After a surprising Dominion, New Japan Pro Wrestling made headway down Kizuna Road 2021. The tour so far has been about as dramatic as the usual Kizuna Road, featuring a much less surprising title change, a birthday present sneak attack, and in-ring highlights from Young Lion matches. Some of it was fun, some of it was boring, and let’s talk about it all right now on Fanfyte!
Character-building for super seniors
Every night of Kizuna Road has opened with back-to-back one-on-one matches from dojo boys Yuya Uemura and Yota Tsuji, facing bigger names than we usually see in undercard Young Lion singles bouts. Uemura faces Minoru Suzuki, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Zack Sabre Jr., Taichi, and Kota Ibushi, while Tsuji faces Tanahashi, ZSJ, Taichi, Kazuchika Okada, and Great-O-Khan. It always feels pretentious to call a Young Lion match the best on a card, but these matches are all the matches on their shows most worth watching. In these short but competitive matches, the audience really gets a sense of where Uemura and Tsuji are as performers and gets to see much bigger NJPW stars wrestle a different kind of match than usual.
I think the biggest takeaway from these matches is that Uemura seems ready to change his gear and go. His longstanding pseudo-rivalry with Suzuki has continually shown that Uemura can play an intense, aggressive babyface that the audience can get behind, and as his own person, beyond the support that all Young Lions get for trying. His June 23 match with Ibushi really drove this home and is probably the best match of this whole series. Ibushi’s urging brings out a more violent side of Uemura more similar to Ibushi’s own (with the demon-like “Murder Ibushi” stuff) and less like a Young Lion trying his hardest not to die. Though Uemura is still clearly in a rookie role, it feels like we see a more mature version of him fighting here. I don’t know what NJPW’s plans for Uemura are, with the state of the world what it is, but it feels like he could just change his costume and start having main roster angles now.
Although I’m rooting for Tsuji to get to switch out of the plain black trunks soon, it seems like he might need that excursion to Mexico or something else to put everything together. He frequently looks good on this tour – showing power and strategy against ZSJ, bringing extra aggression to Okada, the mentor vs. mentee match with Tanahashi in which he lasts surprisingly long – but I think his wrestling looks less consistently strong than Uemura’s. His new splash also seems like a bad idea: the way he does the move makes him look silly, and the fact that he never hits it makes him look like a doofus. Wrestlers obviously don’t need to look serious all the time to be successful, but this is an odd look for Tsuji during a period where he’s trying to prove himself and move from super senior to dojo graduate. But this criticism comes from a place of wanting to support Tsuji and wanting him to have a bright future based on the work he’s put in so far.
The future is ungovernable
In the grown-up world, L.I.J. has the two feuds that are furthered but not begun or completed on this tour: Shingo Takagi vs. Kota Ibushi for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and Dangerous Tekkers vs. Sanada and Tetsuya Naito for the Heavyweight Tag Team Championship. Los Ingos are in the odd position of being unable to promote both their feuds at once because there are only four of them active right now, and since the tag title match is sooner, we don’t see a lot of Ibushi vs. Shingo on Kizuna Road. When they do face off, they’re aggressive and look like they’ll have a good match, to the shock of no one!
Meanwhile, the L.I.J. vs. Dangerous Tekkers feud has a lot more trolling alongside the strong wrestling, and it’s the biggest highlight of the tour aside from the singles match series and the hyped-up Third Generation. Sanada, Naito, Taichi, and ZSJ continue to perfectly explore how we’ve seen them all wrestle and be annoying to each other before, but not in this specific combination. They use their histories with each other in a fresh way to deliver in the ring, in promos, and in bits. Taichi bringing Naito an empty “birthday present” cardboard box to attack him with is great; so is Dangerous Tekker’s much higher tolerance for Sanada and Zack admits is because he’s the cute one. We’re having a fun time in the heavyweight tag title scene, wow!
Schrodinger’s Dick Togo’s wrestling
My hopes going into the June 22 main event, the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championship match between Chaos (Yoshi-Hashi, Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii) and Bullet Club (Evil, Yujiro Takahashi, Dick Togo) were 1) for the Chaos midcarder squad to keep their excellent, record-breaking reign going, and 2) to see more of the Real Dick Togo, as brought up in his feud with Ishii. In general, the build to this match, as you would expect, featuring a lot of shenanigans, and like with most title matches involving Bullet Club, my fingers were crossed that the shenanigans would be kept to a level that didn’t prevent the match from being entertaining.
I think ultimately the amount of cheating, etc., in this match from Bullet Club was reasonable, but this trios match suffers from being stretched out to fit the typical NJPW main event title match length. There are so many sequences in this match that just deliver nothing, including two of the parts when they brawl outside the ring. Often when things speed up and then get slowed down, it feels like it’s for the sake of extending the match length rather than building up and then killing tension. Basically, it took a long time for this match to make me feel anything (besides annoyance at how easily Evil was able to no-sell so much offense from Ishii.) This match does start giving you things if you still with it though, especially Ishii and Goto working with Togo in the last ten minutes or so.
Along with the ending and Dick Togo actually doing wrestling things, this match has to get points for some non-wrestling things. First, the long-awaited return of Pieter, who thankfully does not have the Miho Abe good luck charm effect for BC here, but also thankfully, dances to Evil’s Castlevania music. Second, while the Ishii/Togo beef is over without giving us all that much (like a singles match, cough cough), I like that for three feuds in a row, Ishii is the guy heating things up for Chaos by getting in real feuds with people, first with Naito, then Togo (and possibly later Evil, judging from the post-match standoff), and now Yuji Nagata, which will actually give us a singles match. This Chaos team’s success as champions has had more to do with consistently good wrestling and Yoshi-Hashi angles so far, but the recent Ishii-fication of the 6-man title scene has been a positive too.
Old Man Summer is back like it never left
Japanese wrestling’s Old Man Summer went on hiatus when Mutoh lost the GHC title (Akiyama alone can’t define a whole season), but now that Kojima and Nagata are back from America and challenging for the trios titles with Tenzan, the summer once again belongs to the elderly.
So far, there’s nothing not to like about the Third Generation stepping up to Chaos. Wrestling-wise, this is the type (and length) of angle that allows them to all give one hundred percent, even though they’re not in their physical primes. (I think they could pull off a good 6-man title reign too.) It’s also a good story that NJPW is doing at the exact right time: Kojima and Nagata are fired up from their excursions in America, Tenzan is extra motivated by their extra motivation, they win their returning tag match, and they make their 6-man move later on the same show. It’s so easy to feel the Third Generation’s sense of momentum in this storyline, and the beef between these two groups, which has already given us harder promos than usual from the more veteran team, and the continuation of Ishii’s streak of dragging everyone who looks at him wrong. And we’re getting a Nagata vs. Ishii match out of it. It’s a straightforward, good wrestling angle that promises more straightforward, good wrestling in the future.
Who’s the Kutest in the world?
The June 23 IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match between Roppongi 3K and Bullet Club (El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori) was better in some ways than I expected, but still not a match I’d recommend. Like with the most recent 6-man title match, NJPW main event norms are a significant part of why this match isn’t great. Most of the opening fifteen minutes feels like the wrestlers are filling time more than anything. The first half of the match or so doesn’t build tension or provide the spectacle of a lot of cool moves; it’s the type of wrestling that makes you want to sneak a look at your phone and look back when it seems like things have gotten more exciting.
That being said, the match does escalate to a more exciting place towards the end, and the finish is legitimately surprising and frustrating in a funny way. The timing of ELP reminding everyone the Sudden Death loaded superkick exists by stomping on Yoh’s foot right before he hits the winning move is perfect, taking the viewer from “Oh yeah!” to “Oh shit!” in seconds. ELP rubbing it in afterward with the “You forgot about it! You forgot about it!” promo is icing on the cake. He’s right!
Although this match ends with one of ELP and Ishimori’s best moments, I don’t think there’s much to be excited about in another tag title reign from them. Every time I watch this team wrestle and do their little back-raking and dick-stepping bits I wish I was watching another company’s junior heavyweights (DDT, Dragon Gate, any luchadors, AEW), which, as I’m typing, I realize I’ve been writing about the ELP-era junior division for two years now. Even for those who enjoy this team, the junior tag team division is the least exciting it’s been in a while. They could get by with four regular tag teams and occasional other challengers, but now it’s down to three regulars (R3K, BC, and Suzukigun) who have wrestled each other so many times over the past two years (more for R3K and SZKG), plus maybe Taguchi and Wato could get involved. The best option for this division is probably putting it on ice until Hiromu gets back.
But the rest of NJPW’s near future looks more promising* than that of the junior tag division!
After closing out June with new short king tag champs, NJPW heads into a July that’s even more packed than the May they tried to have before nine wrestlers got the coronavirus. It starts with two more nights of Kizuna Road on July 1-2, one headlined by Nagata vs. Ishii and the other by the Third Generation vs. Chaos trios match, moves on to Summer Struggle in Sapporo on July 10-11 with the tag title and junior title matches, and continues with four consecutive days of major shows (in three cities) on July 22-25, culminating with Ibushi challenging Takagi for the World Heavyweight Championship. That the pandemic is still going on and this schedule includes significant touring puts an asterisk next to how promising it is, but if everything goes right, New Japan could have an exciting July.
Does NJPW have the creative juice to pull this schedule off right now, and can they do it safely as Japan slowly becomes more vaccinated? I’ll see you back here to talk about it next month.