Many many things are considered the WrestleMania of ____, but perhaps (outside of the Super Bowl) nothing actually lives up to that description more than New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom, now in its ninth iteration kicking off the year in style at the Tokyo Dome. Was this year able to reach that standard for the first time as an English language simulcast? And more importantly, was it enough to keep my NJPW World subscription? (Spoiler alert: abso-fucking-lutely.)
Your Monthly Reminder: While the name of these reviews is “Bang for Your Buck”, because of the Network — or in this case, New Japan Pro World — it’s now less of “getting your money’s worth”, and more “how much does having access to something like this make me want to renew my subscription” or, more succinctly, “how ‘special’ was this event/match, really?”. Which means that instead of just taking into account things like: major character shifts, definitive conclusions (which are different from clean finishes) and moves that don’t make their way to Raw, it’ll focus more on “how many times would I rewatch this”, “would I show this to non-fans as a reason why wrestling is worth watching” and “how different was this historically?”
Each match is rated on a sliding scale between -1 and -1: Matches worth multiple rewatches are +1, a match you may watch or skip 0, and things that make you reevaluate being a fan earning up to a -1 score. The scale is arbitrary, of course, but it’s based around the idea that a match will be fundamentally watchable, repeatedly so.
As for the scale, it’s not particularly complicated but here are the basic levels (on a per-match basis):
Normally, I’ll be using what I said from the What’s the Worst That Could Happen preview to see how close I was to predicting what would happen and whether or not it lived up to my pre-established expectations. You know, like an adult. But having never seen NJPW in this context, I felt it would be best to just engage with how everything made me feel directly.
Four-Way for IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
reDRagon (c) vs. Time Splitters vs. Forever Hooligans vs. The Young Bucks
This felt like a mash-up — in a good way — of the two matches three of these teams (reDRagon, Time Splitters and The Young Bucks) had last month at ROH’s Final Battle PPV (which Andy covered). But in front a much larger crowd and with Jim Ross and Matt Striker calling the action.
Needless to say, the entire experience was fantastic from top to bottom, and reDRagon continues to work their way up the ladder to “slightly worse than the Murder City Machine Guns” (because no matter how good you are, you’ll never be better than them dudes) in what was perhaps the perfect beginning to the wonderful ride that was JR and Striker on commentary. And JR and Striker deserve special mention here — and several other times during the show — because while the show worked brilliantly without commentary [ref]1. Your correspondent watched the show twice, first in Japanese on NJPW World and then in English as part of the Global Force Wrestling broadcast[/ref] the clear enthusiasm from both regarding the in-ring work and their palpable freedom from the tyranny of Vince McMahon in their ear added a great deal to the proceedings.
JR in particular had the same kind of naivete regarding the modern Japanese product that made a first time viewer feel less intimidated by the show and although your correspondent is (possibly more) familiar (than JR) with the breakneck pace of the match, having the best to ever do it seem as genuinely excited to see the performances as the viewers was a nice touch.
As for the match, it was exactly what you’d expect: a blurry flurry of blind tags mixed with a cavalcade of tandem maneuvers that managed to be creative, logical and (relatively) realistic looking at the same time, all punctuated by more swift kicks to the head than you can shake a stick at. Each team was able to get in their moves in without it devolving into a spot fest — the match felt more like watching a particularly effective no-huddle offense than a team going for the big play every time they reach the line of scrimmage — and up until the very end of the match, it felt like any team could walk out of the Tokyo Dome as champions.
Which was amazing in the moment. However, given that these reviews are largely about rewatchability, it’s important to note that as is often the case with these kinds of high-wire acts, at least some on the second viewing’s excitement was deflated. Because, what the match had in spectacle and crispness was not matched by what it had in storytelling. But there are worst things, and it’s hard to think of a better way to open a show like this.