NJPW Summer Struggle 8/7-10/21 Review: R3K Is Not OK

After a break from televised shows, New Japan Pro Wrestling returns with the first leg of Super Junior Tag League, a tournament that two different wrestlers said they found out was happening the week before. There’s also a NEVER 6-man title match and some storyline progression for the next Wrestle Grand Slam, but most importantly, Roppongi 3K might be terminally not okay!

Let’s dig into everything that happened on August 7-10 of the Summer Struggle tour, starting with:

I’m not saying this btw, do not accuse me of Taguchi slander (NJPW)

Super Junior Tag League does not feel very super this year

Both ELP and Hiromu say they were surprised to learn that Super Junior Tag League 2021 was happening when it was happening, and that fits this tournament’s whole vibe. The junior tag team division has struggled with repetitive booking, and that staleness along with some dud title matches this year have made it the weakest championship picture that isn’t KOPW. The division was revitalized recently by the Mega Coaches getting involved, but SJTL feels like a return to the same-old.

Part of this is because of the pandemic. NJPW’s junior division, much more than the heavyweight scene, relies on outsider participation, guest performers from outside of Japan and, pre-2016, the Japanese wrestling scene outside of New Japan. Without the usual obligatory Luchadors Who Have Good Matches But Always Lose team or any of the many short dudes from the U.S. available to New Japan these days or making the surprise fun decision to get, like, HYO and Kikuta from Dragon Gate to come be entertaining and eat pins, the freshest teams in the tournament are Gedo and Dick Togo and the Flying Tigers (Robbie Eagles and Tiger Mask), both of which include wrestlers past their prime. Other than that, we have Roppongi 3K, ELP and Ishimori, Desperado and Kanemaru, and Wato and Taguchi. It’s not the most inspiring lineup!

I would love to be able to transition from that with a big BUT and talk about how everyone is having bangers and proving the junior tag division haters wrong, but that’s not really happening. These matches would probably be a lot more entertaining to someone who just started watching NJPW this year, but if you’ve been watching for the past couple of years, they’re not that exciting. The round-robin format doesn’t help at all – like the 32-man New Japan Cup, it feels like it’s just like this in order to provide more Content to fill up more shows. Making the junior tag tournament a single-elimination thing again would be the easiest way to make it more exciting, even without guest star tag teams, but obviously, that’s not how it was set up this year.

That’s not to say there are zero highlights in this tournament, though. The teamwork from Eagles and Tiger Mask (lots of kicks!) is entertaining, their whole partnership feels charmingly wholesome, and Robbie Eagles continues to look good and be set up to look good in this NJPW run. Wato and Taguchi also have some good moments, including what’s probably the most exciting stretch of any SJTL match, their offense leading to their main event victory over Roppongi 3K.

If there’s one match from these shows that’s going to stick in my mind, it’s the BC vs. BC battle of Dick Togo and Gedo vs. Phantasmo and Ishimori. A couple times every year for the past seven years, two wrestlers or teams from Bullet Club meet in a tournament with the agreement that the lower-level party is going to lie down for the other one, and then that never ever works out. This running gag legitimately explains the whole personality of this faction, and most iterations of it are pretty funny.

Watching ELP and the Bone Soldier get their asses kicked (and backs raked) by a couple of old men for a while is also pretty funny, although Gedo getting in any kind of offense on Ishimori is very questionable. Also questionable: Gedo’s new nickname, “The Blacksmith,” which feels like a concept he ran by somebody and they just nodded and went along with it because he’s the booker.

NJPW

There are also two storylines in Super Junior Tag League and one of them is making me super sad!

Along with the wins and losses and accumulation of points, the 2021 Super Junior Tag League has two dramatic storylines going on, and both have the potential to have significant impacts on the junior division. The first is that our current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori, are undefeated in the league, and ELP promises that if they win the tournament, they’re going to challenge the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions because they’ll have proved they’re above the junior division. The teams they still need to beat in order to achieve this are Robbie Eagles and Tiger Mask (the other 3-0 team) and Kanemaru and Desperado (2-1.)

Either of these other duos beating Bullet Club and winning the league would add some revenge spice to their tag title challenge at Wrestle Grand Slam. Eagles and Tiger Mask would be the out-of-left-field pick, while Kanemaru and Desperado challenging would nominally call back to a rivalry, but probably just feel repetitive. It’s also very possible that Suzukigun and the Flying Tigers could finish the tournament in a tie, making the WGS match a three-way that includes the beefs between Eagles and ELP, Eagles and Desperado, and Desperado with both the BC guys, sort of. Although the junior tag division is far from hot right now and neither is this tournament, it is possible we come out of it with a title match that’s a little different for the division, and more interesting than this league.

A major reason that this year’s Super Junior Tag League has such weird vibes isn’t just the stale matchups and less-than-elevated state of the junior tag division, but because its most compelling storyline isn’t about who’s going to win the tournament – it’s about who can’t stop losing. Roppongi 3K, the team that’s won this tournament for the past three years, goes 0-3 in their first three matches, with Yoh taking the pin or submission every time.

This is a straightforward, reliable kind of angle for a tag team breakup (or the tease of one), with some extra emotional impact that comes from how Yoh and Sho react to the situation. Yoh plays his losing streak (which has been going on since his failed junior title challenge) less like he has the yips and more like he’s struggling with depression, with his backstage promos lacking any optimism that things are going to improve. His characterization during most of this tournament makes it feel like he’s using all his fighting spirit to get out of bed and show up to work, and it’s legitimately sad as hell to watch.

What makes this angle more interesting is how Sho plays off the situation. There are some frustrated facial expressions in there, but he’s mainly supportive and encouraging, pivoting to a focus on R3K just getting two points on the board and moving forward from there once there’s no longer a chance of them winning the tournament. I wouldn’t call this an award-winning performance by the standards of non-wrestling acting, but I’m impressed by how much nuance Sho is pulling off here when he doesn’t seem like he’s one of NJPW’s most natural actors or promo guys. Going too far with his frustration when Yoh looks so dejected would make him seem like a jerk or a soon-to-be heel, but so far they’ve managed to play this angle so you can’t really tell who’s going to turn at the end, assuming they’re actually headed towards a breakup.

This character stuff isn’t just keeping both guys sympathetic for now, but it’s causing the viewer to observe this angle with both increasing sadness and increasing suspicion. Maybe R3K will realize it’s the new inexplicable jazzy theme song that’s holding them back and won’t split after all, but if they do, everything is in place for the move from Sho-and-Yoh to Sho vs. Yoh to produce maximum feelings.

NJPW

Building at Yokohama Budokan

The last show of this little group takes things from Korakuen Hall to Yokohama Budokan and takes a break from Super Junior Tag League competition. Before the main attraction of the L.I.J. vs. Chaos trios title match, we get some lesser six-man tags and a singles match building up storylines for SJTL and Wrestle Grand Slam. It’s no surprise that the dumbest development here is for KOPW. I wrote in earlier reviews about the overarching issues with Chase Owens vs. Toru Yano Round 2, so I won’t get into those here, but the story has taken a new, contrived turn!

After Owens was the one pushing everything towards an I Quit match, he suddenly gets out a [Texas] Strap after the BC vs. Chaos match on August 10 and challenges Yano for a rematch of their Texas Strap match from earlier this year. Now, after Yano was the one being tortured to yell “I quit!” he’s the one representing the I Quit match stipulation. This is so out of nowhere that it seems like NJPW just realized that KOPW is supposed to be the fan vote title and that they had forgotten to set up another option to vote for. I am hoping and praying that the next KOPW fan vote options are “if the champion loses, KOPW will be retired” and “if the champion wins, KOPW will be retired.”

This show’s other major event is its semi-main event, in which Shingo Takagi defeats Yujiro Takahashi by DQ after Evil and Dick Togo get involved. This match is unsurprisingly not great, without any real tension or drama until Evil shows up, or standout wrestling action to enjoy in itself. Yujiro gets in a lot of offense, and the match doesn’t suck in viewers enough to produce enough suspension of disbelief for this to feel like it’s happening organically rather than so the match lasts longer than five minutes. Once Shingo’s dealing with all three BC guys there are some exciting moments, but overall this whole match/segment is underwhelming, and I don’t think it does anything for the Shingo vs. Evil feud. As the meme goes, sort of, I did not feel like booing; I was boo-ored.

NEVER 6-man Tag Team Championship match: Tomohiro Ishii, Yoshi-Hashi, and Hirooki Goto (c) def. Bushi, Sanada, and Tetsuya Naito

The second NEVER 6-man title match between this Chaos team and this L.I.J. team finishes strong, but suffers from the common NJPW main event problem of being very long for no good reason. They go about 36 minutes, and if this match was about half as long, it would probably be twice as good. There’s some quality trios teamwork at the beginning and the third act focused around the Bushi vs. Ishii feud is some of the best of this Chaos team’s entire reign, making it seem at times like Bushi could actually get one over on the Stone Pitbull. But although the one-on-one stuff in the middle has some good moments, it mostly feels like it’s happening to extend the runtime.

It speaks to how weak the NEVER 6-man titles were before this Chaos reign that this is the best reign anyone’s ever had with them and yet it has had no matches that I would recommend to people without some kind of caveat. But still, if you like the wrestlers in this match and especially if you’re a Bushi fan, I would recommend this trios bout.

To close this review, I want to say that I know I wrote the equivalent of “this match made me think about why it was being booked this way while watching it,” which can be irritating in commentary on pro wrestling. I’m really not trying to convince people how smart and detached I am about wrestling with this. Part of why I, and I think a lot of people, got into New Japan is because of how, at its best, this company can totally immerse you in its matches, characters, and storylines. But aside from the Bushi vs. Ishii mini-angle and the Roppongi 3K losing streak, these shows were legitimately hard to get immersed in because so much of what was happening on them was repetitive, low-tension, or just not that entertaining in some other way.

When I see you back here after NJPW Resurgence this weekend, hopefully it’ll be with more enthusiastic takes! We’re getting Tana vs. Archer, a Moxley mystery partner, and actual cheering fans, so I’m optimistic.

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes a lot about pro wrestling. Pratt is a regular contributor for Fanbyte, with other bylines at Uproxx, Deadlock, Mind Games, Orange Crush, and FanSided WWE.

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