On Nostalgia, or Having a Blast While Watching Wrestle Kingdom 9

I fell asleep with the kids Saturday night around 6:30pm and woke up around midnight. As Fortune should have it, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) was airing its annual Wrestle Kingdom 9 event shortly after that. And this year – praise be to Solie, Monsoon, and the living legend Jim Ross — the show was presented with English commentary. Thanks, Jeff!

As I watched the best wrestlers in the world perform at the world’s premier wrestling event in one of the most legendary venues on the planet, the Tokyo Dome, I shed my sarcasm and my snark, my inability to enjoy wrestling as of late, simply because it’s fun and had a damned good time. I liken pro wrestling to commedia dell’ arte or a more physically-inclined panto performance with better acting and the occasional fireworks. But that’s American wrestling. Japanese wrestling is different: no poorly written/acted vignettes chewing up time, no storylines that seemingly go nowhere, more direct blows. Different, but amazingly good. Watching NJPW reminds me of what wrestling in the States used to be like and Wrestle Kingdom 9 was making a borderline exhausted and coffeeless me nostagic.

  • Ringside photographers. Surrounding the ring, leaning on the apron (NJPW’s ring has an extended apron area of the canvas, much like a boxing ring), rushing around the posts. I miss seeing the flashbulbs go off. I miss seeing herds of average, black-clad people burdened with camera bags and expensive gear running this way and that to avoid incoming human missiles, all while trying to get the perfect shot. The flurry and the flashbulbs make the matches seem important. The photographers and camera people were visible, yet unobtrusive; I have no qualms about their presence. They gave the proceedings an air of legitimacy: “The press is covering the event. Everyone wants to know what’s going on.” And I give so much credit to the steadicam guys who run back and forth; they’ve got more stamina than marathon runners.
  • Dark arenas. It really centers the focus on the main stage, the ring. In addition to directing the audience’s gaze, lighting lends to the environment and emotion of a performance. It can also heavily detract from the piece if overdone, be it a ballet, an opera, or wrestling match. Wrestle Kingdom 9, a big and bold event, had a massive entrance area that was basically an LED screen-beribboned jumbo tron dotted with spotlights, but toned down during the matches. The only thing that glowed on camera during a Wrestle Kingdom 9 match was the ring.

I greatly dislike televised matches held in overly-lit venues because there’s just too much being shown to viewers. Both the wrestlers/performers and the audience are highlighted. Which one am I supposed to be looking at? Who’s more important? A well-lit arena on tv draws the eye to the crowd, and if the crowd doesn’t appear to be interested in the performance in the ring, then the viewer at home isn’t going to be interested because they’ll be too busy reading the signs, people watching, or just changing the channel. This distraction just conditions the audience to avoid paying attention to what is happening in the ring. At that point, why bother?

Wrestle Kingdom 9’s lighting director kept things simple with the darkened arena and lights shining down upon the ring. The screens at the entrance ramp were rarely shown on camera, but were broadcasting the action for those present in the Tokyo Dome. The focus — in terms of lighting and the action — was on the ring. The audience was kept in the dark for the entrances, matches, and exits, and it looked amazing.

  • Commentary. I miss commentary teams that actually call the match. They provide the audio libretto, the vocal Playbill, the supertitles for the match. Opera-goers who don’t know French, Italian, or German (or just can’t decipher operatic singing period) use super/subtitles or glance at their book every scene to get a gander as to what’s going on. In pro wrestling, as with boxing and mixed martial arts, the commentary team (traditionally consisting of a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator, sometimes with a retired pro to give insight) provides that information. They provide the history, the context, the color for what we’re about to see. The commentary team provides a bridge for new viewers who are unaware of what’s appearing before them, as well as making connections to past events and performers for fans (I’m sure longtime fans appreciated the Brian Pillman name check during Kenny Omega’s match; longertime fans were probably ecstatic over the Wild Pegasus reference). Matt Striker and Jim Ross, the English-language commentary team for Wrestle Kingdom 9, were tasked with providing that bridge.

Many of Wrestle Kingdom 9’s American viewers have solely watched American wrestling for years and unaware of the differences between the two cultures. A good generalized comparison is European opera and Chinese opera: Both tell stories utilizing performers’ voices and movements, but in completely different ways — Italian operas have fleshed-out sets and scenes to help tell the story whereas the vast majority of the focus in a Chinese opera is on the costumes, expressions, and movements of the performers. That isn’t too far off from the differences between American and Japanese pro wrestling.  Jim Ross did play-by-play, identifying the moves and motivations of the wrestlers in the ring, helping to translate the story of the match to American/English-speaking viewers because Japanese wrestling is not overly reliant on skits, video packages, and promos to tell the audience what is going on. In NJPW, that is the job of the guys in the ring.

Here’s an example from Wrestle Kingdom 9 on how the play-by-play guy helps: AJ Styles had his opponent, Tetsuyo Naito,  in a calf cutter followed by an ankle lock. The camera showed both men on the canvas with the referee off to the side. The viewer’s gaze naturally fell on the thrashing Naito trying to escape, attempting to muster the energy to release himself from the hold or grab the ropes (at which time the ref would make Styles release the hold). But why is he struggling? Can’t he just flip over or punch the other guy? Are we to assume this grip Styles has on him is just some… thing? And what is that called anyway? The camera didn’t focus on the strain on either man’s face, but provided a view of the whole scene, including the ever-present ref. Viewers unaccustomed to technical wrestling or those who’ve never watched before would have no clue as to what is going on. Calling the action, Ross identified Styles’ hold to viewers, directing the viewer’s eye away from Naito’s reaching arms and towards the steady and stable hand of Styles around his leg and ankle. Ross not only named the hold, but also identified what it does and how painful it is. In doing so he set the scene for Naito’s struggle. We are supposed to want him to reach those ropes; Ross’ words were to make us support Naito and his cause. He was the Greek chorus. He was the narrator and shared responsibility with the wrestlers for the success of the match. Matt Striker provided fangirling when necessary.

  • Good directing. Don’t get me wrong. WWE has top-notch cameramen and their productions are amazing. The matches are framed nicely and the cuts are seamless. But the director over there needs to take a fucking seat somewhere else and let someone else take the helm. Those “zooming in at impact” shots are distracting and don’t lend anything to the performance, aside from an opportunity for the viewer to close their eyes or look away to stave off motion sickness.  And those missed spots….Zooming in like that prevents home viewers from fully seeing what maneuvers the wrestlers are performing, limiting our appreciation of their skills and knowledge of their art. How can we know what is going on if we can’t see it? And that seems to be the point. Yes, it covers for missed and poorly executed moves, but it’s also dumbing down the viewers. We’re supposed to be suspending disbelief and believing those impact shots are the result of a bad ass motherfucker just wrecking the shit out of someone else. But in reality, those detract from the intended perception. Motion sickness is not cool.

There was none of that in the Wrestle Kingdom 9 broadcast. Whoever directed this show did a bang-up job of getting all the action on screen without a single dizzying zoom or switching to different angles. And we were still able to believe that those bad ass motherfuckers were wrecking the absolute shit out of someone else.

  • Actually enjoying pro wrestling. I miss that. I miss being totally absorbed by a card from start to finish, a match from beginning to end. I hate seeing obvious set-ups and hearing actual conversations in the ring about what is going to happen next. And bad acting. Christ Almighty, that really kills my buzz. The action in and around the ring at Wrestle Kingdom just looked real and was a testament to the training and professionalism of those men. I also miss an entrance that makes me want to whoop like an idiot and yell, “Work it, muthafucka. WORK IT!” instead of thinking, “Wow. This is just some self-masturbatory bullshit. Sigh…” Speaking of entrances, Wrestle Kingdom 9 made me miss…
  • Freddie Mercury. Shinsuke Nakamura, the King of Strong Style, rocked it like Freddie as he strutted down the ramp in a crown and robe. At four-something in the morning, I wanted scream and yell and cheer like I was a spectator at a ball in Paris Is Burning. “YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSS, BITCH!!!!!!!” was my inner monologue. Still, to me, this
    http://bit.ly/14dpeB1

    will never have anything on this

    http://bit.ly/1Ag13jr
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