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The Pro Wrestling-Shonen Anime Connection

by Daryl Surat,

I lack mental organization. I don't keep a list of everything I've seen, read, played, or own. It is one thing to say you watched a series, but how much do you remember? As I look through the roughly 275 titles covered over the last ten years on my own podcast, Anime World Order, and combine that with all that I've written about in the last nine years for Otaku USA Magazine, that still only accounts for a fraction of what I've seen or read with regards to Japanese animation and comics. The fine details begin to get fuzzy. It's the same for videogames, movies, live-action television…and convention panels. In 2014 I did a panel entitled “The Classic Anime and Japanese Pro Wrestling Connection” which, sadly, is gone forever due to a failure of not just my panel laptop but all of my redundancy backups. But on the bright side, I can just re-state a portion of it here, for everybody interested…hey, where'd everybody go?

I get it. One of the most advanced skills you can develop as an enthusiast of any sort is the ability to assess whether the people around you absolutely do not care about whatever thing it is you're really into, regardless of what they may be saying just to be polite. Many either never learn how to do this, or convince themselves “this person isn't interested NOW, but if I just tell them MORE, their interest is sure to be piqued!” In a real-world setting, this is shaky logic. I, for example, am a fan of “professional wrestling.” This is not a common interest most anime fans have. Even online, there is virtually no overlap between fans of Japanese animation and comics with fans of “professional wrestling,” even of the Japanese variety. If 25,000 people show up to an anime convention, maybe you'd encounter less than 200 people present with an interest in professional wrestling. Among THAT set, maybe only a few would have any interest in non-WWE programming, and among THEM only a few would have interest in something besides “contemporary New Japan Pro Wrestling,” which experienced a popularity renaissance a few years ago and is currently in a transitionary period. As such, what I'm about to say is not something I typically bother with regaling others with because you can practically see the souls escape from their bodies in real-time with each passing sentence spoken. You, however, have already clicked on the title of this article—the biggest hurdle by far—AND read a few hundred words of me blathering on about nothing! You're clearly here because you WANT to be, so let's get to it.

I hate it when those trying to sound educated or scholarly about some aspect of Japanese pop culture feel the need to tie EVERYTHING back to the Second World War. It is lazy thinking and barely relevant. We weren't around for it, our parents weren't around for it, so move on already “aca-fans”! Honestly, the nerve of some people.

So anyway, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan was a place without much in the way of functioning infrastructure. Food, clean water, electricity and housing were scarce, and despite their reconstruction efforts the presence of the American occupation was a reminder of why that was. The people of Japan, defeated and downtrodden, needed their spirits lifted. Hey, you would too when you had no roof over your head, the yakuza control the booze and reconstruction jobs, movie theaters were practically nonexistent, and General MacArthur has reinstated censorship laws on all the porn, assuming you could even find any given the relative scarcity of paper and printing mechanisms! The Japanese needed a new hero, and nine long years later, they got one.

February of 1954 marked the first nationally televised broadcast by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, more commonly known among anime fans as “the NHK” (“Nippon Housou Kyoukai”). Televisions were still uncommon, so the following photo illustrates the scene that played out across the nation as a conservatively estimated one third of the entire country gathered to watch:

What were they all watching, you wonder? Duh, professional wrestling. Look at the title of this piece! What does any of this have to do with anime? Hold on, I'm about halfway to actually getting there!

The venue was the old Sumo Hall, a building formerly used for holding (you guessed it) sumo wrestling matches that was repurposed by the occupation, like so much of the country had been. The competitors for this exhibition bout were a Japanese duo consisting of judoka Masahiko Kimura—for whom the MMA arm lock submission is named after—and a former sumo wrestler named “Rikidozan”: a one-word pseudonym, as is the common practice of sumo wrestlers to this day. Opposing them, in a best two-out-of-three wins format, were the brothers Mike and Ben Sharpe, who at 6'6” towered over the malnourished Japanese populace by over a foot easily:

You can watch this match on Youtube, should you desire, but I'll summarize it here since with the TV screens as small as they were, most in attendance probably heard of the events through either the speakers or via a colossal “broken telephone” than actually witnessed firsthand. The Sharpes assault Kimura, who is powerless to fight back. Despite being so overpowering, they still cheat and use every underhanded scheme they can to gain an unfair advantage. Kimura is defeated in the first fall; all hope seems lost, another grey reminder of the Pacific War. But then Round Two commences, and in steps Rikidozan. Through the power of Japanese karate chops and Japanese sumo shoves, he sends the American giants reeling. The nation rejoiced and it became front page news of every newspaper in the country. Rikidozan, now a national hero, has reclaimed the nation's pride and honor from the foreigners. NTV owner Matsutaro Shoriki proclaimed “Rikidozan, by his pro wrestling in which he sent the big white men flying, has restored pride to the Japanese and given them new courage.”

It was not a widely known fact that professional wrestling is predetermined, more akin to Kabuki Theater or a film than actual sporting competition. Nobody knew then that the big bad American Sharpe brothers were really Canadians, or that the great Japanese hero Rikidozan was actually from North Korea. But much like the recent exhibition match in which American rapper Lupe Fiasco defeated world record holding fighting game tournament champion Daigo Umehara in the recently-launched Street Fighter V, it ultimately doesn't matter whether the contest was “worked” or not. What mattered was presenting to a large audience the imagery of a desired idea they already want to believe: “you, too, can rise up and prevail against an insurmountable opponent.” Indeed, the single most important factor in illustrating this is that Rikidozan and Kimura lost the match via disqualification. In America, we tell kids “it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” even though we don't believe that for even a split second. But the defining aspect of Japan's new hero was that he didn't back down, give up, or look weak in any way. As the announcer joyously proclaims in Rikidozan's 2004 biopic bearing his name, “Japan may have lost the match, but we have won the great battle!”

All this hullaballoo over a professional wrestler may seem completely silly to us in the United States, where even the most famous ones of all time are “B”-tier celebrities at best, but what I'm summarizing here is why Rikidozan is considered one of the most important Japanese figures of the 20th century, such that he's included in history textbooks. Yet few anime fans have ever even heard of the guy. So here's an iconic image of the guy.

It's not our fault, really. The most high-profile anime example I can name from a series that is actually good (thus, Kimagure Orange Road is disqualified) that acknowledges he even existed is Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl by Naoki Urasawa, who's best known in the US for his much later works such as Monster, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto among others.

See? Told you it was iconic! In this early scene, sports reporter Kosaku Matsuda explains to Yawara why his most idolized heroes are of a great Japanese baseball player, a judoka, and Rikidozan respectively: “they took big chances, made the most of them, and won glorious victories! They all made my dreams come true! And one day, you, too, will…”

Rikidozan's triumph against the Sharpes laid the groundwork for the general pattern of future installments of the “Mitsubishi Fightman Hour” of Japanese professional wrestling so many decades ago: a dangerous foreign opponent—for instance, “The Vampire” Freddie Blassie—would make short work of Rikidozan's friends in his absence, perhaps because he was off training or recovering from his last fight, until eventually Rikidozan would show up to prevail in the end, either literally or morally, earning the respect and friendship of his conquered foe in the process. Is any of this starting to sound familiar yet? It should, since this structure forms the basis of the classic shonen sports/action-adventure formula! Here's a cover of Weekly Shonen Jump from 1973, where you can see how Mazinger Z is literally on the back of Japanese wrestling:

Go Nagai would have been about 9 years old at the time of the Rikidozan match in question, and while I can't conclusively say he saw pro wrestling growing up because he doesn't bother attending American anime conventions for me to ask him, most kids of that era were out on the playground karate chopping their friends in the neck just like they saw their hero do. The classic Devilman TV series certainly depicted a hero who wore trunks much like a wrestler and also fought using karate chops, and the Jushin Liger character has seen far more enduring popularity as an actual professional wrestler than as an anime hero. But it's certainly clear that Mazinger Z follows a similar structure to that bygone era of Japanese professional wrestling: the evil foreign forces of Doctor Hell—unsurprisingly, nobody in grad school could've ever suspected a guy named “Doctor Hell” would be trouble—send a fearsome opponent to crush the heroes for sure. Try as they may, Mazinger Z's friends just can't win the day, but the trademark attacks of the towering fortress of steel ultimately prevail; as Isao Sasaki's theme song reminds, “his supreme power exists to protect us.” Much as Rikidozan's bouts often featured a nationalist bent to them, Mazinger's invincible armor is made from the fictional element “Japanium,” which naturally only exists in Japan at the base of Mount Fuji itself. Therein lies the source of Mazinger's strength.

The circumstances under which Rikidozan passed away in 1963 may also seem familiar. The truth of the account may vary as much as the circumstances which led to his fame, but as the story goes he fell prey to a gangland style encounter with a yakuza member in which he was stabbed in the abdomen with a blade. Perhaps fancying himself a tough guy and not knowing the blade was perhaps soaked in urine, Rikidozan opted to not seek immediate medical attention, returning to his nightclub festivities where perhaps he promptly took the stage and started singing “Mack the Knife”—some say with the knife still sticking out of him—before being convinced that he really should get to the hospital. He died in the hospital of peritonitis a week later, though some investigations suggest it was caused by an allergic reaction to what the doctors prescribed him for it rather than the infection of the wound. In so doing, he reached transcendentally mythic status, the likes of which cannot be surpassed for generations. He was a hero of great cultural significance who died young under somewhat sketchy circumstances while still popular. All of that only added to his appeal and mystique. Ten years later, it would happen again with Bruce Lee, whose legend is similarly eternal and unassailable. Nearly twenty years later it would famously occur in the realm of Japanese animated fiction, with who the old-timer anime fans have been thinking of these last few sentences: Roy Fokker in Superdimensional Fortress Macross.

The difference between Roy and the others is that the generational half-life of anime fans is so much shorter compared to wrestling or film. Chances are high most anime fans have never seen the original Macross (or later ones…) due to lack of availability; after all, shockingly few anime fans in 2016 have ever seen Cowboy Bebop or Fullmetal Alchemist. The director and writer of Macross have both passed away, so I can merely offer conjecture as to what their influences were regarding this character archetype based on how old they were in Rikidozan's heyday. Why these two “big brother” characters—and in an era where professional wrestling wasn't openly billed as “entertainment,” Rikidozan always had to be “in character”—opted not to admit their pain and seek treatment is a topic of contention. Macho hubris? The desire to never be seen as “weak”; “strength” taken to the point of toxicity? Perhaps. But while it may be acceptable in 2016 to condemn the legacies of “tough” characters such as those played by John Wayne, seeing that sort of strength in an aspirational role model was what millions of people needed back then. In anime, the character I consider most “like Rikidozan” would be the fictional embodiment of the Japanese post-war recovery: Joe Yabuki from Tomorrow's Joe by Ikki Kajiwara, a man whose picture personifies “manga author” to the core!

Pen in one hand, cigarette in the other! I can only assume the liquor bottle within arm's reach is just out of frame. Kajiwara's a guy who was certainly influenced by professional wrestling, and some of his works in turn influenced it. That's how this works. Pop culture influence isn't a straight line, but a circle. Pro wrestling partially influenced anime and manga's storytelling dynamics, then those dynamics influenced professional wrestling, and then it feeds back again. Certainly, the easy examples of the latter are pro wrestling characters derived from anime such as Tiger Mask, Jushin Liger, or Mushiking Terry, but for my money's worth the circle best looped around with regards to classic shojo anime and Japanese women's wrestling circa the 1970s and 1980s. But that's another story, the telling of which depends on how many of you actually cared to get this far! I'm hoping at least for double digits, so I'll end by noting the tale of Rikidozan—a foreign-born fighter who left his home, adopted the values of another culture, fought to defend that culture against those who would destroy it, and made friends of those vanquished whom he didn't utterly destroy—is also the tale of this guy (plus a heaping dose of Jackie Chan):

It's true. It's true.

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