NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 2021 Review: The Passion of the Holy Emperor

Previously on New Japan Pro Wrestling: 2021 has been an often depressing and/or confusing year for Japan’s biggest wrestling promotion. They’ve tanked their international reputation, annoyed fans everywhere by changing their world title, and struggled creatively while still working to recover from the past year’s pandemic-related setbacks. That’s brought us to the Road to Wrestling Dontaku and a long stretch of shows between mid-April and early June, including Wrestling Dontaku, Dominion, and two new Wrestle Grand Slam events in between, one at the Tokyo Dome.

This year’s Road to Wrestling Dontaku tour was a mixed bag, which isn’t uncommon, but I think it felt weaker than it was in the context of an overall weak period for the company, with the additional overarching bleakness of Will Ospreay as world champion. While there were some highlights (Kenta’s latest romantic delusions, Henare making the most of his long-awaited opportunities, the Naito vs. Great-O-Khan feud, and the promise of Ibushi vs. Cobb soon), NJPW arrived at Wrestling Dontaku on May 3-4, 2021, after a tour that showcased its current inconsistency, and Dontaku itself ultimately did the same.

Before we get into these shows, I want to clarify that the inconsistencies I’m talking about here are lots of lackluster tag matches and some dud feuds (never show me a hood again) and title matches (why was R3K vs. Suzuki-gun so long?) and not things that are obviously the result of NJPW having to change its schedule because of COVID restrictions, like the lack of established feuds for the Wrestle Grand Slam shows. This tour also got made fun over for low attendance, but I don’t have any grand analysis about what that means beyond 1) there are still caps on event sizes in Japan right now, 2) COVID cases surged in Japan over the past few weeks, 3) NJPW ran Korakuen Hall five times within the span of a week on this tour, and all these things probably had a lot more to do with low attendance for Road shows than the company’s creative state.

With that out of the way, let’s skip past a solid undercard to get to the first notable match on the first night of Wrestling Dontaku.

[Victorious Mighty Boosh references]

The first notable match of first night of Wrestling Dontaku is Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Tanga Loa, which I will give the clicks-grabbing review of “not bad!” In contrast to the brawly nature of most of the Dangerous Tekkers vs. Guerrillas of Destiny feud (and the gimmicky nature of the following match), ZSJ vs. Tanga Loa is fairly straightforward, with a surprising amount of sportsmanship on display. It’s a fairly competitive bout that plays with the dynamic of Sabre’s superior technique vs. Loa’s superior strength, and Sabre ultimately wins by escaping the setup for Ape Shit and transitioning it into a pin.

This is the part where it seems like I should have a strong opinion on Tanga Loa As A Singles Wrestler, but my most defined opinion about him as a singles wrestler is that I still don’t really have one. I don’t have a desire to watch him wrestle anyone one-on-one, but I don’t think he’s offensively bad either. If they put him in the G1 to get six points or whatever, I would not be excited, but I think he would do better than Yujiro did last year, at least, and probably be a little more interesting as a fresher presence.

Something I have a stronger opinion about re: this match and this feud is that this part of it should not have needed to happen. Zack Sabre Jr. pinned Tanga Loa in a tag match, then Loa insisted that he had to beat him in a singles match in order to get a shot at the tag titles, and apparently the (fictional entity of the) New Japan office was like “well, if Ibushi can just kill two titles and make a new one, then Tanga Loa can do this??” I don’t actually know what the internal kayfabe reasoning was supposed to be behind Zack needing to win this match in order to get a title shot that by typical New Japan rules he should have already earned, and that’s the bigger issue here.

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Stairway to (the Iron Fingers from) Hell

The more widely complained about aspect of this feud, at least in the internet circles I saw, was the announcement of Tama Tonga vs. Taichi in a ladder match for the custody of the Iron Fingers from Hell. I am all in on the Iizuka and Iron Fingers lore, and I still hated the idea of this. I don’t think New Japan is typically very good at gimmick matches outside of Yano’s World, and even that disappointed recently with probably the worst Yano match ever in Yano vs. Evil. More specifically for Tama vs. Taichi, the Road to Dontaku made me feel like these teams, who have been feuding on and off – and mostly on – for almost six months had run out of things to do with each other, and which was why they were resorting to a match for a tag title shot that should have already been earned and a match whose premise is fully a WCW and/or SummerSlam ’05 meme.

But on May 3, the Iron Finger from Hell Ladder Match completely surpassed expectations, delivering what might be the best bout of this entire half-year feud. One thing that stood out to me about this match was how it turned what could have been a weakness into a strength: New Japan almost never does ladder matches and neither Taichi nor Tama are really ladder match guys. G.o.D. had a Ladder War with the Briscoes and Taichi was in that TNA World X Cup match back in ’04 when he was basically a fetus, but neither wrestler is known for high flying, creative spots, or taking crazy bumps, which are usually major attractions of ladder matches. While there are some cool spots and painful bumps in this match, it succeeds in part because it doesn’t try to make its place in the history of ladder matches. Everything Taichi, Tama, and their allies do is clearly done with the goal of getting the Iron Fingers down from the plastic tote bag hanging from the ceiling, with basically no in-kayfabe concern for entertaining the audience.

What keeps this match compelling from start to finish isn’t so much waiting for the next stunt as it is watching the cause-and-effect drama play out. Taichi and Tama don’t wrestle like they have tried and true ladder match master strategies to fall back on, and they look like they’re really working to figure out how to win in this unfamiliar situation. Ladder matches often showcase borderline superhuman stunts, but this one is a story of passionate but less extraordinary human effort. The run-ins from Douki, Jado, ZSJ, and Tanga Loa all feel more character-motivated than spot-motivated (even when they end in wild spots), and feel more like payoff for watching this feud than anything else it’s delivered so far. I think it also helps that this match avoids ladder match tropes like wrestlers setting up elaborate ladder structures rather than going for the prize, or the dreaded Slow Climb. Overall, Tama vs. Taichi is immersive, story-driven, and fun to watch.

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This match is also the biggest showcase for Taichi as an NJPW babyface so far, so much that during the May 4 SZKG vs. G.o.D. and Jado opener it feels like Dangerous Tekkers and Douki have fully completed their face turn, at least until the next time NJPW needs them to torture some Hontai guys. Taichi isn’t just the face by default, but is put in sympathetic, perilous positions throughout the match. His allies also get to look like heroes, with Douki finally showing his Mexican indie cred through more than Spanish cursing by taking the wildest bump and pulling off the coolest high-flying, and Sabre’s help delivered so affectionately that it brings to mind that time he said he would marry his tag partner if it was legally possible. And of course, the latest installment of Iizuka Lore And Feelings Theater can’t be ignored – Taichi yelling “Iizuka!” at the top of the ladder is both funny and moving, as is him telling the staff to play the music of the possessed cannibal who Taichi believes “could reappear at any moment” after the match.

As much praise as I’m heaping on this match, I still appreciated Zack’s backstage line about how if the audience sticks around two more weeks, we’ll never have to watch these teams wrestling again. They did the unexpected at Wrestling Dontaku and it worked, but also it really seems like they’ve done absolutely everything now and they should please go do things with other people.

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Body shaming wins

The NEVER Openweight Championship match between Jay White and Hiroshi Tanahashi keeps May 3’s streak of human-feeling effort going. This match is abs vs. abs with a higher body fat percentage, submission vs. submission, knee attacks vs. knee attacks, but those all feel like subplots to the greater story of Tanahashi vs. his mortality. This feud sees the Ace return to the theme of his worries about being older and past his prime, and once again he uses that vulnerability to make a match more compelling. More than any spot or sequence, this match is about watching Tanahashi struggle, and he’s one of the best strugglers in the business.

While this iteration of the White vs. Tanahashi rivalry was all about Tana coping with not being 28 and on a diet of negative carbs, their NEVER title match is not a display of the Ace being borderline washed up like he was last summer. Instead of an excessive amount of Tanahashi-in-peril spots, this match sees Tana really bring it to Jay from the get-go, and these wrestlers mutually push each other to the limits of their endurance. This faster-paced start, rather than the usual Big Tanahashi Match slower build, feels less formulaic than other things they could have done, which helps the match stay entertaining throughout its long runtime. When White wins with a Blade Runner he transitions into in an unexpected way, it feels like he just got the better of Tana when it mattered most—something that, despite this not being a remotely shooty match, feels closer to combat sports than a lot of pro wrestling finishes, and also feels like Tanahashi kind of won a spiritual victory here by not looking washed, even though he lost his title.

NEVER change

So now Jay White is the NEVER Openweight Champion, and therefore the only heavyweight midcard singles champion (actually in Japan) in the current NJPW landscape. I think all signs point to this being a strong era for him. Moving from the IWGP to the NEVER scene has given White the chance to lighten up his act a little, and his feuds lined up with Taguchi and Finlay have a lot of potential.

The one thing that bugs me about this reign (besides how long its initial promos have been, because while Jay is a good talker, nobody needs to go on for this long) is his comments about the legacy of the NEVER title, and the truth behind them more than that he said them. White says he’s going to make a mockery of the NEVER title’s legacy, and this is a typical heel thing to say, but it also draws attention to how much this title is now just New Japan’s generic midcard championship with no special qualities

With the loss of those qualities comes what feels like the final death blow to a designated place for real tough-looking, ass-kicking wrestling in New Japan, which has been on the decline for a while. This promotion has been selling off its stocks in violence and buying them in annoying people. So many qualities of the initial international boom period are already gone less than a decade later. But the feeling I have about there being no more Shibata and no more Nakamura and no more Kushida’s mat work and no more real NEVER division so I guess just cross your fingers for the aging-up tough-looking people in this promotion to face off in tournaments and now the big NEVER title feud is Jay White vs. David Finlay is definitely “heat,” I guess.

NJPW’s COVID luck runs out

The most important thing about NJPW’s May 4 show and Wrestling Dontaku 2021 as a whole is that it marks its roster’s first COVID-19 cases (that we know of.) People had previously been pulled from shows for fevers, but this is the first time the company followed that up by announcing positive diagnoses. Responsibly, NJPW didn’t reveal which wrestlers caught COVID, and I’m not going to speculate about that here, but I like that they removed everyone from the second match on May 3 (Yoh, Sho, Okada, Suzuki, Desperado, and Kanemaru) from the May 4 card for, presumably, safety and privacy.

That New Japan lasted this long without cases is a testament to their anti-COVID protocols (most other promotions in Japan have had cases), but also puts the spotlight back on how risky it is to run touring wrestling shows for live crowds during this pandemic. Japan was one of the countries with relative success containing the virus for a long time, but now they’re dealing with a third state of emergency, surges in cases, a very low vaccination rate, and the impending Olympics. I’d definitely recommend keeping up with that situation through sources like the NHK or the Japan Times rather than wrestling blog updates if you’re interested, and for now I’ll leave this with an angry tweet from Chigusa Nagayo and the points that Japan is not out of the woods with the virus, all wrestling is unsafe in the country right now, and NJPW could easily run into more COVID-related problems in the future.

To the drip drip drop and they don’t stop

The May 4 show continued with card changes that included cutting the Yoh vs. Desperado IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match. While these card changes were the right thing to do, they also left a card that I would not have watched if I wasn’t writing this blog. Still, despite the circumstances, the undercard goes pretty hard, with Ishimori and Wato continuing their recently-began rivalry and Taguchi bringing the jokes and starting to face off a little with Jay. The main event is Will Ospreay and Shingo Takagi doing every move they can think of for 45 minutes and Ospreay obviously winning to retain the IWGP World Heavywight Championship. I think I’ve said just about everything I could say about the offensiveness of the current champion’s prominence in this promotion, NJPW’s handling of Speaking Out, how gross the United Empire concept is, the Proud Boys-looking merch shirt, and the “edgy” domestic violence angle that was insult to injury to abuse victims in the wrestling business, and I have no interest in putting in the effort to analyze this dumb match when NJPW doesn’t even make the effort not to insult sexual assault victims constantly.

However, I will close with a point about a much lower-stakes, increasingly prevalent issue in the wrestling business today. Someone taught a bunch of male wrestlers the names of expensive designer brands and the word “drip” and the result has been an onslaught of attacks on the senses. It’s Ospreay’s Versace stuff that looks like he just wanted something that said the name of an expensive brand as clearly as possible, John Morrison saying “drip” in WWE, Seth Rollins’ “drip” thing (although my theory about this is that he’s self-aware about it and the WWE people promoting it aren’t), and whatever’s going on with a few different AEW people. This isn’t a question of class or bad taste—it’s like no taste at all. It’s like these wrestlers are playing a game of telephone with the concept of high-end fashion and that’s determining what they wear to the ring. Why is this happening now? Did they just get that Cardi B song in the wrestling world? Could this kill off some major fashion houses if wrestling was more relevant? And most importantly, how can I stop being aware of this?

On that note, I will leave you until Wrestling Grand Slam in Yokohama, and in the meantime, please stan Suzuki-gun.

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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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