The Sacred Battleground of the Warrior Spirit: A Love Letter to Korakuen Hall

It’s late 2015, Dan and I have figured out how to buy tickets for New Japan Pro Wrestling shows and managed to attend a couple of shows: in the mountains of Gifu, in the sumo hall in our home base of Nagoya. We’ve even become members of the NJPW fan club, which gives us access to perks and better seats. It’s time to finally make our way to Tokyo and the Mecca of professional wrestling in Japan, Korakuen Hall.

We reserve tickets online for the last show in January of 2016. It’s not a major show, there will be no titles on the line, but I’m looking forward to getting to attend a show in the legendary venue.

And then we hear the rumor that Shinsuke Nakamura is leaving New Japan to sign with the WWE.


Nakamura is the founder of the CHAOS faction in NJPW, and has always seemed truest to its name: a wild magician of a wrestler, with his rubber face and long, lean, liquid body that flows from move to move like the waves he loves to surf. He has a theatrical flair, a gift for dramatics in and out of the ring that has won the hearts of New Japan fans, for example with his over-the-top entrance to Wrestle Kingdom 15:

He’s at the height of his powers here in Japan–a three-time heavyweight champion, five-time intercontinental champion–and when I first hear the rumors, I simply scoff. Japanese wrestlers have rarely fared particularly well in the States; the only Japanese-born wrestler to hold one of the WWF/WWE’s top titles was Antonio Inoki, who won it at a house show in Japan and vacated it at the end of the tour–he never appeared on television with it and the WWE doesn’t officially record him as a title holder. The misuse–some of it frankly racist–of Japanese wrestlers in US promotions is legendary, and although the presence of Hideo Itami and Asuka in NXT, as well as a steady influx of former Bullet Club members like Balor and Styles, hints at a shift, I find it unbelievable that Nakamura would be willing to take that risk.

But I’ve underestimated Nakamura and his need to challenge himself, to scale new heights and explore new vistas. He announces in mid-January that he’s leaving New Japan at the end of his month, and that his last shows will be January 29th and 30th.

Dan and I look at each other when we hear the announcement, then scramble for our tickets to stare in disbelief at what we already know:

By sheer dumb luck, we have third-row seats for Shinsuke Nakamura’s very last New Japan show in Korakuen Hall.


There are wrestling venues that come to have special resonance over time; places that seem to build up a weight of history, pain and joy. The expanse of Madison Square Garden; the incongruously elegant balconies of Hammerstein Ballroom; the white Art Deco lamps of the American Legion hall in Reseda California.

In Japan, it’s Korakuen Hall.

Built as the venue for boxing for the 1964 Olympics, Korakuen isn’t as imposing as the Tokyo Dome, where New Japan holds Wrestle Kingdom, and it isn’t as classic as the Sumo Hall, where WWE performs when they come to Tokyo. But every wrestling promotion in Japan holds shows there, and it’s come to be seen as the heart of professional wrestling in Japan. It’s held in such reverence that it reaches the point of parody: when New Japan wrestlers Beretta and Rocky Romero make a video introducing Korakuen to English-speaking fans, they glibly rattle off variations on a phrase it seems like they’ve heard used a lot.

When Rocky finally calls it “the sacred holy battleground of the warrior fighting spirit,” Beretta has to beg him to please stop. There’s an affectionate, eye-rolling irony to their presentation, a refusal to take such over-the-top declarations quite at face value.

And the fact is that Korakuen is physically pretty unimpressive. To get there, you cross the street via a sturdy concrete bridge and pass through an off-track-betting area that reeks of the cheapest possible cigarettes, then go up and down various random flights of stairs until you find what looks like a 70s-era movie theatre jammed into an old strip mall. The actual hall is on the fifth floor, and you can probably imagine that getting nearly two thousand people to the fifth floor via two old elevators does not always go smoothly.

When we arrive on January 30 for our first Korakuen show, the line to get in unwinds down five flights of stairs and out the door. This is for people with tickets to the sold-out show; a line of mournful fans hovers outside in desperate hope that they’ll be able to beg a ticket off of someone (the odds are very much against them).

We inch our way up, step by step. The stairwell walls are dense with scribbled graffiti left behind by generations of waiting fans, layer after layer creating ever-more intricate patterns:

  

At the top we enter Korakuen Hall proper.

It’s festooned with banners made by the fan clubs for each wrestler (one pleasure of continuing to go to New Japan shows is watching the banners for favorites like Juice Robinson go from small and handmade to more and more polished and self-assured as they climb the card). To one side is the standing-room only balcony that must have held dignitaries during the 1964 Olympics. In the center is what New Japan calls the “cerulean mat,” before the show usually being meticulously swept by a Young Lion trainee with an archaic-looking straw broom. Raised bleachers ensure that every seat has a decent view, creating a venue that feels more intimate than the 1800 it can hold. The front three rows are ringside seats.

We make our way to our seats and discover we will be sitting directly behind the commentary desk.

At my realization that these seats mean I’ll inevitably be directly on-camera during key moments of this show, I suffer an abrupt, utterly debilitating attack of ludicrous anxiety. Through a haze of white-static panic, I actually jump from my seat to bolt from the arena and into the night. Dan has to grab my wrist and hold me in place, hissing between his teeth that I don’t really want to leave, I will never forgive him if he actually lets me leave, sit down and breathe.

I sit down and breathe, feeling foolish and panicky at the same. It’s not a great combination, but we’ve gotten there extra-early, so I have time to compose myself and look around this place that’s had so many matches, so many moments. Behind and above us are the very banisters that Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi vaulted off in one of their ridiculous spots for DDT pro:

I could walk up there and touch the exact places their feet touched for those moonsaults. Everything feels so permanent here, solid and fixed.

A man comes by, handing out small red signs with Shinsuke’s name or catchphrase on them. He blinks at us, then explains in careful English: “Nakamura.  This sign.  Wave for him.”  We let him know we understand and receive our signs. I watch the commentary table get set up and feel absurdly relieved that I decided to wear a Young Bucks t-shirt over my traditional Sami Zayn shirt. Shinsuke is going to wrestle Sami in his first match for WWE, and I was afraid it might look like gloating to wear Sami’s shirt (I’m still wearing it, just… under a Bucks shirt). Dan is wearing a Generico shirt, but that seems more okay.

The New Japan theme music, which has been playing quietly, picks up in the unmistakable sign that things are about to begin. People start to clap along. The show–Shinsuke Nakamura’s last show in New Japan Pro Wrestling–begins.

It’s a solid show, though it’s just setting up the feuds that will continue up to the next major show in Osaka next month. The last match is a six-man tag between Shinsuke’s CHAOS stable and three of the loosely-affiliated babyface wrestlers currently embroiled in feuds with his compatriots. Jushin Thunder Liger comes in to do commentary. He’s seated right in front of me, so I see this whole match framed by the horns on his demonic mask.

It seems appropriate.

As Shinsuke enters Korakuen for the last time, the audience starts to chant his name, deafeningly loud. A field of red signs blooms in front of his eyes as he stretches and smiles at all of us.

He and the two CHAOS members he’ll be fighting beside pose for the cameras. Tomohiro Ishii, one of his closest friends, seems fairly stoic. The young heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada’s cocky sneer looks a bit wobbly tonight. He seems relieved when the photo op is over and the match can begin.

Their opponents are Hiroshi Tanahashi, Katsuyori Shibata, and Hiroki Goto, all of whom have had legendary matches with him. Tanahashi, Shibata and Nakamura entered New Japan together as Young Lions and were dubbed “The Three Musketeers”; Tanahashi and Nakamura were tag team champions together. Tanahashi steps into the middle of the ring and the crowd goes wild as Nakamura steps forward to meet him.

Then Hiroki Goto, who has beef with Okada at the moment, steps forward and pushes Tanahashi back, insisting that he start against Okada.

Denied seeing Nakamura take on one of his oldest friends and rivals, the Japanese crowd, usually so polite, pours bile out on Goto in the loudest, most extended booing I have ever heard in Japan. They’re furious. For the rest of the match, every time Goto steps into the ring, they rain abuse down on him. It seems like a relief, in a way, to have someone that they can be miserably angry at. Goto bears it stoically, the single designated scapegoat heel for the match.

(Ironically, within a couple of months he will fill Nakamura’s vacancy in CHAOS),

The match has no big surprises in it; it follows the usual NJPW formula of setting up rivalries that will run up to the next show. But there’s an extra intensity each time Nakamura closes with someone in the ring, each time he showcases one of his moves for the last time with one of his friends. There are moments–rare but unforgettable–when wrestlers grapple with such affection that the violence and the love are the same thing, and that night is my first live experience of it, as Nakamura creates art with some of his best co-artists for maybe the last time, lovely and graceful and bittersweet.

 

Ishii and Okada watch from the turnbuckle, and I wonder if they wish they could be Nakamura’s enemies for this show, just for the chance to move like that with him one last time.

It ends too quickly. Goto gets pinned, to the crowd’s delight; Kenny Omega comes out to taunt Nakamura for running away from him and Tanahashi steps forward to say that as Nakamura’s former tag partner it’s only appropriate he will fight Omega in Nakamura’s stead. The ring clears out and Nakamura gives a speech. His voice is bright but his eyes are red. People have been weeping steadily through the match, but now there are open sobs in Korakuen as the reality of this farewell starts to sink in. I’ve never heard so many people crying at once; it’s an uncanny sound, and the hair on my arms starts to stand up as if electricity is eddying around the room. All the members of CHAOS come from the locker room to enter the ring, this time wearing Nakamura’s t-shirt. He embraces all of them. Kazuchika Okada has given up any pretense of being stoic; tears run down his face and he wipes his eyes as Nakamura has his last pictures taken with the faction he created.

As Nakamura starts to get out of the ring, Okada scrambles to lift him up on his shoulders; through his tears, he carries Nakamura around the ring in a farewell victory lap. People crowd to the railing to touch him as he goes by.

Korakuen Hall, the sacred battleground of the warrior spirit (it is, it truly is), seems to shimmer with emotion: one more moment to add to a place brimming with them. In this moment, my own tears become part of this place forever, and part of me will never leave it. Sorrow and gratitude, hope and love are all so thick in the air that they feel tangible. You could reach out and gather the emotion up in armfuls like silk, like brocade. You could weave something from it, a robe fit for a king, something that could keep a person warm and safe, that could provide comfort and strength wherever they went, across any lonely ocean, toward any uncertain future.


Dan will save the little red poster from that night. Eight months later he will carry it to Brooklyn, to Summerslam, where Nakamura will win the NXT championship from Samoa Joe. We will, incredibly, get a chance to meet him, and Dan will pull his banner out and ask for a signature. The new champion’s eyebrows go up and he scribbles his name on it. Dan will frame it and whenever I see it, I remember the crowds in Japan weeping, and the throngs in Brooklyn singing, singing, singing his theme song as we go out into the night, singing for joy in the subway, all of us together.

 

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I’m an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.

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