wrestling / Columns

Hamilton: Is NJPW Pushing Away More Than Drawing In?

March 22, 2021 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
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Everyone views things through different lenses. And I’m not talking about those of us who wear glasses or contacts. Our own background, past experiences and world view not only colour what we see, but also shape how we react to things as well.

When I do show reviews, I make a point to keep as much as possible to “between the bells”; after all, how I feel about a certain move could be totally different to how you do. The aftermath of Sunday’s New Japan Cup final though, was a step too far. In the show report, I mentioned what happened – after winning the main event, Will Ospreay decided to drop his girlfriend Bea Priestley with a cutter. On paper, it’s meant to come off as “if I can do this to someone I love, imagine what I’m capable of” – some may say as a response to some knocks on his work as a bad guy thus far. However, when you look at the very recent past, you can see how it’s a little tone deaf for New Japan to trot out what could be described as a rehash of the Test and Stacy Keibler angle from 2003, and that’s before you even bring up that it was with a guy who’s had some pointed accusations towards his treatment of women in wrestling through the years.

Within minutes of the show ending, GIFs and clips of the angle circulated online, and drew plenty of criticism, as you’d expect. From the base standpoint of “why?”, Ospreay tried to cover for that with the promo… although the backstage stuff that followed, with Ospreay “gloating” about the “single life,” you could be forgiven for thinking that he was trying to take the United Empire crew in a different direction.

Except… that first part of the angle fell flatter than a pancake, and worse, seems to have been a massive turn-off.

The main criticism was that the angle, as out of the blue as it was, was seen by some as a portrayal of domestic violence, given that Bea’s introduction (and her main character so far) in New Japan was as Ospreay’s girlfriend. There’s counter arguments out there about how “intergender wrestling” covers that, but this wasn’t in a match – and that after-show promo damn sure steered it away from that particular cover. Sure, it worked as far as generating a “cheap shock,” but watching back the video, it drew utter silence from the clap crowds (that have been known to make collective gasp noises at times) – and if you watched it with the English commentary, a bemused “what?”. It turned out that neither set of commentary teams were clued in on what was going to happen… although I doubt that any degree of explanation on commentary could have quelled the initial backlash.

To a section of the fan base, Will Ospreay’s name is already mud following on from last summer’s Speaking Out movement – and while some can “separate the art from the artist,” angles like this one will hardly help. Of course, we could revisit this in two weeks after Sakura Genesis, with Bea Priestley returning to swerve Ospreay to a title win… except if that were to be the case, the means to an end would likely be derided.

Is this a story that can be told? Absolutely – but the issue behind it is so sensitive that it almost needs to be handled with kid gloves. Especially right now in Japan where reports are showing that the number of domestic violence cases has soared during lockdown – a situation that is doubtless going to have been repeated across the world as a result of the pandemic.

When wXw tried to broach the subject for a storyline last year, it made for a very uncomfortable watch, even though that promotion has had form in their previous portrayal of “real world” issues. To put it bluntly though, New Japan doesn’t have any kind of track record for portraying “real world” stories like this, and even if they did, Will Ospreay is perhaps the last person that the fanbase would want to see in such a storyline.

Like it or not, New Japan in 2021 – for a Western audience at least, is largely an Internet product. Save for those who are holding back to watch the show on delay via the Roku channel (all three of you), almost everyone else watching will have some degree of connection to social media, and by proxy, be at least aware of the allegations that were doing the rounds.

With that in mind, along with the fact that New Japan doesn’t have a traditional TV deal in the US, the promotion should be acutely aware that the Venn diagram of its Western fanbase has quite a big overlap with those who were affected in one way or another by Speaking Out. The fact that an angle that took all of a minute at the end of the tour overshadowed a tournament final that won plenty of plaudits, and gave us all a reminder that even if you do try and “separate the art from the artist,” we’re only a step away from reminding us why the actions of one person can turn off a lot of people.

Especially since there’s no international touring likely until well into next year, I can understand why New Japan don’t want to be seen to be beholden to any particular group of fans. The recent controversy over the company seemingly trying to “sneak” Marty Scurll back into the fold without any hint of rehabilitation showed that it’s not just the fanbase that aren’t on board with this… something that appeared to be borne out in the initial feedback from other performers on Sunday’s show, if reports are anything to go by.

That being said, simply being seen to thumb their nose at the Western fanbase with angles like this isn’t exactly conducive to whatever plans they may have for international expansion when the world gets back online again.

article topics :

New Japan, NJPW, Ian Hamilton