After big title defenses at The New Beginning in Hiroshima, New Japan Pro Wrestling takes us down the Road to Castle Attack with four consecutive nights, February 14-17, at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall. In many ways, the upcoming Castle Attack event looks very exciting. First, it’s called Castle Attack. Second, the event logo has swords in it. Third, the tour hype video features this stanced-up samurai who doesn’t look worried at all that he’s in a burning building, I have to assume because he’s so focused on attacking a castle:
The beginning of the Road to Castle Attack is, unfortunately, not as exciting as fire and swords and the above guy standing amidst fire, holding a sword. There are few standout matches, the guys with allegations made against them during Speaking Out are back, and two people get injured at inconvenient times (new Young Lion Yuto Nakashima in his debut match and Tetsuya Naito while promoting a possible return to champion status.) (Update: and then Hiromu Takahashi gets taken off a house show on the 20th with a shoulder injury.)
Because of how low-tier and weird these shows were and that this article covers four of them, I’m going to, for one article only, go back to something resembling the old Best and Worst format I used to use on another website and talk about the events of the Road to Castle Attack categorized into groups of the good, the bad, and the Bullet Club. Starting with…
The Good: The great double title unification vs. separation debate
The brightest highlights of this week’s shows come from the preview matches for the next – and possibly final – IWGP double championship match. The February 15-16 tag matches in which Tetsuya Naito and Shingo Takagi defeat Kota Ibushi and Yuji Nagata are the best, standalone or in storyline context, that these shows have to offer. Naito and Ibushi click perfectly in the ring, as always, and make their work exciting even without getting anywhere near the insanity their rivalry is known for.
The new angle of Nagata trying to elevate his game (just in time for the New Japan Cup!) is also entertaining and yields a lot in a few days. We get some quality old man wrestling, a feud with Shingo that includes a reference to even-older-man Keiji Mutoh’s recent title win, and, by a twist of fate, the second-ever singles match (and first in ten years) between Nagata and Sanada. The Sanada vs. Nagata match on the 17th isn’t amazing, but it’s fun as a last-minute Road show surprise. The end of this Nagata mini-push will likely be a loss to Takagi in the first round of the NJC, and their work together so far has me excited to see it.
The double championship separation vs. unification angle that accompanies these matches is also really interesting to follow, both in a wrestling championship logistics way and a following-these-characters way. It’s a testament to how well-defined not only the characters of Naito and Ibushi, but also the meanings of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships are that this debate can be so compelling while played out in such a low-key way. Naito explains very clearly to the audience on the 15th why he wants to prevent these titles from being unified, and I think his most convincing point is that “when those belts get unified, the histories of each individual title will have to come to an end.” You could easily argue that the Intercontinental Championship is redundant since the recent elevation of the NEVER Openweight Championship and that it makes sense for the white belt’s history to end after the Nakamura and Naito eras, but the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is much more difficult to relegate to the inactive titles pile.
While Naito’s opinion about how he thinks the double championship should be defended is as clear as it’s always been, he’s intentionally cryptic about why he went after the IC belt (aside from that he clearly hadn’t earned a shot at the Heavyweight) and what he plans to do with it. He insults it, but after that, as Ibushi points out, it’s unclear whether he wants to elevate it or throw it in the garbage – or if he’ll ever really reveal which one he wants. Basically, it’s back to business as usual for Naito and the Intercontinental Championship, but with a lot less angst now that he’s achieved his ultimate wrestling goal and with that missing angst replaced by extra trolling. It’s an angle that works well for him and effectively strings the audience along with its intrigue, building additional interest in a title match that already has the promise of good wrestling going for it.
The Bad: The Empire is a never-ending garbage fire of a faction and its smoke is polluting this tour
The United Empire doesn’t have a lot to do this tour, just wrestling in undercard trios matches to promote Great-O-Khan’s upcoming challenge for Hiroshi Tanahashi’s NEVER Openweight Championship. They use Mongolian Chops on Tenzan, make fun of older wrestlers, and Jeff Cobb gets the win on all four shows by pinning Young Lions. The biggest Empire-related event of the week is notable not because of any match or storyline, but because of its connections to the real world: it’s Will Ospreay’s new merch item (which he wears to the ring on February 14), a black polo shirt that strongly resembles the uniform of terrorist group The Proud Boys.
The strongest argument someone could make for this resemblance being unintentional is that NJPW has sold black polo shirts as merch for other factions and events in the recent past. However, none of those previous shirts had the markings on the collar and cuffs that make the Empire polo look especially like the Fred Perry one adopted by The Proud Boys. Additionally, this shirt was released well after the theme of the Empire-turned-United faction had already been criticized for bringing to mind similar associations.
No matter the reason why this shirt exists with this particular design, selling it and wearing it is a terrible look. Not everyone in “the West” knows about the Proud Boys and the significance of a shirt like this and I’m sure awareness is much lower in Japan, where this group is not active, but that doesn’t change the visual association. It does not change the fact that this group was part of the January 6 invasion of the US Capitol and has been officially designated a terrorist entity in Canada. It does not change that if even two or three wrestling fans wore this shirt together in public, they would look like a gathering of Proud Boys, something that indicates a likelihood of harassment and even physical violence to others in the area. If a bunch of people in this Empire shirt were standing in line outside of a wrestling show, it would make the event look like a hotspot for the far right, and therefore hostile to many others.
NJPW’s initial ad for this shirt days before Ospreay wore it on TV was bombarded with comments from people criticizing the company and specifically making the association with the Proud Boys, so even if somehow nobody in the company (of any nationality) was aware of what this shirt looked like before, some people should know now. I hope people in the company or in communication with the company can understand that these criticisms, associations, and insults don’t come from “heat,” but from legitimate, serious, ongoing political issues. Probably the best thing they could do here would be to stop selling this shirt and make sure items with similar implications aren’t sold again. I’d add “and issue an apology or something,” but I’m trying to be realistic for wrestling here.
In mostly less serious criticism news: the Bullet Club
The Bullet Club is the busiest faction on this tour, currently building to two-thirds of the matches on Castle Attack (five out of six on Night 1 and three out of six on Night 2) and a junior tag title match on the last Road to Castle Attack. With BC also active in two other promotions and still sometimes referenced in a third, wrestling might be more saturated with this almost eight-year-old faction than it was back in the peak Bullet Club t-shirt days. But while the quantity of things this group is up to is undeniable, the quality is hit or miss.
On the Road to Castle Attack, the most consistently strong BC feud has been the one for the junior tag titles between champs El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori and challengers Hiromu Takahashi and Bushi, which doubles as a feud for the junior title between champ Hiromu and challenger ELP. Seeing Los Dos Peligrosos back in the tag title scene is great, but the deciding factor for how much someone will enjoy this bundle of feuds is probably their tolerance for El Phantasmo’s antics and persona. Still, I think this feud is more palatable for non-ELP-enjoyers than most of his feuds due to Hiromu’s power to bring out the best in everyone. Along with the “can they stop the Sudden Death superkick?” continuing from the BC vs. SZKG junior tag title feud and ELP vs. Hiromu at WK 15 (which already answered this question with, “yes, in the match when it was introduced”), there are some classic Hiromu bits, with the short saga of the cardboard junior title and both wrestlers becoming convinced at one point that they’re actually friends. Who knows how this feud’s climactic matches will go and whether or not they’ll be dragged down by less good bits, but the road to them has been pretty good!
The majority of the BC’s current battles are with Chaos, and these feuds have been less consistent. Night 1 of Castle Attack, the one with the five BC vs. Chaos singles matches, could easily surpass expectations; I think it’s been easy to forget that G.o.D. actually had pretty strong singles matches recently in the American New Japan Cup, and that Evil and Okada have had well-received matches in the past. The parts of the Road to Castle Attack where these guys just wrestle each other have been fun, and G.o.D. cuts some good post-main event promos on the 16th after Tanga Loa gets his pin back over Yoshi-Hashi. However, the positives of Chaos vs. BC keep being overshadowed by an issue that’s carried over from the New Beginning tour: confusing refereeing and screwy match endings.
The biggest offender here is the February 14 main event, an elimination match that pits Evil, Jay, G.o.D., and the returning Chase Owens against Okada, Ishii, Goto, Yoshi-Hashi, and Yano. The match begins with Owens vs. Yano, a feud that is already being received so much worse by international fans than it would have been if it happened before the allegations made against Owens during Speaking Out, and is now being executed in a very confusing way. Chase brings the strap for their upcoming Texas Strap Match into the ring to attack Yano, and Red Shoes is fine with that even though NJPW elimination matches aren’t No DQ. Chase even eliminates Yano using the strap and the eliminated Yano then eliminates him by using the strap to pull him over the top rope. It doesn’t make sense at the time and makes even less sense in retrospect because Marty Asami cautions Owens for using the strap in later matches. This is needlessly bad continuity, and the only way it could be justified in kayfabe is by saying that the mind of Red Shoes is just too scrambled at this point to recognize foreign objects.
The other Chaos vs. BC match finishes include a weird-looking one where Togo pins Sho after interference by Evil and a no-contest when Ishii, Goto, Yoshi-Hashi, and Yano vs. Jay, G.o.D., and Chase devolves into choking and stick attacks. The problem with these isn’t necessarily the screwiness and inference. The issues are that first, said screwiness and interference aren’t refereed in a way consistent enough for the viewer to keep track of what’s a serious offense and what’s not a big deal and can be allowed to slide. Second, partly because of that first point and partly because we all expect this type of thing from BC already, these shenanigans aren’t really increasing the drama or heat of these feuds – just decreasing the quality of the matches on these shows. I think it would have worked better for the Chaos vs. Bullet Club feud to play out more like the Bullet Club vs. L.I.J feud on this tour, with more wrestling-focused tag matches that included closer to the BC-typical amount of cheating.