Note: the two matches discussed in this article can be seen by subscribing to DDT Universe
Let me begin as usual by talking about Saika Takeuchi. Her journey from hopeful beginner to pro wrestler in Kim Longinotto & Jano Williams’ 2000 film Gaea Girls offers one of the best hooks I’ve come across for getting to grips with the tough and emotionally-charged appeal of joshi puroresu. Takeuchi made her debut at Korakuen Hall on 23 October, 1999. Her opponent that day was a fellow trainee of Chigusa Nagayo’s GAEA dojo, Meiko Satomura.
Satomura occupies an important role Gaea Girls, acting as the mediating senpai between the starry-eyed but fragile Takeuchi and the sometimes cruelly authoritative hand of Nagayo. Her support for Takeuchi shifts from sympathy to tough love as and when required; sparring sessions with Satomura allow some respite from the altogether scarier prospect of training directly with Nagayo, but Satomura is also tasked with helping Takeuchi to tap more effectively and voluntarily into the wellspring of anger and resentment that the boss sees as crucial to a compelling wrestling performance. Their eventual Korakuen match is very short and Satomura wins easily (she’s only a year and a bit away from defeating Akira Hokuto in one of the best matches in wrestling history at this point), but this aspect of their training is a clear success, as Takeuchi fires right out of the blocks with precise, stiff dropkick after precise, stiff dropkick, screaming the whole time.
Fast forward nineteen years and Takeuchi’s is a name that is all but forgotten in the history of joshi puroresu (outside of this site, at least). Satomura’s, meanwhile, has attained a generation-defining status. Her career spans a period of huge transition for joshi, encompassing the demise of both AJW and GAEA Japan in 2005 and the subsequent establishment of a host of new companies capable of running at least semi-regular shows at Korakuen Hall – Emi Sakura’s Ice Ribbon and Satomura’s own Sendai Girls opened operations a year later in 2006, with WAVE following in 2007, Stardom in 2010 and SEAdLINNNG in 2015.
Satomura has put in appearances for all these promotions at some point or another. Her matches in Stardom against Kairi Hojo and Io Shirai are some of the most highly regarded of the current era of joshi wrestling, and helped to raise both performer’s reputations to such a level that even WWE had to take notice. This weekend Satomura brings two of her Sendai Girls proteges to the UK for Chikara’s King of Trios tournament – this is after the three won the whole thing in Pennsylvania last year (and this is after the slightly different grouping of Satomura, DASH Chisako and Sendai Sachiko put on a classic with the Young Bucks in the 2012 tournament). Sendai Girls’ current star pupil, Chihiro Hashimoto, won her first championship title from Satomura in October last year, and has been tipped as having the potential to bring 1980s-style noisy young female audiences back into joshi. Satomura’s career is emblematic of joshi post-AJW, and the future, to paraphrase another generation-defining Ace, goes through her.
So what do you do if you’re in charge of a promotion that has only been around for four years and which still exists on the margins of the current joshi product, but which has recently acquired the kind of high-gloss online media outlet afforded to few other promotions in that field? You arrange a Korakuen Hall show under the title “Brand New Wrestling ~ The Beginning Of A New Era ~”, of course, and you book Meiko Satomura to turn up and work her magic.
Miyu Yamashita’s history as a wrestler is completely intertwined with the history of Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling (TJP) as a promotion; both debuted on the same date, 30 January 2013, in a tiny venue in Akihabara that’s otherwise exclusively used for idol group performances. A side venture of DDT, TJP remained under the radar for all but the most dedicated fans of its parent promotion until the launch of DDT Universe earlier this year: this streaming service carries all of TJP’s shows and offers live-streaming for some of the larger ones (for what it’s worth, most of these are still pretty small). DDT are having a very successful 2017 – Judgement, their 20th anniversary, drew over 10,000 fans to Saitama Super Arena in March, confirming them in the least as Japan’s third promotion behind NJPW and Dragon Gate. Used to performing in front of crowds well below a thousand, eight of TJP’s performers were on the card for this massive event: first Azusa Takigawa, Reika Saiki and Rika Tatsumi took on Mil Clown, Maki Itoh and Yuu in a TJP offer match held before the main show, then Yamashita and Shoko Nakajima were on opposite sides of the ring for another six-person tag, teaming with Aja Kong and Cherry, and Saki Akai and Satomura respectively. This is where the seeds for Yamashita and Satomura’s eventual showdown at Korakuen Hall would first be planted.
The whole multi-person match is really planned around these two performers: Yamashita and Satomura are the first competitors to shake hands, and although it takes them a few minutes to get into the ring together, once they do they remain the centre of attention up to and beyond the final bell. Yamashita’s characteristic offence is based around kicks, and she immediately attempts to go toe-to-toe with one of the best strikers in the game. Yamashita is knocked off her feet once but picks herself up and the kick exchange renews and intensifies; Yamashita’s health meter is draining much faster than Satomura’s but this time the younger wrestler stays on her feet way longer than you’d anticipate, battling to stay vertical even when rocked to her knees, and eventually catches Satomura’s leg and hits her with a knee to the gut. Satomura rallies, hitting a flying kick off an Irish whip and nailing a top-rope splash but the subsequent pin attempt is interrupted by Aja Kong. Yamashita recovers to hit a roundhouse kick on Satomura which gets her a two-count, and now Kong is screaming at the rookie to finish the job. As the match breaks down around them, Satomura rallies once more to hit a brutal kick to Yamashita’s head followed by a cartwheel knee drop and a Death Valley Driver for the three-count.
As if it wasn’t clear enough already, it becomes totally evident after the bell that the interactions between Yamashita and Satomura were the real objective of this highly privileged match. After Yamashita rolls out to the floor following the pin, Satomura invites her back onto the ring apron for a show of respect, but Yamashita instead offers her a big slap to the face. The two exchange slaps and Yamashita has tears in her eyes. Satomura backs off before laying in with a final slap and kicking Yamashita back down to the floor. As Satomura stoically leads Nakajima and Akai out of the arena, Kong and Cherry are left carrying a wilted Yamashita.
The wait was tantalising but a singles match between Yamashita and Satomura was finally booked in July. The build constitutes one of the most understated and ingenious bits of storytelling I’ve seen all year, and I’ll allow Jamie from the Dramatic DDT blog to narrate it:
Miyu Yamashita has caught Meiko Satomura’s attention but she’ll probably wish she hadn’t. Satomura pinned Yamashita to win the women’s match for her team but their interaction did not end there. Yamashita stood up to her from the apron after the match and Satomura’s reaction was to kick her away. In the post-match interview Satomura said she see will never forget what she saw in Yamashita’s eyes today. She’s motivated, that’s for sure. She would like to fight her one on one.
That’s from a post made just after Judgement. Ok, now look at this one reporting on the signing of the match four months later:
Yamashita looks up to Satomura and is happy to get the opportunity to fight her. Satomura on the other hand does not have as many nice things to say about her opponent. She remembers challenging Yamashita for a match but now is just treating it like any other match. Doesn’t matter if it’s in Korakuen or Saitama Super Arena, it’s all the same to her. She hasn’t seen any of Yamashita’s matches since they fought and her opinion of the girl hasn’t changed. Satomura’s comments upset Yamashita so much she had to fight back tears as she responded.
What’s the one affect that Chigusa Nagayo never shows in GAEA Girls? Indifference. Nagayo either loves you or hates you, or some confusing mixture of the two, depending on the level of effort and improvement you’re demonstrating in the ring. You see the same kind of commitment radiating out from Satomura every time she steps in the ring with one of her Sendai Girls proteges, and in the best cases it draws out a frankly thrilling level of intensity from her less experienced opponents – a great example of this is the recent trios match from a July Sendai Girls show in which Mika Shirahime attains her final wild-eyed, frizzy-haired form. Continuing on from the work she was responsible for in the GAEA dojo, Satomura acts as a conduit through which bright prospects can become more completely, more compellingly joshi puroresu. But you need her full attention to hit those heights; the worst a young upstart can hear ahead of an upcoming bout with Satomura is that it’s ‘all the same to her’.
When the big day finally rolls around on 26 August, it’s clear from the start that neither Yamashita nor this “special singles match” are matters of indifference for the Korakuen crowd. Making her entrance in a natty little white jacket (I will never not pop for white special entrance gear), Yamashita is bathed in streamers, like, retirement show-levels of streamers. Satomura’s entrance is deliberate, understated and intimidating, and she receives no streamers of her own. Even though Korakuen is rightfully hers – Miyu was four years old when Takeuchi’s debut match happened in this very spot – there’s a feeling of Satomura being in enemy territory here. Yamashita, meanwhile, is TJP, and TJP is Yamashita. There’s a lot riding on her being able to raise her game here.
Yamashita is fast out of the blocks from the opening bell, but her kicks are absorbed by Satomura who in short order starts to demonstrate her nigh-on unbeatable wrestling intelligence, reversing her way out of numerous holds and strikes into a series of armbars which Yamashita is forced to escape via the ropes. Yamashita spends most of the opening stages of the match on the back foot, but is able to rally briefly when Satomura takes to the top rope around five minutes in, nailing a forearm which catches Satomura off guard and following it up with a flurry of pissed-off looking kicks in the corner. Yamashita shoves the pleading referee away and proceeds to stomp Satomura’s head; her long hair is obscuring her face but the way she’s carrying herself – shoulders hunched and stiffened – speaks to the tension of the moment.
Unsurprisingly, Satomura is eventually able to fight back from this position and the two exchange blows for the remainder of the match. Satomura catches Yamashita with a high kick, a DDT and a cartwheel knee drop but Yamashita wriggles free from a Death Valley Driver attempt and rains in lots and lots of kicks to the chest. Yamashita ducks a forearm attempt and hits a high kick which floors Satomura, quickly following up with a bridging German suplex for a two-count, another kick to the head, and a Cobra Clutch which Satomura eventually escapes via rope break – the first time in the match that the veteran has been out-wrestled. Yamashita keeps the momentum through another kick exchange and looks close to getting the job done but Satomura escapes a cross-arm suplex attempt and regains control with a stiff forearm and overhead kick. Unable to find the right combination to seize on a potentially match-winning position, the inexperienced Yamashita now succumbs to the inevitable – another kick sets her up for the Death Valley Driver, which Satomura hits this time, and chases immediately with a sleeper hold to win by TKO.
After the bell, Satomura looks sore but like she’s been through worse. She goes over to the referee to check on her opponent; when Yamashita comes to she slaps away Satomura’s attempt to help her to her feet and, sobbing, slaps Satomura twice more, holding onto her singlet and demanding a rematch. Satomura’s reaction is inconclusive, but before exiting the stage she leads a round of applause for her opponent while Yamashita, exhausted and devastated, has to be carried off once again.
From the moment the match was teased at Judgement, it was clear that a first-time match-up with Satomura was to be read not just as a proving ground for Yamashita, the ace of TJP, but for TJP’s status within the joshi eco-system as a whole. TJP’s roster almost entirely consists of performers with less than five years of in-ring experience; their current champion, Reika Saiki, has just over one. As a DDT product, TJP makes up for any workrate deficiencies with a slightly deranged charm all of its own (viz. Maki Itoh, a very limited wrestler but a wildly entertaining character), but, as with their flagship promotion, the group has clear aspirations for TJP to be taken seriously as a total wrestling package. While Saiki and Yuka Sakazaki put on a very solid title match in the main event of their August Korakuen show, the match between Yamashita and Satomura was in a sense the most important match on the card, since it dramatised this struggle for broader acceptance.
What’s notable, then, is what light work Satomura made of her opponent. Yamashita got a handful of two-counts and a rope break, sure, and the fact that Satomura followed the Death Valley Driver up with a submission rather than a pin adds an interesting wrinkle to the story of the match, but the win felt like a fairly distant prospect for Yamashita throughout. Not that that’s a criticism of either the booking or the performers: as I’ve explored before, sometimes being soundly beaten by a superior opponent can be just the leg-up a wrestler needs. With any luck, all parties will consider this first match a success and work towards an extended program, with Yamashita coming ever closer to the prize, possibly even bridging TJP and Sendai Girls (a Yamashita-Shirahime match along the way could be fire). If this remains their only encounter, however, it was still worth it for the spectacle we were presented: the brightest prospect from a promotion on the margins coming up not just against a fearsome opponent but against the living, breathing incarnation of the last two decades of joshi history, and getting her shit in.