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New Japan Pro Wrestling: Naito, the rise of evil, and the fall of subtlety

Naito

By Zach Dominello for WrestlingObserver.com

Witnessing a subtle moment transpire before your eyes in professional wrestling can give fans an incredibly powerful and satisfying feeling. Whether it be a spot in a match that's a call back to a previous encounter, a sly nod or wink to the camera by a wrestler who knows we're thinking what they're thinking, or a line in a promo that indirectly references a moment from the past.

These small, easily missable minutiae are what keep longtime fans invested in the product. It's like a reward for years of dedication and paying attention to detail. In comics it's like discovering an easter egg: an in-joke/visual gag hidden in the book by the creator for the reader to find. They can easily go unnoticed, which makes finding one all that more rewarding.

NJPW and its cast of grapplers are good at incorporating these moments into matches and storylines, but at King of Pro Wrestling 2015, they decided to go a more straightforward route.

NJPW Hero

EVIL

Dragon Gate’s Punch Tominaga and Kzy had a love child, and it turned out to be EVIL. Well, no shock there really. What is a shock is that EVIL was revealed as Tetsuya Naito’s “pareja” during his match with Hiroshi Tanahashi at NJPW King of Pro Wrestling 2015. Formerly Takaaki Watanabe, the Young Lion on excursion in the US, most notably performing in ROH where he was just recently gaining some steam and an inkling of a following, EVIL was the last person expected to be revealed as Naito’s Ingobernable partner in crime.

As the moment of revelation drew nearer, puro detectives online were quick to eliminate potential names, such as fellow Ingobernable members Rush, La Sombra, and La Máscara. Kamaitachi was another name being thrown around but he too succumbed to the process of elimination. Ultimately, the man under the silver Guy Fawkes’esque mask turned out to be Takaaki Watanabe. If he was your pick, someone call Batman and tell him there’s a new detective in town. Also ask him what the deal is with the new “bunny ears” Batman suit while you’re at it.

Watanabe’s name did cross my mind as I was contemplating who the mystery man could be, but I quickly dismissed him, expecting rather a bigger name like one of the aforementioned Ingobernable members. Watanabe's slow reveal was handled excellently, and added an extra layer of intrigue to the already high stakes match. As Naito made his entrance, he was followed by an identically garbed and masked man, then known only as his “pareja.” The “pareja” didn’t just copy Naito’s look, but also his walk and mannerisms. Even the hair protruding from the back of the mask looked the same.

As the match commenced, the “pareja” stood almost completely still, eyes locked intently on the ring. He didn’t even move when Tanahashi performed his High Fly Flow crossbody to Naito on the floor, forcing Tanahashi to leap over him onto Naito. When the ref took a bump, the "pareja" finally made his move, entering the ring and taking Tanahashi down with a lariat. He removed his mask to reveal his face to the crowd, who sat in silence, not recognising the former Young Lion whom they hadn’t seen for quite some time.

Those who follow ROH recognised Watanabe instantly, only recently seeing him on ROH TV. After the moment of shock wore off, the announcers realised the man in the ring with the darkened eyes and long, blonde and black streaked hair was the man they used to know as Watanabe. Naito and Watanabe beat down Tanahashi until Captain New Japan, who was cornering Tanahashi, and Meiyu Tag came out to make the save (well mostly just Meiyu Tag. The Captain was as always not so effective). The match continued and with the odds evened, Tanahashi came out on top. After the match, Meiyu Tag continued to brawl with Naito and Watanabe. Goto went after Watanabe, but was foiled by a very impressive STO.

NJPW

In a post match interview, Naito revealed Watanabe’s new name, and here’s where we say goodbye to subtlety in New Japan. Watanabe’s new name is “King of Darkness (Style?)” EVIL. Yes, EVIL in all capital letters, because of course. It was also announced that Hirooki Goto would be facing EVIL at the upcoming Power Struggle event. That’s right, it’s Goto vs. EVIL.

That just feels so weird to say, and instantly makes me think of the hilarious film Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Maybe in a promotion like DDT or BJW, or even Dragon Gate, where over the top characters and creative, if not absurd, matches and gimmicks are the norm, EVIL wouldn’t feel so out of place. But in New Japan, where for the most part pro wrestling is still treated as a legitimate sport, a wrestler with heavy eye makeup and a strong “forces of darkness’ vibe is glaringly outrageous. That probably explains why I love it so much. There’s a clear sense that New Japan has grown stale with its non-evolving top stars (barring Naito whose gradual transformation from Stardust Genius to Ingobernable has been one of the high points of the year.

A stark contrast to Watanabe’s sudden transformation) and lack of developing new top talent. EVIL brings something new to the table, something different to what we’re used to seeing in New Japan. At this point, different is very welcome.

But is it too different, too on the nose? I can’t think of a wrestler being given a name that has lacked this much subtlety. “Evil” Takaaki Watanabe? Sure! Nicknames are one thing, but to be flat out called EVIL is next level stuff. Then there’s the character itself. As I mentioned, if a character like EVIL debuted in Dragon Gate, say as a member of the former Mad Blankey, current VERSERK group, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye. I mean I’d probably think it was great because I have awful taste, but I wouldn’t be surprised by such an overtly cartoonish character. In New Japan, cartoonish characters are not the norm, though there is Kenny "The Cleaner" whom I’ll talk about shortly. I’m interested to see how traditional New Japan fans will respond to EVIL.

Kenny “The Scenery Chewer” Omega

EVIL isn’t the only one giving subtlety the big boot in New Japan. Kenny “The Cleaner” Omega seems to take his character to new a new level of scenery chewing excessiveness each match he has. At King of Pro Wrestling, Omega defended his IWGP Jr. title against Matt Sydal. I loved the match, with Sydal putting on, in my eyes, one of his most solid performances to date: Spectacular moves, great selling, and a good connection with the audience. Omega’s performance was also memorable, but for a different reason.

Omega’s villainous character is something straight out of a manga, mixed with a bit of 80’s action movie bad guy, and dash of Looney Tunes chaos, which can at times stretch the limit of the viewers suspension of disbelief. Personally, I think it’s the greatest. Ridiculousness is my thing if you haven’t noticed, hence my affection for DDT Pro. But is an IWGP title match the right place for such a performance? Traditionalists would likely say no. Others have mentioned that it’s not so much the over the top character they don’t like, it’s Omega’s delivery and believability. I doubt the Golden Globes are going to come calling anytime soon, but I’ve seen worse acting in pro wrestling. And Omega is capable of delivering a more understated performance. Omega was a key part in one of the most compelling moments of the year during the Kota Ibushi vs. A.J. Styles match at Invasion Attack 2015, and it was without saying a single word.

As Ibushi was setting up for the Phoenix Splash, Omega got on the apron and the two simply exchanged a look. A simple distraction that ended up costing Ibushi the match. Afterwards, as his Bullet Club colleagues celebrated, Omega’s expressions told us everything we needed to know (Sadly, all of this led to absolutely nothing, but there’s still hope). No actions, no words. That was a nuanced performance. Not sure when we'll see one of those again.

NJPW Revenge

HERO HEEL REVENGE

Rounding out the night’s theme is the video package that played before Naito and Tanahashi’s King of Pro Wrestling match. It was a very good video package, as they usually are in New Japan. If you were coming into the match unfamiliar with the two’s rivalry and G-1 history, the video painted a very clear picture. Perhaps a little too clear though, as they literally spelled out the theme of the match with giant, John Cena inspired fruity pebble coloured key words in all caps plastered on the screen: REVENGE, HERO, HEEL. Making the story of the match crystal clear to viewers is in no way a bad thing, and the big blocked words did make for a pretty neat visual

Having said that, I couldn't help but chuckle a little at the imagery. Also, the use of the word “heel” was a little jarring. I don't know if I've heard that kind of insider term used so blatantly in New Japan before.

I hope subtlety in professional wrestling is not a dying art, and that nuances and niceties are not being moved aside for large, brightly coloured key words and self-explanatory character names. Was King of Pro Wrestling simply a night of plainspoken character portrayals and storytelling, or a taste of what New Japan has in store for the future?