July and August, if you follow New Japan Pro Wrestling, is the most wonderful time of the year, the G1 Climax. This year’s edition, the 27th, is a little past the halfway point and has produced a list of match of the year contending bouts that would take another promotion months to build. It’s also perhaps the most actively followed G1 Climax NJPW has ever run, particularly when it comes to engaging with the English-speaking crowds who stay up way late to keep current with the round robin tournament.
NJPW is actively courting these viewers, hiring a full-time English language commentary team, running a best-of show on American cable TV, and promoting events in the United States for the first time. The company has found wild success—the already ubiquitous Bullet Club’s merchandise is now for sale at Hot Topic—and has wildly swung and missed guessing at what an American audience wants from its shows, as evidenced by the Long Beach, California crowd’s rejection of Billy Gunn’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship match with Hiroshi Tanahashi. The company’s expansion plans are generally hazy; while it’s clear there will be more American shows in the future, how quickly those will happen and how they’ll take shape.
There’s no reason to believe that New Japan won’t be at least as successful in the United States as the partners they’ve cultivated relationships with in the past. A west coast territory and a United States Championship, bolstered not only by its growing roster of foreign talent from the US, UK, and Canada, but by expanded access to wrestlers like Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, KUSHIDA, and Kazuchika Okada, is a worthwhile experiment. For them to stick the landing, though, there are some things the promotion could do to appeal to a market that’s honestly pretty comfortable without it. This is invisible, backend work, a lot of which is already being done for free by long-time fans of the promotion, but that needs to be done in an official capacity so that the people buying Bullet Club shirts from Hot Topic have the benefit of its existence when they’re watching the G1 at a normal hour like decent, reasonable folk.
1. Make NJPWWorld easier to navigate.
I’ve been a member of NJPWWorld since it launched, and it’s come a long way from requiring a spreadsheet of translations of names from English to Japanese to find, say, the January 4, 1994 tag team match between The Steiner Brothers and Hiroshi Hase & Keiji Mutoh. You can just pop “Scott Steiner” into the search bar, and like magic a bunch of his and Rick’s matches appear. The tricky thing is that they often appear like this—
Unless you’re like me and can tell that the handsome, mustachioed gentleman in Scott Steiner’s muscly arms is Hase, you might never see Steiner exuberantly asking 50,000 people “who the fuck is better than me?” after dropping Hase on his dome with the Steiner Screwdriver. “Tsu human and male Tsukasa Keiji” isn’t very helpful in figuring out who is in this match. It’s largely an issue of much of NJPWWorld’s English site being built upon Google Translate. It gets the job done, but fails the company in delivering its rather impressive back catalog of pre-NJPWWorld content.
One of my favorite things about NJPW is how much of its storytelling gets done in the ring. I think that wrestling as an entertainment is about as universal as such things get—there’s no real shock in moving from American to Mexican to Japanese wrestling, no necessary intermediary like a translator, no fundamental differences between products the way there is in, say, American and Japanese cinema. Wrestling’s a fairly universal language in that way. But, in-ring storytelling aside, NJPW still has backstage comments and candid interviews and video packages putting together the bulk of a feud before a blow-off match, and unless an American or British wrestler is in them, I can’t understand a word of them.
Honestly, that’s on me. Japanese fans are, I vaguely recall, much more open to the inconveniences of not being a native speaker of a given language than Americans—while there was a translator at this year’s G1 press conference, I’ve read reports of WWE shows in Tokyo and Osaka that noted how the crowd responded to the rhythms of the performers on the microphone rather than the translator. While I’m fluent enough in sweat and emotion to get the gist of what’s going on in a Japanese wrestler’s promo, and while I think that live translation wouldn’t appeal to me in particular, I’m still a little sour that I’m missing out on key bits of character development, unless somebody translates on Twitter or what’s said is important enough to make it onto NJPW’s global website.
The beefy boy above is Katsuya Kitamura, and he’s perfect and I love him. He’s a young lion in NJPW’s system, meaning he’s a young dude who loses a lot while he gains his stripes and develops a personality. Right now, his personality is the mouthpiece he’s wearing and how much he flexes in the ring. That’s all I know about him because these comments, recorded on July 29, have no subtitles, and as he’s not giving a fiery speech to close the show, the odds of them being translated on Twitter are pretty low. I just wanna know what Kitamura’s thinking, you know? What are his likes? His dislikes? What does he do when he’s not wrestling in the undercard? Does he paint that mouthpiece himself or does he know a professional? Is he single? Is he looking? At this point, I’ll never know.
3. Creating an audio identity that isn’t contingent upon Attitude Era play-by-play and color commentary.
I’m the kind of dork who listens to the Japanese commentary, but can nevertheless tell you that it was a Good Thing when NJPW decided to hire a full-time English commentary team, and an Even Better Thing that Jim Ross wasn’t on it. The problem, though, is that that announce team is as fossilized as Ross, a crew of old dads who are most famous for a) The Rock draping a t-shirt over his head so he could be a transphobic fuckhead on national TV, and b) being the face of Paul Heyman’s work-shoot issues with The Nashville Network in the waning days of ECW. Kevin Kelly has been around New Japan long enough to at least pronounce the names of the wrestlers correctly (sorry, J.R.), but between New Japan and his long, long run as Ring of Honor’s lead play-by-play commentator, he’s yet to really add anything to a match except the kind of hokey, practice outrage that’s been the hallmark of American commentary since 1998.
My opinion of Kelly, admittedly, is colored by a conversation I had once with Necro Butcher about how Kelly denied the world a match between Necro and Essa Rios on WWF Television, then came into Ring of Honor years later and got Necro released through unspecified means (we were both drinking) in the company’s effort to homogenize rather than develop the kind of uniqueness a promotion needs to actually stand out from WWE. But, look at the dude standing next to Satoshi Kojima—he looks like an assistant principal at a middle school in Indiana. Not that a commentator has to look cool, but the Japanese announce table gets Masahiro Chono in couture. Kelly and Don Callis, beyond looking like dads who aren’t sure what to make of their sleek, angry wrestlesons, often end up in little pre-match skits with the Bullet Club or Los Ingobernables de Japon where they’re getting two sweeted by the Young Bucks or chased up the stands by Naito. It’s … fine, I guess, and no doubt NJPW was just looking for a couple of guys they could plug in without worrying about losing them to WWE like they did with Steve Corino. But, at the same time, they could also just develop their own team of English-speaking commentators who aren’t handcuffed by their long-established identities fashioned elsewhere.
It’s a small thing, and one that most wrestling promotions on television are guilty of. Outside of Don West and Corino, it’s difficult to come up with many guys behind the desk who weren’t calling matches or wrestling for WWE or WCW sometime over the past 20 years. When New Japan debuted on AXS, the network brought on Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett to do commentary. The AXS show hasn’t been something I’ve watched, given my NJPWWorld subscription/lack of cable television, but it was a fresh team, one half of which was hired by WWE and replaced by Ross, who kinda bombed at the G1 Special earlier this month and who can’t help but insert comparisons to WWE product and wrestlers at every turn. It’s possible that I’m in the minority as distaste for the current team is concerned, but I’d be more inclined to watch the English language broadcasts that the company is investing in if it felt like the team was adding anything more to the proceedings than pounding Twitter-generated nicknames and memes to the ground while being ignorant to the fanbase they’re meant to serve.
4. Making non-Bullet Club/LIJ merch more accessible.
And, while we’re at it, using a printer of higher quality/integrity than Pro Wrestling Tees would be nice. Of course it’s obvious which wrestlers/stables appeal to an American audience, but NJPW has a breathtaking array of merch that won’t be available to Americans unless they’re willing to import it. That’s how I got my NJPW x Hello Kitty shirt, but as the kind of dork who would absolutely be into the handsome jacket modeled below by Tanahashi, or an Okada bath towel, I’m stuck doing that.
If an American expansion is a reality, it’d be great if NJPW partnered with a printing company that took care to provide high quality goods, or partner with American streetwear labels the way they’ve done with others in Japan. This is the only major wrestling promotion making remotely fashionable wrestling goods, and it’s possible to do the same in America, provided New Japan has the will to create the infrastructure it currently lacks.
These fixes are small, but it’s small changes that integrate seamlessly into what a company is already doing well that will enhance the product for a growing market whose full potential has yet to be tapped. The great advantage WWE has enjoyed over its competitors is that it’s built a network of goods and services that cater to its audience in the easiest possible way, from the merchandise catalogs of the 1980s and 90s to the WWF Shopzone to their current store. Their main website is a mess of malware and menus going nowhere, but where it counts the company makes it incredibly easy to spend your money on whatever your heart desires, all while getting to know your favorite Superstars, regardless of where you live or what language you speak. American companies playing at being competitive with Vince McMahon’s empire have done a poor job of exporting that product to other markets, and they’re all content to play small ball and let others handle the bulk of the work it could easily be doing. NJPW’s ambitions seem to be larger. I want to see them act like it.