Into the Indies 10.13.09: M.U.S.C.L.E. Comes to Life!
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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Into the Indies, the only column on 411mania with zero points of articulation.
If you are like me and grew up in the 1980’s, chances are good that you remember M.U.S.C.L.E. (not to be confused with HUSTLE). M.U.S.C.L.E. was a line of two inch tall flesh-colored toys which claimed to depict a series of “intergalactic professional wrestlers” when in reality most of the characters looked like monsters from a b-level science fiction film. I had a great deal of fun with them at the time, mainly because they were incredibly detailed despite their small size, which managed to get my young creative juices flowing. Though there was a M.U.S.C.L.E. video game for the old Nintendo Entertainment System released in the United States, the action figures by and large stood on their own, with their only backstory coming off of the back of the toys’ packaging.
However, what a lot of American youngsters did not realize at the time and what I did not realize until a few weeks ago was that there was a lot more backstory to M.U.S.C.L.E. than what was printed on the blister cards. The tiny figures that we all saw in every Toys R’ Us in the U.S. were actually reproductions of toys originally produced in Japan as part of a significantly larger franchise.
The franchise in question all began with a comic book by Yoshinori Nakai and Takashi Shimada entitled Kinnikuman (which loosely translates to “Muscle Man”). The comics followed the titular character as he attempted to prove himself worthy of becoming of the crown prince of an alien land by competing in a professional wrestling tournament against a variety of bizarre-looking alien grapplers. The popularity of the comic book, which was introduced in 1979, quickly exploded. Numerous spinoffs of the original comic were produced, and it was transformed into a cartoon series which spawned no fewer than seven feature-lengthy animated films and numerous rehashes of each. In fact, at least one spinoff of the cartoon series is still in production to this very day.
Of course, when a popular comic book and cartoon series has its roots in professional wrestling, the actual events in wrestling will inspire the comic and the comic will periodically inspire actual professional wrestling. This has happened several times over the years. For example, one of the lead characters of the comic book was a rough and tumble Texan by the name of Terryman, who was essentially the animated version of Terry Funk. On the other side of the spectrum, Kinnikuman‘s opponent the Curry Cook, who had a sadistic smile and wrestled with a bowl of curry balanced on top of his head, provided the primary inspiration for the Curry Man character that would be portrayed by Christopher Daniels in Michinoku Pro Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Total Nonstop Action.
Yet, despite the periodic crossovers of the sort mentioned above, there was never much of a full-fledged effort to bring Kinnikuman and the numerous other characters who inhabited his universe in to the live action realm. However, all of that changed on May 29, 2009. Toei Animation, the company that produced the first Kinnikuman cartoon series, decided to put together a special-one night only live action wrestling show to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the initial publication of the comic book. They assembled a crew of several talented independent wrestlers to play the roles of the Kinnikuman characters, and they even brought in a handful of wrestling’s big names to play themselves.
Will this comic book series translate well in to real life, or are Kinnikuman and friends better suited to remain in ink and paper? Let’s take a look . . .
Match Numero Uno: Takao Omori, Mongolman, & Buffaloman vs. Manabu Nakanishi, Warsman, Robin Mask in the Semi-Finals of the Superman Tag Tournament
The primary focus of the show appears to be a six man tag team tournament in which the teams consist of two Kinnikuman characters and one professional wrestler from the “real world.” In this case, our “real” wrestlers are Takao Omori and Manabu Nakanishi, the former being a freelancer who has competed with AJPW, NJPW, and ZERO1 at various points of his career and the latter being one of the biggest current stars in New Japan. At the time that this show took place, Nakanishi held the IWGP Heavyweight Title, NJPW’s most important singles championship.
Joining Omori and Nakanishi for this match are a crew of wrestlers from DDT, all of whom were in action when I reviewed that company’s Theme Park Pro Wrestling show a couple of weeks back. Robins Mask, a character who is essentially knight transplanted from Medieval England, is being played by US indy gadfly Kota Ibushi. Under the mask as his partner Warsman, the wrestling cyborg, is KUDO. Rounding out the DDT contingent is Chou-un Shiryu under a hood as Mongolman, which I’m hoping is a bit of an intentional nod to the fact that his character in DDT is that of a Chinese man. The only non-DDT guy playing a cartoon character in this match is Daisuke Sekimoto, an indy heavyweight who spends most of his free time in Big Japan Wrestling. He is in the role of the meaty Buffaloman.
Warsman and Mongolman are the first wrestlers in the ring, and they trade kicks early on with Mongol getting the advantage. To counter, Warsman puts on a clawed glove, but the referee confiscates it. He still gets the advantage, catching the Mongol with a kick as he comes off of the top rope. Robins Mask and Buffaloman are in after that, with the Buffalo hitting a charging back body drop and tagging in Omori. He drops an elbow on the knight and chokes him in the corner before trading places with Buffaloman. The anthropomorphic bison gives his opponent a vertical suplex for a nearfall and then applies a version of the Fujiwara armbar. Robin quickly makes the ropes, but Mongolman tags in to continue his punishment with a rolling senton and a dropkick in the corner. Buffaloman and Omori follow that up with corner attacks of their own, after which Buffalo and Mongol go for one of their signature attacks from the cartoon series. It sees Mongol lifting Buffaloman up on to his shoulders and charging forward, using his partner’s head as a horned battering ram. However, the move backfires, as the two men plow in to Omori. This sets up the hot tag to Nakanishi, and the IWGP Champ runs wild with axe handles and forearms. He KILLS Mongolman with a lariat, though it only gets two as the bison saves. He gets chopped by Manabu for his troubles, and then two men wind up throwing big lariats at each other for a while before Nakanishi takes his man down with another axe handle.
Mongolman tries to intrude into the match by coming off the top rope at Nakanishi, but he’s caught and given a backbreaker. Omori is the last man to dispatch, and Manabu puts him in a torture rack. Robins does the same to Mongolman, and Warsman gives Buffalo a surfboard variant. Nobody submits, so Robins Mask tags in and hits Mongolman with an elevated butterfly suplex before running the ropes and hitting Buffaloman’s knee. That sets up Omori and Buffalo high-lowing the wrestler form the round table, which Mongolman follows up with a spinning heel kick. It gets two as Warsman saves. All six men begin to brawl with Robin and Mongol being left in the ring, and Mongolman hits his version of the 619 before missing a kick from the top rope. Warsman catches him offguard with a diving shot from his bladed glove, setting up a second torture rack from Robins Mask. Mongolman won’t submit, so Mask falls forward in to a weird headstand version of the rack that I have never seen before in my life. This causes Mongolman to give it up.
Match Thoughts: This was a fun ten minute opening match. Obviously the men involved worked this not unlike a traditional American tag team bout, with the heat sequence early giving way to the string of big nearfalls down the stretch. However, in this particular case, the diversity of styles and characters prevented the “formula” match from feeling too stale. Ibushi and Shiryu in their Robins Mask and Mongolman roles did a fine job of bringing the high flying action, allowing Nakanishi and Sekimoto to provide an important contrast with their more power-based offense. Though they weren’t featured nearly as much, Omori and KUDO at least managed to stay out of the way and not screw anything up. Perhaps the most interesting part of the match for me, though, was how the wrestlers managed to integrate elements of the cartoon that they were paying tribute to into the bout without taking it so far that the match didn’t feel like it was being played up entirely for comedy. The Mongol/Buffalo double team spot and the use of Warsman’s blades were nice homages that made sense in the context of the match, even if you are not familiar at all with the source material. All in all, a fun little affair. ***
Match Numero Dos: Yuji Nagata, Specialman, & Canadianman vs. Danshoku Dino, Wolfman, & Blocken, Jr. in the Semi-Finals of the Superman Tag Tournament
This is quite the interesting match, as it features wrestlers from at least four different promotions. Yuji Nagata, of course, is one of the biggest active names in New Japan Pro Wrestling and has been for quite some time. DDT is represented in the match was well, with relative newcomer Yasu Urano under a mask as Specialman, a character who wrestles in American football gear. Dino is also a DDT regular, and, as you know if you have read any of my prior writeups on that promotion, his character is essentially that of a gay man who for some reason desires to molest any unwilling heterosexual man he can find, especially his opponents. A relatively new promotion named FREEDOMS (the successor to the now-defunct Apache Army) is being represented by Jun Kasai and GENTARO, with Kasai under a hood as Blocken, Jr., a robotic Nazi character and GENTARO donning a Maple Leafed mask to play Canadianman. The final promotion sending a wrestler to this match is IWA Japan, who provided Keizo Matsuda to portray sumo wrestler Wolfman.
Wolfman takes Canadianman off his feet as soon as the bell rings, and we have ourselves a wrestling match. The Canuck is hiptossed out of the corner and quickly tags out to Specialman, his American counterpart. He too is taken off of his feet, and Blocken is tagged in to the match. He tosses Special to the floor and whips him in to the guardrail before digging around under the ring and producing a table. A favorite Nazi tactic, that one. Blocken places Specialman on the furniture and comes off the top rope, giving him a flying splash through the table. After that, Special is tossed in to the ring and double teamed by Blocken and Wolf, with the German getting a two count and following it up with an enzuguri and the CLAW HOLD~! Somebody’s been watching their tapes of World War II-themed wrestlers form the United States. That brilliance sets up a tag to Dino, whose first offensive move is rubbing Specialman’s nipples really hard. Yup. He then applies his patented armbar during which he also dry humps the limb, eventually letting it go to hit a version of the Rock Bottom. After that, he stands over Specialman’s face and does what can most politely be described as the PG version of teabagging the footballer.
Fortunately for Specialman, Wolfman tags back in at this point. He misses a charge in the corner, giving us the tag to Nagata. Yuji kicks Wolf in the face but bails as soon as Dino tags in, opting to allow Canadianman to wrestle instead. The red-and-white clad wrestler avoids Dino’s patented testicular claw, which is deflected in to the referee’s privates. That gives Canadianman an opportunity to climb to the top rope, but Danshoku cuts hm off and slams him from the top strand, Flair-style. The tag is made to Specialman, who eats the testicular claw for a while before Dino brings his partners in to the ring. The three men all hit corner attacks on Special, with Dino’s actually being a soft slap to the junk. An overhand chop from Blocken gets two, and then Wolf unloads with some sumo-style palm thrusts and a slam out of Kona Crush’s old cranium compactor. Nagata hits the ring and starts to run wild, but Dino intervenes and runs him off again. The two have a confrontation on the entrance ramp, with Nagata being too dumbstruck to do anything until Danshoku turns around, bends over, and essentially presents his ass to Nagata. There’s just no polite way to do play-by-play on this. Nagata’s response is not what Dino was hoping for, as he instead kicks the man low, which causes him to take a flying bump off of the stage.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Canadianman gets a rollup in the ring that wins the match for his team. After the bell, Dino does steal a kiss from Nagata and then chases him to the back.
Match Thoughts: Though it had some spots which were not exactly laughable (e.g. the table dive), this was certainly played as more of a comedy match than the opening bout was. Dino’s schtick, which I find a bit off-putting in singles matches, was a lot easier to take in a tag team match in which he was periodically replaced by his partners. I did enjoy the match-long storyline of Nagata attempting to avoid Dino’s advances, as it was something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be booked and a good way to avoid the big league star Nagata having to squash the indy comedy wrestler in order to maintain his credibility at Dino’s expense. The other four men in the ring seemed to largely be keeping true to their cartoon characters, which resulted in a match that, though it was completely different from the opener, was no less entertaining . . . it was just entertaining for different reasons. **
Match Numero Tres: Yuji Nagata, Specialman, & Canadaman vs. Manabu Nakanishi, Sunshine, & Ashuraman in the Finals of the Superman Tag Tournament
This match is preceded by the kind of “backstage” vignette that I can only imagine was the product of the greatest acid trip that Japan has ever seen. (Or worst, depending on how you choose to look at it.) Tajiri, dressed as the six-armed Kinnikuman character Ashuraman, sneaks up on the dressing room of his scheduled opponents Warsman and Robins Mask. Robins is lounging in a pool of green water, while Wars is relaxing and watching the television. Ashura throws a bucket of water on Wars, causing him to short circuit. Meanwhile, a SEA MONSTER pops up behind Robins Mask as he lounges in the tub, pulling him underwater and emerging with only the mask of the fallen knight.
Thus, when the scheduled final match of Wars, Robins, and Nakanishi vs. Nagata, Specialman, and Canadianman is to begin, Nakanishi enters with Ashuraman by his side. The two take it to the three man team without a partner, and they even manage to dominate in the early going, getting a lucky shot in on Nagata and then effortlessly working over the “North Americans” on the team. Tajiri takes Canadianman down with a double thrust shot and follows it with a jawbreaker that leads to a two count. Nakanishi tags in as Ashura slaps Canadianman with his fake arms, which you knew had to happen at some point. Nakanishi lands a suplex and applies the dreaded camel clutch, after which Tajiri returns to the offense. He runs Canadianman in to Nagata as Yuji stands on the apron, and then he applies the Tarantula. Hmm . . . I wonder where Ashuraman leared that one? Ashura then goes to work on one of the turnbuckles, loosening the padding for later in the match. He slaps a bow and arrow submission on Canadianman, which the Manitoban manages to reverse. He misses a dropkick, though, giving Ashuraman the opportunity to use the exposed turnbuckle bolt behind the referee’s back. That gets a two count. Tajiri quickly gets a taste of his own medicine, though, as he is sent back first in to the buckle seconds before Nagata tags in. Yuji meets Nakanishi with some kicks to the back and a leaping enzuguri, which sets up a Yakuza kick in the corner and an exploder suplex for a two count. Nakanishi reverses Nagata’s next Irish whip attempt in to a lariat and tags out to Ashuraman, who runs straight in to Nagata’s knee and gets armbarred . . . but the hold is applied to one of the fake arms that is part of Tajiri’s costume. Nagata, in a genius spot, RIPS IT OFF. He rips off a second arm as well, and there are even little red patches on the side of Tajiri’s outfit where the limbs were removed.
In the confusion related to one of the competitors being literally torn to pieces, the referee gets distracted just long enough for Ashuraman to spray some deadly green mist in to Nagata’s eyes. Again, I wonder where he learned that one from? With both Yuji and Tajiri down, the lights go down and SUNSHINE begins marching to the ring, complete with sound effects piped into the arena to indicate how heavy his footsteps are supposed to be. He enters the ring by climbing to the top rope and jumping down to the mat, which causes everybody in the squared circle to take a bump as though they had just been in an earthquake. Canadianman and Specialman take turns running straight in to Sunshine and falling down, until a two man shoulderblock finally knocks the big box off his feet. Then, out of nowhere, Canadianman gives the yellow brick wrestler a shooting star press from the top rope to win the match. Well, that certainly made the box look worthless after his big entrance.
Match Thoughts: One of the odd things about this card as opposed to others is that, on a normal show, the comedy tends to be booked early on with the more serious matches being reserved for later in the evening. Here, the most serious match opened the show and things have become progressively more comedy-driven as the evening has gone on. Given the type of show that we’re watching here, I have absolutely no problem with that. Maybe I’ve just got an odd sense of humor, but everything here was very amusing, particularly the bit with Ashuraman’s surplus arms being removed by Nagata and Sunshine proving to be completely worthless after an entrance that made him look like he was going to be the wrestling equivalent of Jesus Christ Superstar. Technically it wasn’t the greatest match in the world and the wrestlers took it relatively easy, but, if you’re looking for a match that you can chuckle at instead of a match that is going to make you blue in the face with emotion, this one was perfectly acceptable. *
Match Numero Cuatro: Minowa Ikuhisa vs. Kinnikuman
This is quite the interesting choice of main event. Kinnikuman here is being played by KUSHIDA, a young man with a martial arts background and some lucha libre training who became a protege of Tajiri and has since been wrestling with the HUSTLE promotion. (He’s also recently taken a rare US booking on the November 21, 2009 CHIKARA show.) Selected to fight “Kinnikuman” on the show celebrating his thirtieth birthday is Minowa Ikuhisa, who is primarily known as a mixed marital arts fighter and not a professional wrestler. Sometimes called “Minowaman” in MMA circles, his most recent claim to fame is knocking off a much larger Bob Sapp on a May 26, 2009 show for the Japanese MMA promotion DREAM. A pre-match video package portrays Minowa as a huge fan of the Kinnikuman franchise as a child.
Any question about whether they were going to work this as a shoot-style match is answered right off the bat, as the first thing that the two men do is a collar and elbow tie-up. The wrestlers take it to the mat after that, with neither getting a decided advantage. Eventually Kinnikuman asserts some dominance with a drop toe hold and a bow and arrow submission, though Minowaman rolls out of that and in to a quick one count on the cartoon character. Ikuhisa asks for a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but kicks his animated hero in the gut, setting up a series of martial arts-style kicks to the legs and some fists in the corner. Minowa follows that up with a dropkick in the corner and a pair of running knife edge chops. Palm strikes in the corner are the next order of the day from Minowaman, but his attempt at a vertical suplex is blocked. He gets Kinnikuman up on the second try and manages a two count off of the move, which he follows up with a backdrop suplex for another nearfall. Ikuhisa next climbs to the top rope, looking a bit uncertain but ultimately coming off with a Tatanka-style tomahawk chop. Kinnikuman sells it like a death blow, slumping down against the ropes until Minowa picks him up and tries for an Irish whip. Kinniku turns that in to an abdominal stretch, which Minowa attempts to reverse to no avail. In an awesome spot, when Ikuhisa tries to walk to the ropes in the abdominal stretch, Kinnikuman does a quick switch and reverses the hold so that it is grapevining Minowa’s other arm, the one that was closer to the ropes. Ikuhisa retakes the advantage fairly quickly after that, though, picking his opponent’s ankle and applying a figure four leg lock. Kinniku tries to power his way out of the hold and eventually reverses it, forcing Minowaman to roll through one more time. That results in both men landing in the ropes, and the hold is broken.
Ikuhisa seems to be in better shape when the wrestlers stand up, and he tries to go back to the figure four several times. This results in his being caught with an eznuguri, after which Kinnikuman begins to Hulk up. He runs immediately to the top rope, but Minowa cuts him off and sets up for a version of the muscle buster. The move connects for two, after which Minowa places his opponent back on the top. The wrestlers fight over a superplex, and Kinniku comes out the better for it, shoving his opponent off of the ropes and hitting a missile dropkick. A backdrop suplex is his next offensive move, and that is followed with a second version of the same move. Ikuhisa then finds himself given the muscle buster, though Minowaman kicks out at one. He plants his forearm in to Kinnikuman’s head several times, getting a jumping enzuguri for his troubles. That sets up a second muscle buster from Kinniku, and this time it gets a three count.
After the bell, Kinnikuman has some parting words for Minowa as the lights dim and oddly sentimental music plays. Then, in perhaps the most unusual visual of the evening (and think of the ground that covers), Kinniku stands on the entrance ramp basking in the glow of an incredibly bright spotlight while hundreds of tiny Kinnikuman action figures ride down from the ceiling on parachutes and fall all around Ikuhisa, who remains kneeling in the ring. O . . . K?
Match Thoughts: This was what it was. Minowa, to my knowledge, is not horribly experienced as a professional wrestler, and KUSHIDA no doubt had a lot of what he would normally be able to do limited by the fact that the Kinnikuman mask he was forced to wear was made out of rubber with very little in the way of eye, mouth, and nose holes. Breathing was probably miserable for him for the duration of this match, to say nothing about the heat. However, when you consider the fact that the two men had to work around these limitations, they put on a decent professional wrestling match. The focus obviously could not be the athletics of the bout given the aforementioned limitations. They also chose not to focus on comedy. Instead, in this particular match, the manner in which the performers tried to work around the fact that they weren’t going to have an in-ring barnburner was relying upon the Kinnikuman nostalgia. There were numerous voiceovers by the character himself, and, throughout the match and in the post-match ceremony it seemed as though they were trying to put him over as a life-altering demi-god who had a strong influence on many young men’s lives as opposed to simply being the goofy cartoon that people like me saw him as. The result was a bit surreal, as in my mind it was the equivalent of watching a wrestling match that attempted to portray Fred Flintstone as a an inspirational leader in the vein of Jesus. Head-scratchingly odd, this was. *1/2
This wasn’t a great professional wrestling show. However, that’s fine, because it wasn’t designed to be a great professional wrestling show. It was designed to be a one time only novelty act that gives professional wrestling fans an entertaining hour of programming and that gives fans of Kinnikuman their first and perhaps only opportunity to see the characters that they’ve enjoyed for so long in real life. If you look at this as what it was intended to be and not as a wrestling card that was meant to be an all-time classic, it absolutely worked. There was a great mix of elements of the franchise and elements of modern independent puroresu so that neither half of the equation overpowered the other. Putting too much emphasis on Kinnikuman spots would have turned off people who are exclusively wrestling fans, and putting too much emphasis on a straight wrestling show would have turned off people who are exclusively Kinnikuman fans. With the show that we actually got, it seemed that fans of the comics could enjoy the card despite having no familiarity with what a standard wrestling card looks like and that fans of wrestling could enjoy the card despite having no familiarity with what the comics were all about. If you’re a Kinnikuman fan, you should absolutely check this out. If you’re more like me and barely know the first thing about Kinnikuman but enjoy pro wrestling athleticism with a twist of off-kilter humor, that is a fine way to burn an hour, even if it wouldn’t be the first thing that I watched if I wanted to see an all-time classic card.
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See you all next week!