyable product or because it had successfully undermined the realism of the promotion.

More Professional Wrestling:

Today, each promotion has its own internal logic, and as fans we can set our own threshold about what we are willing to accept. But somewhere along the way, fans and promoters alike became convinced that reality was the key, whether in the form of a glimpse behind the curtain of the wrestling business, in feuds that excise real-life wounds or in matches intended to look like real fights. So pervasive have these elements been that the WWE named the period of its booking between 2014 and 2016 the ‘Reality Era.’ Almost every week a new gif of a botch or sequence from AEW will go viral on Twitter, with many fans mercilessly accusing AEW of exposing the business with unrealistic and unprofessional-looking wrestling.

Why is it, given all of this, that in 2021, there is no wrestling that I want to watch more than a 4-foot-10 Mei Suruga trying to pin a much larger, stronger woman with the shutter of a disused dental office? By dispensing with the concept of realism altogether, Gatoh Move has made room for character work and story to shine, changing how I think about professional wrestling.

The Fundamentals of Gatoh Move

Gatoh Move is the brainchild of veteran joshi wrestler Emi Sakura, who worked for All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW) and Frontier Martial Arts (FMW) before founding the promotion Ice Ribbon in 2006 and training Tsukasa Fujimoto, Riho, and Hikaru Shida, among others. After leaving Ice Ribbon, Sakura founded the promotion Bangkok Girls in Thailand in 2012 with Pranchapoom Boonyatud or Pumi, who at the time were doing Thai-language commentary for foreign wrestling broadcasts. The promotion was renamed to Gatoh Move and operated for several years in Thailand and Japan before the running only in Japan as of 2019.

Since then, the promotion has been sequestered to its own little world, a disused waiting room on the ground floor underneath a dental clinic in Ichigaya, Tokyo. #ChocoPro has become a platform for a diverse range of performers all learning, creating and wrestling in front of a live audience on the internet, from the plucky and scrappy upstart Mei Suruga to relatable investigative journalist turned wrestler Lulu Pencil, the charismatic Baliyan Akki and the 16-year-old Rin Rin. Freelance talents from across the wrestling scene are regular fixtures too, including Yuna Mizomori of SeaDlinnng as a powerhouse heel, Hikaru Shida, and even Masato Tanaka.

Ichigaya Chocolate Square

But no character is as vital as Ichigaya Chocolate Square itself. Long time fans have become familiar with every quirk and detail of the building: the carefully framed Queen posters in the office, the posters drawn by roster members to thank fans for their financial support, the sliding windows which back out onto an alleyway and are used invariably as turnbuckles or as a means to take the action outside.

Before the pandemic, the venue could seat some 60 people. In March of 2020, Gatoh Move pivoted to YouTube with the weekly series #ChocoPro, propelled by a can-do attitude and a dedicated fanbase. As Sakura explained in an interview on the promotion’s own YouTube channel, its ingenuity and uniqueness was the result of the trying circumstances of running an independent promotion: “We didn’t do it this way by thinking, let’s do it like this. It’s because we have no money, couldn’t rent the venues, don’t have a ring. I realized it has turned into our originality.”

Gatoh Move

By holding almost all of its shows in one place, Gatoh Move has been able to carve its own identity and internal logic apart from other promotions. When professional wrestlers guest in Gatoh Move, it feels very much like they are entering this world. Where moves hit on padding are treated as impactful regardless of whether or not they look like they are. Where Suruga, who is 4-foot-10, is able to stand a fighting chance against almost anybody.

The commitment to simple, old-fashioned character work and storytelling means it is easy to jump into Gatoh Move from almost any point and understand what is happening. It is almost always a simple heel versus face dynamic but told with an aplomb, an infectious joy and a creativity which makes explicit use of the surroundings and riffs on character motivations. Freed from the creative constraints of TV deals, writers rooms and producers, the promotion continues to innovate by finding new twists on match stipulations which have long become anathema to most fans. That a half-hour long “I Quit” match with no-audience was one of my top matches of last year is a testament to how far ahead of the curve Gatoh Move is from other promotions. It included a sequence in which the investigative journalist Lulu Pencil was cello-taped to a wall, hung from the ceiling, and forced to watch as her beloved pink baseball cap had training weights dropped on it. And yet, it excelled first and foremost as a wrestling match, propelled by Lulu Pencil’s lovable underdog performance against a gloating Chris Brookes.

The Joy of Gatoh Move

The sheer volume of wrestling available in 2021 and the rise of wrestling-as-content, in which promotions are forced to run more shows and produce an ever greater amount of content, means it can be very easy to get caught up in watching wrestling without really understanding why you are watching it. Many a match since the beginning of the pandemic has felt like watching a series of disconnected moves happening in real time, because it is mandated.

Regardless of purported character motivations, it can feel like particular expectations about what professional wrestling has to be can become an albatross. New Japan Pro Wrestling books 35+ minute main events which you know will eventually cycle back around to a fighting spirit forearm-strikes-in-the-middle-of-the-ring spot because it is what is expected. While Gatoh Move benefits very obviously from running a single hour of wrestling per week for #ChocoPro and being freed of much of the obligations of a global wrestling promotion, it is still true that almost everything that happens within the tiny confines of Ichigaya Chocolate Square feels purposeful, fun and considered.

There is a joy in their unreality because it awakens you to the fact that what we enjoy is not professional wrestling. It is spectacle, it is storytelling, it is character-work, it is long-term investment, it is the surprises and the twists and turns. It can be many things to different fans, but it is almost definitely not simply two men standing in a ring hitting each other with realistic-looking-forearms.

Being able to evaluate media that you like watching not because of what it is, but because of how it makes you feel and how it does that, can give you a new appreciation of what you already watch, let you be more selective and open your sights to things that you hadn’t even considered. Far from simply being a promotion, Gatoh Move will expand your horizons.