Puroresu Pulse, issue 202: The New Format and Hiding The Decline
by David Ditch on September 26, 2011

Section 1- An explanation

With my entry to Grad School and moving from the Rochester, NY area for the first time in my life, this seems like an appropriate time to adjust my gig here at I.P. I do these columns for fun, because it sure ain’t for money, and 300-700 page views certainly don’t count as ‘fame’. At this point, cobbling together news-and-results from a bunch of websites and message boards doesn’t seem like a good use of my time when anyone who really cares about the All Japan juniors title or the Dragon Gate two-man tag titles is probably already following results day-to-day, and anyone who doesn’t care… doesn’t care! Yes, it’s nice to have all the important stuff in one lump format, but I’ve got too much going on to keep doing them.

More importantly, I’m planning to shift from a column every two weeks to every four or five. When the Puroresu Pulse debuted, there was a lot more going on in Japanese pro wrestling, both good and bad. There were also a lot of concepts for me to cover. Now, not so much. I’ll continue to do current events discussion on Clark’s Roundtables, and occasionally here, but for the most part I’ll be focusing on interviews, historical notes, news-from-Meltzer, and big-picture analysis.

Thanks for sticking with me.

Section 2- Meltzer News from the last three months

All Japan: The June show at Sumo Hall (Suwama vs Nagata) drew 6000, which is a solid number for them.

DDT: They managed 8660 at Sumo Hall.

Dragon Gate: The July show at Kobe World Hall was their best showing yet at the venue, and without any outsiders in the top matches.

IGF: Their Sumo Hall show, opposite All Together, was a legit sellout.

New Japan: The G-1 tour did good numbers, with several non-Tokyo shows over 5000. One disappointment is that the use of Yoyogi Gym, a Tokyo venue that seats 4000-5000, wasn’t even half-full and did worse than Korakuen. Yoyogi should (in theory) be more useful now than ever, but it’s rarely used by anyone. The show earlier this week in Kobe was almost a sellout.

NOAH: The July 10th show with Sugiura vs Shiozaki did just 4400. The Kobashi return pulled in 4800 in Osaka. A somewhat scary attendance on August 24th saw them draw just 1000 at Korakuen despite Kobashi and a junior tag title match, though the junior tag was being done for the third time in three months. Marufuji returns on November 27th.

Section 3- THE SHILLION POWERS

Glazer bemoans the collapse of the CM Punk storyline. As regular readers can probably guess, I’m not much of a WWE watcher. I’ve got too many unwatched DVDs full of Tenryu matches to waste time on divas and drawn-out promos. However, the initial Punk promo was enough to get me to DVR a couple episodes of Raw. For the one ending with Cena and Punk doing dueling themes, I decided that they weren’t going anywhere interesting; the key moment is that they shrugged off Punk leaving with the title, which killed the dramatic tension they’d built. All that said, WWE’s ADD-style booking is still better than NOAH’s non-booking.

Roundtable.

Purotopia Best of 2004 results. I liked Kobashi vs Takayama even more now than I did the first time around; it’s a legitimate MOTDC. 2005 vote is coming up in December, and I’m still hoping for more participants!

IVP Videos is offering cheap DVD downloads. A large portion of the available shows come from yours truly. Help enable my crippling DVD addition!

Section 4- The Greatest Illusion In Wrestling History

The best of Kings Road, the best of shoot-style, arguably the best of joshi, Strong Style, hardcore and lucharesu: that’s what we think of as the hallmarks of puroresu in the 1990s. After ten years of buying tapes and DVDs, I’m still finding new 1990s matches to enjoy, and in some cases the matches would easily be MOTYCs had they taken place today. Regardless of your specific wrestling preferences, as long as you can stand Japanese announcing there’s something for everyone from that decade. Thanks to commercial releases, far more footage is available than was for the 1980s. With the all-clean-finishes mindset and the development of the ‘lots of nearfalls’ big match style, the ‘90s are more accessible to new fans. From a business standpoint, there were more dome shows and more 10,000+ gates than the decades before and after, perhaps combined.

That’s why it’s so hard to accept that the 1990s are when things completely fell apart for pro wrestling in Japan. But it’s the truth.

Reason number one: television, television, television. All Japan and New Japan were pushed from primetime to the broadcast periphery. New promotions failed to find lasting support, even if they were drawing well. The famously great TV run All Japan had in ’93 wasn’t enough to save it from a time reduction at the start of ’94. As a result, the stars of the ‘90s aren’t household names the way those of the ‘70s and ‘80s were. The difference between Inoki and Hashimoto is the difference between Hulk Hogan and Randy Orton, and Hashimoto is by some measures the greatest draw in Japanese history. Wrestlers debuting in the ‘90s, such as Akiyama and Tenzan, had it even worse. With no ability to create pop culture stars, puroresu could only hope to milk as much as possible from existing fans.

Reason number two: the talent decline. I’ve written in numerous places about Japan’s demographics and how MMA stole away top athletes, so I won’t rehash it. The bottom line is that there was a lot less cream in the ‘90s compared to the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially in the heavyweight ranks that matter.

Reason number three: hitting the ceiling. The natural escalation of highspots and gimmicks reached essentially the limit. Hayabusa’s Phoenix Splash, the Tiger Driver ’91 and vertical drop DDT, the explosion deathmatch; it’s hard to top those things from a ‘wow’ standpoint. When you can’t improve the highlights, it’s tough to keep the fans coming back, especially when competing with real violence in MMA. In terms of regular sports I’d liken it to MLB and the NFL. Football has progressively bigger/stronger/faster/better athletes and a game that’s more offense-minded as the years go by. Baseball, meanwhile, seems to chug along at the same basic performance level decade after decade (excluding the steroid era… which saw a rise in fan interest).

Reason number four: Japan’s Lost Decade. While Americans were scared of the Japanese economic machine in the ‘80s, that machine stalled in the ‘90s and is still struggling. There are competing theories as to why, and what could have been done differently, but there’s no denying that the Japanese economy was not in good condition during the ‘90s. I don’t know if payouts were worse for the big stars, or if ticket prices had a relative decline, so I can’t point to a clear harm… other than that Japan was not able to compete with WWF and WCW for elite talent, whereas in the past they always got the best wrestlers in the world to pass through. Weaker gaijin have definitely hurt.

The end result of those factors was obvious by 1999. Fewer great matches, fewer exciting storylines and feuds, and by that point the joshi, hardcore and shoot-style promotions were dead and/or decimated.

If all that is true, how was puroresu able to have all those epic battles, sellouts, stadium shows and so on? One word: density. Specifically, population density. What wrestling fans remained were very interested in a wrestling style that was peaking, didn’t have frustrating booking like the old days, and still had lots of incredible performers. Shows were worth going to even if you couldn’t watch the TV shows leading up to them, and perhaps a lack of convenient TV actually helped make buying a ticket seem vital in some cases. Because tens of millions of people were a short distance from shows in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and a few other big cities, promoters only needed to have a fraction of a percent of those people hooked in order to sell out. It wasn’t like the ‘80s where two nationally known grapplers would go to a double countout in order to set up a rematch, meaning that promotions on primetime broadcast TV struggled to fill Nippon Budokan and didn’t even try to use stadiums; fans knew they’d get satisfying outcomes in the ‘90s and so they showed up.

Joshi puroresu was in many ways a microcosm of this. The ‘80s were the peak of joshi as a pop culture phenomenon, and the great ‘90s talents were drawn in at that time. ‘90s joshi is generally considered better from a work perspective, and they did more big arena shows (including the Tokyo Dome in ’94), but they replaced screaming teenage girls with a mix of women and standard male wrestling fans, so the crop of future stars was diminished. The joshi talent level, match quality, and highspot escalation all reached a point of decline and/or diminishing returns in the mid-90s. Add in a big financial scandal in AJW and the bottom absolutely fell out for joshi by the late ‘90s. The attendance decline, from 10,000+ several times a year, to 5,000+ as a ‘good’ attendance for big events, to struggling to fill Korakuen, is a progression that we can unfortunately expect for the big heavyweight promotions. Hopefully they avoid ‘yay we got 1000 people!’ near-death like current joshi, but I wouldn’t count it out for 5-10 years down the line. There’s even a parable about relying too much on crossovers and dream matches, but considering that I want *more* interpromotional stuff I’m in no position to expound on that.

Over the years of writing Puroresu Pulse, I’ve spent a lot of time taking aim at booking mistakes in New Japan and NOAH. Inoki pushed New Japan to the brink and drove away a huge portion of their fanbase; NOAH failed to cultivate the future. But none of that mattered in the face of the external forces beyond their control. No TV, economic stagnation and few recruits were enough to doom the industry to at least some measure of decline. The good times of the 1990s couldn’t possibly last forever.

Let’s be thankful that the times were good enough for us to still be sifting through ‘90s footage in 2011. My aborted “I Love The ’90s” could literally have gone on for five years. For as much as I’m down about the present and future of puro, I continue to be astonished at how incredible the past was. A lot of great wrestlers and great matches don’t yet have the respect they deserve, and I’ll keep plugging away in the hopes of changing that.



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David Ditch

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  • TSVE

    Just wanted to finally say thank you after all these years of enjoyment. This is easily the most well written column on the net and as someone who lives in Japan it’s a great source of behind the scenes news. Sorry you’re cutting down to once a month but totally understandable.

    I agree the 90’s was a golden time but i think there’s still a lot of value in the modern product. For match quality top to bottom i would put a 2011 NJ card against any form the 90’s. And they’ve shown that while they may never reach the heights of the 80’s/90’s, the numbers still show that consistent booking and hard work can still draw a decent audience.

    Anyway looking forward to the next column already. Cheers

  • http://twitter.com/pulseglazer Aaron Glazer

    Still my favorite, Ditch. I’ll continue to look forward to the Puro Pulse whenever it’s out.

  • Cristo

    See you on the symphony forums, as much as I read everything from there anyways, I always take time to enjoy your always well written columns.

  • Brett

    Love these columns the best, between this and Segunda Caida, I’ve been exposed to so many amazing matches.

  • flamingwombat

    Agree with all the above posters. Thanks for the work and the columns.

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