Puroresu Love

May 9, 2010

I don’t believe anyone is naïve enough to count professional wrestling as a sport anymore—sports entertainment is the word for it in the U.S. these days, as if the purpose of every sport isn’t already to entertain—but things have definitely gotten to the point where pro wrestling has taken the next step beyond “sports entertainment” and now features wrestlers and matches that play with the very conventions of the medium. Of course, I can’t pinpoint exactly when this began, but I can define when it reached its pinnacle. Well, I can’t define it precisely because I don’t have the specifics of where or when the match took place, but I can tell you it was a best of three falls title match between Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen of Osaka Pro Wrestling.

There are a number of story elements to this match, but I will only be looking at elements contained in the match itself, not necessarily the backstory leading up to the bout. The match begins with a flash finish as Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam and covers him with a lateral press. Ebessan sits up in disbelief immediately after the three count, and even though he wears a mask that entirely covers his face he is able to convey the emotion through his posture and his body language. At the start of the second fall, Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam again but Ebessan manages to kick out. This is not really a running gag because the result is different, but it’s still part of the story. This kick-out builds off the first fall and shows that Ebessan has learned from his mistake and the same trick won’t work again.

This is an immediate payoff as far as the story is concerned, but sometimes you have to pay attention and remember prior events in the match to appreciate what is happening. Near the end of the match, the referee counts slowly when Ebessan covers Kuishinbo, and Ebessan is upset. This is actually payback from a prior moment when the referee stole some thunder from the wrestlers and Ebessan kicked and berated him, and it is further paid off when Kuishinbo covers Ebessan and the referee counts quickly.

After this gag the action builds to the finish and the wrestlers show off their amazing athleticism. Even though they’re comedy wrestlers, they are as competent and technically sound as any straight wrestler. Kuishinbo showcases his aerial repertoire with a quebrada to the outside and a couple top-rope hurricanranas and then scores a good near-fall with a Cancun tornado, which involves leaping backwards off the top rope and spinning twice in the air before landing on your opponent. Because Kuishinbo is the champion and this is his finishing move, the crowd expects him to win—but Ebessan survives. Ebessan doesn’t look like he’s athletically built, but he still executes a beautiful moonsault and actually wins with a Cancun tornado of his own. To defeat Kuishinbo with his own finishing move is an impressive feat on Ebessan’s part, and it provides a poetic ending to the match.

Despite the poetic ending, however, the match as a whole is more like farcical satire. Ebessan and Kuishinbo are masters of playing with and making fun of the conventions of pro wrestling. Conventionally, when a wrestler whips his opponent to the ropes and then drops to his stomach, his opponent will leap over him and bounce off the opposite ropes. However, when Ebessan whips Kuishinbo to the ropes and drops to his stomach, Kuishinbo drops a headbutt on him instead of leaping over. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense why the wrestler who was whipped to the ropes would leap over his prone opponent instead of attacking him, but it takes a comedy match to actually get the viewer to think about this nonsensical convention.

Kuishinbo and Ebessan even draw attention to the fictionality of their match by refusing to participate in it at various points. The most famous example of this comes when they try to leave the ring because they don’t want to wrestle anymore and the referee forces them to fight. The wrestlers begrudgingly go through the motions in slow motion with half-hearted strikes and slow shuffling rather than running against the ropes. The sequence culminates in a slow motion Shining Wizard by Ebessan, complete with Mutoh-kissing-Wolfpac-sign performance at the end. Such a move is completely out of character for Ebessan, but it draws attention to just how silly and contrived a move the Shining Wizard is, even though it is the finishing move of an immensely popular “serious” wrestler in Keiji Mutoh. Pro wrestling absolutely depends on contrivance, but contrivance can be comedy gold in the hands of two masters like Kuishinbo and Ebessan.

The story, the gags, and the athleticism of the wrestlers all combine to make this match one of the funniest and most entertaining of all time. Being able to tell a story solely through actions is an art that is lost on ninety-nine percent of the pro wrestlers of today, but that ability is alive and well in the ranks of Osaka Pro Wrestling. Calling Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen competitors is not entirely correct, and even calling them athletes is not enough—they are indeed nothing less than artists.

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