Professional wrestling has long been an artform that deals with a conflict between permutations of the self. The very nature of kayfabe meant that, historically, the distinction between a wrestler’s persona inside the ring and their “real” life outside of the ring was intentionally blurred, and wrestling storylines routinely make use of this hinterland between selves, as wrestler’s personal lives and backstage gossip intermingle with the trials and tribulations of their TV persona, the wrestling ring a liminal space between the two. Sometimes the division is made explicit – a “shoot” promo, in which a wrestler is referred to by their real name rather than their given gimmick name, or the tradition in Mexico that when a luchadore loses their mask, the audience are told their full name, hometown, and number of years’ experience; a ceremonial shedding of not only the mask, but of the “self” it represents, laying bare the “true” self beneath.
Outside the realms of storytelling, the conflict continues in more mundane ways – wrestlers leaving a former employer forced to change their ring-name, because the name they have previously performed under does not belong to them, or the increasing number of wrestlers choosing to use their real names on social media, rather than the name they perform under. This conflict, or negotiation, of different selves is at the essence of pro-wrestling.
It’s no surprise, then, that a business built on alter-egos would routinely bring that conflict to the forefront.
In WWE, perhaps the hottest act of the day is the recently reinvented Bray Wyatt – in one moment an Adult Swim parody of Mr. Rogers, in the next, a masked, slasher movie monster named The Fiend. The character of Wyatt has long been one built on the assumption of differing selves – on social media, he has alluded to “Bray Wyatt” being a separate entity inhabiting the body of Husky Harris, his previous WWE persona, and has previously taken on the ill-defined character of Sister Abigail. With the current distinction between the “Firefly Funhouse” host Bray Wyatt and The Fiend, though, the dichotomy of these two selves is central to the character, if thus far yet to be adequately explained. It’s a dynamic that WWE have explored before, with The Fiend’s first opponent, Finn Balor, competing as his own alter-ego, “The Demon” for bigger matches, and Fiend antecedents Kane and Mick Foley both having explored the dynamic of having multiple personae, while still being acknowledged within the narrative as being the same person – the audience were always aware that the “Corporate” version of Kane was canonically the same character as his masked alter-ego, and the distinction between Mick Foley, Cactus Jack, Mankind and Dude Love became a significant part of Foley’s career, while all being recognised as facets of Mick Foley.
Perhaps the most compelling example of a conflict of the self in professional wrestling is unfolding in New Japan Pro Wrestling. As the legendary Jushin “Thunder” Liger approaches retirement, in a recent encounter with Minoru Suzuki, he revealed the seldom seen alter-ego of Kishin Liger. But to understand Kishin Liger, we have to go back, to at least the 1950s.
American wrestling in the 1950s saw an increasing number of “gimmicks”, broad, colourful characters, and not least of all, villainous foreign menaces. Every wrestling promotion was replete with wrestling Nazis, or less explicitly Nazi-coded Germans – the Von Brauners, the Von Erichs, Baron Von Raschke – and later a never-ending parade of mock Soviet brutes. Its against this backdrop of shallow jingoism that a Filipino wrestler named Rey Urbano made his debut, first wrestling as a babyface in Hawaii, before being repackaged as a dastardly Japanese heel, in robe and wooden sandals, with an offence of karate chops and throat thrusts, wrestling through the ’50s and ’60s as Taro Sakuro, or the less imaginative “Tokyo Tom”.
Following a convalescense of some five years following an operation to remove a brain tumour, Urbano returned to the ring in the early ’70s as The Great Kabooki – a brutal “Japanese” warrior drawing on inspiration somewhere between myth and Hollywood stereotype, expanding the overtly Asian coded dress of Taro Sakuro to include a painted face, arched black eyebrows, and the ceremonial scattering of salt to purify the ring before contests, a ceremony he would make a mockery of when invariably using that same salt as a weapon to blind his opponents. It was a character pulling together the anti-Asian sentiment of mid-20th century America, and the fascination of the “mystical East” from half a century before, to craft an otherworldy, unknowable figure, in much the same way Kendo Nagasaki did in the UK at a similar time.
Kabooki was a significant figure through much of the ’70s, working alongside the likes of The Sheik, Bruno Sammartino, and Bobo Brazil, before rounding off his career in the early ’80s for Angelo Poffo’s ICW, competing against the likes of a young Randy Savage, and in his farewell match teaming with Ratamyus, a character bringing together aspects of The Sheik, and the more mystical, occult, and Orientalist nature of Kabooki – a formula that was also paying dividends for Kevin Sullivan around this time.
It was in 1981, in World Class Championship Wrestling, that Gary Hart took inspiration from Rey Urbano, giving the name of The Great Kabuki to a young Japanese journeyman wrestler named Akihisa Mera who, like Urbano before him, had wrestled under a number of assumed names before settling on his most famous moniker. Under the tutelage of Gary Hart, this new Kabuki became even more of a mystical figure than his predecessor, with long hair, a dark, painted face, pre-match nunchaku demonstrations and, most famously of all, with the mysterious ability to spit a mysterious liquid, or “poison mist”, that was used to blind and disorient his opponents. Alternately booked from Japan, Singapore, or simply “The Orient”, Kabuki stretched the stereotype of the Oriental other so far as to have concocted the possibility of them having a distinct physiology, literally able to secrete poison.
Perhaps adding to that sense of unknowable mystery, former AJPW wrestler Haru Sonada, a regular tag partner of Kabuki under the name of “Magic Dragon”, would often portray Kabuki in Mera’s absence. Sonoda, sadly, would pass away on South African Airways Flight 295 in 1987, en route to his honeymoon.
While The Great Kabuki went on to have a long and storied career in his own right, wrestling his final match in September 2018 at the age of 70, perhaps his most significant legacy is in the continuation of the Kabuki gimmick, by Keiji Mutoh, as The Great Muta. Initially introduced to American audiences as the son of Kabuki, Muta took the mysterious Kabuki image to new extremes, crafting a more manifestly demonic, supernatural character, less beholden to western stereotype, pulling from pop culture and Japanese folklore to create a mythology all of its own. As his career progressed, and Mutoh returned to Japan, he would alternate between his “real” name, and the demonic, violent, unpredictable Great Muta, a dichotomy of two wildly different selves.
Keiichi Yamada, meanwhile, made his NJPW debut under the Jushin Liger name in 1989, with a gimmick modelled on a Go Nagai anime series of the same name, and went on to a storied career, wrestling continously from his debut, never missing more than a month of ring time, even factoring in an operation to remove a brain tumour, like Urbano before him. Liger would quickly become one of the more popular, and iconic, performers in Japanese wrestling.
In 1996, the Great Muta and Jushin Liger crossed paths. It was a rare clash between arguably the biggest names of the junior heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, and Liger almost immediately seemed outclassed by his larger opponent. An aggressive Muta attacked Liger with foreign objects, tore at his mask and bodysuit, and brawled outside of the ring. When Muta attempted to remove Jushin Liger’s mask, though, he was caught off-guard with a spray of the poison mist he had made his signature, as beneath his mask Liger revealed a demonic painted face. This incarnation of Liger came to be known as Kishin Liger, a mirror of Muta, a demonic form. NJPW’s website explains;
The name Kishin carries with it connections to deities, but also personal transformation. Its kanji 鬼神 can be easily translated as ‘fierce god’, and can also be read as onigami (the god of the oni demons) or kijin. The word carries with it an idea of totality, a universal spirit of all creation both living and dead. It can also suggest the idea of extremely powerful latent ability, traits that Kishin Liger has clearly demonstrated.
Other wrestlers had mimicked Muta’s demonic persona in contests either against or teaming with him – Atsushi Onita as The Great Nita, Seiya Sanada in TNA as The Great Sanada, and Akebono as Muta’s kayfabe son in HUSTLE, The Great Bono – but none had the significance, or the lasting impact of Kishin Liger.
Part of the mythic appeal of the Kishin Liger persona is that it was used so sparingly – Liger would not revive the character again for a decade, and has only appeared in the facepaint four times in total.
In his most recent appearance, Kishin Liger has been willingly drawn out by the taunts of Minoru Suzuki. Suzuki unmasked Liger, and in an interview claimed that he didn’t want to wrestle, “the bastard under a mask”, but “the other one. The real you.”. When Kishin Liger emerged, it was with a spray of poison mist, and an attempt to drive a metal spike into Suzuki’s head, both reminiscent of his first appearance, and of the Great Muta at his most violent and uncontrollable.
It’s this distinction, around the first appearance this decade of Kishin Liger, that I find most compelling. The assertion, by Suzuki, that the “fierce god”, the demonic side of Liger, is the real Liger, while the more familiar masked hero is a facade. It becomes a question of which “self” is true. Whereas the first appearance of Kishin Liger was the story of a man driven to become a monster in order to beat a monster, and subsequent appearances were in the service of revenge for heinous attacks, this was the first time we have seen an opponent ask to face Kishin Liger. In his unmasking, for the first time, we have seen Liger shed not just of his mask, but of the artificial hair attached, Kishin Liger appearing bald for the first time. His facepaint isn’t as smooth and expertly applied as in earlier iterations, feeling rougher around the edges, perhaps an air of Heath Ledger’s Joker but, more than that, a symbol of a less polished, less refined figure than the Liger we are accustomed to.
In a widely circulated image from that Kishin Liger appearance (seen above), it feels like a brief moment of vulnerability captured among a whirlwind of rage and aggression. A tragic, almost frightened expression in the eyes of Liger, makes him look afraid, not of Minoru Suzuki, but of Kishin Liger itself, of what he might become, of what he’s capable of. In one brief moment, we see the eyes of Keiichi Yamada looking out from the face of Kishin Liger. One self subsumed by another. Which is the true self – Jushin Liger, Kishin Liger, or Keiichi Yamada? The mask, the monster, or the man? The story becomes more of a contest between Minoru Suzuki and Kishin Liger, but instead, an internal conflict of man vs. himself. A personal exorcism.
In that arresting image of Kishin Liger’s face, I am reminded of the late work of the great dancer Kazuo Ohno, an artist synonymous with the post-war Japanese dance form, Butoh. Butoh, like professional wrestling, entered Japanese culture in the 1950s, part of a new era struggling to find expression in a Japan increasingly defined by the stagnation of tradition, and the imposition of American occupation and dominance. Butoh was subversive, and sought to sever ties with both western and Japanese traditional forms of dance. It dealt in cultural taboos, and is often characterised by dancers in full bodypaint, hands twisted into claw-like positions, and jerking, uncomfortable movement, accompanied by grotesque facial expressions, creating the image of distress, of the dancers being moved against their will. Ohno was perhaps the finest practicioner of the form, using Butoh to challenge the unspoken rules of tradition, and to tackle gender and sexual norms, often appearing androgynous or in exagerrated drag. Ohno continued to dance into his 90s, and after he could no longer walk, focusing increasingly on facial expression and increasingly expressive hand movements, still making public appearances up to his hundredth birthday, before passing away in 2010 at the age of 103.
Ohno, like Great Muta, and like Kishin Liger, was able to bridge gaps between the absurd and the profound, taking material that in another’s hands would be ridiculous or comical, and transforming it into a striking, powerful image. Dance and wrestling alike are at their best when an epic narrative is expressed by just a few seemingly simple gestures, where physicality stands in for words, and the self is subsumed into the moment – Keiichi Yamada becomes Jushin Liger becomes Kishin Liger becomes the story, and in fleeting gestures we see those points in conflict. Butoh, and the career of Kazuo Ohno, like the persona of Kishin Liger, was born of a national, cultural need to create a distinct identity – Butoh in its relation to Japanese national identity in flux after World War 2, Kishin Liger as the ongoing negotiation of Japanese identity through the Western gaze, a reconfiguring of the xenophobic stereotypes that birthed The Great Kabooki in the early 1970s, refined across the decades, across multiple performers, arriving at the distinctly unique image of the paint-smeared face of Kishin Liger in 2019.
Whereas in WWE, Finn Balor’s Demon, or Bray Wyatt’s Fiend, feel like a costume, a role performed, Kishin Liger and Great Muta are a role inhabited. A separate self, more than just in service of the performance – how sparingly Kishin Liger has appeared becomes the story, the distinction between Kishin and Jushin Liger, between Liger and Yamada, becomes the story. The dancer becomes the dance.
Every time a wrestler turns heel, turns face, changes gimmick, and in particular when they consciously blur the lines between performer and performance, they are involved in a conflict of the self, a negotiation of identity. In the reemergence of Kishin Liger, we see that negotiation of identity writ large, drawn from decades of history, and played out in the public eye. Ironically, it is perhaps in this most public interrogation of what constitutes the true self of a professional wrestling that the answer is rendered ever more unclear – has Jushin Liger always been hiding Kishin Liger, or is Kishin Liger at the service of Jushin Liger? Are they both the alter-ego of Keiichi Yamada, or has Yamada’s own self become so blurred that we no longer know where the “true” self lies?