Monday, July 6, 2020

The Importance of Being Taichi

Taichi is a bastard, but's why he's so good and integral to New Japan
Photo Credit:
New Japan Pro Wrestling has a plethora of wrestlers who receive plaudits from American fans for various feats of kayfabe. Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi have the longform matches to back up their claims as being the current and former aces of the company, respectively. Tetsuya Naito's brash indifference towards anything but the art of lucha libre has gained him a massive following. Bullet Club has taken over the New World Order's mantel of counterculture cool villainy regardless of what one thinks about how counter the culture they really are. Tomohiro Ishii fulfills a need to see someone who looks like a comic book character come in and act like said comic book character in terms of wrecking shit. So many wrestlers have perceived importance in the New Japan firmament to folks viewing from the far shores of the United States.

Taichi is not one of those wrestlers. Usually, when his name is uttered, it's with apathy or outright disdain, and not in the same way that commentator Kevin Kelly talks about him. He speaks the same way of "Knife Pervert" "Switchblade" Jay White, but White has that bona fide Bullet Club cool-heel cred with American fans. Taichi has been described by thin-skinned journalist Jonathan Snowden as someone only weirdos like. Really, getting into wrestling and liking heels has historically been a weirdo move that has become normalized fairly recently. You're not supposed to like the antagonist. You can respect them for their abilities, but it's like watching Return of the Jedi and being mad that the Empire didn't win in the end because you thought Ian McDiarmid gave the best performance. Maybe that's not a strict one-to-one ratio, but wrestling criticism doesn't have the nuance that other popular storytelling media have. It could be judged as an art, but it rarely if ever is, especially when the big companies still don't know how to operate in a way that invites friendly criticism and the big-name critics talk about the proceedings as mechanically and boringly as possible.

Either way, American fans who consume New Japan tend to do so in a way that they feel is "elevated" over how most fans here consume WWE and All Elite Wrestling. It's not a better or worse way of consumption; it's just different. The way they treat Taichi, however, lines up almost completely with his kayfabe presentation. He "ruins" everything he touches. Honestly, after a year of watching New Japan events more closely than I have in recent years, I don't see where that hatred comes from. Taichi is not only the best heel on the roster, he's one of the best overall guys when it comes to doing things that not only the folks in the company want but in the things that fans like you and I tend to look for. Granted, those things like match quality, no matter what Dave Meltzer or the nerd patrol on Grappl say, are subjective. Even the most learned critics of other media know that the quality of art or at least things that aspire to be art are in the eye of the beholder.

That being said, from the beginning of last year's G1 through his first round match against Hiroshi Tanahashi in the New Japan Cup this year, in Taichi I see a wrestler who is more than game to step into the ring with the people who are lauded as the best in the world and hold his own. Sure, the match quality wasn't batting 1.000. The dirty secret is that few people tend to maintain that kind of average. Even for me personally, I didn't rave over every Shingo Tagaki match from last year, but he was still my number one worker from last year. Sure, the match with Naito from the G1 show in Hokkaido was overwrought and dragged a bit, but you can point to the Jon Moxley or Ishii matches from that same tournament, or the Naito match from later on in the year, or his role in any given tag, and see he's a wrestler who embodies the spirit of his mentor, Toshiaki Kawada. The Four Pillars needed Kawada to complement them just as Kawada's ugly, brutal, visceral style needed Mitsuharu Misawa's elegant destruction or Kenta Kobashi's raw power.

Even taking into account that all this shit is subjective, it's not like Taichi is out there tripping on his dick every night. He's not getting blown up walking to the ring. He fits to the styles of his opponents. His dump-truck war with Ishii from the G1 was fundamentally different from his main event simulacrum with Tanahashi in this year's Cup, but they were both matches where he held his serve and stood out against an opponent rather than just blended in to be part of the other wrestler's story. I am not entirely sure how anyone can deny what Taichi brings to the table. You may not like it, and that's fine. I don't like Jay White's matches. I find SANADA to be crazy overrated. I think Naito can be total ass as easily as he can be the best wrestler in the world on any given night. The point is, I'm not sure I need any of the first two guys banished from New Japan for me to enjoy it, and with Naito, well, even when he has stinkers, I support him fully because even when he's not on, his aesthetic is just a goal.

The point is that not only does Taichi fit with a certain in-ring milieu that one needs to have to succeed in New Japan, he is undoubtedly successful by one of the only objective metrics upon which wrestling can be judged. People boo him when he does shitty things. He elicits a genuine response from people, and something like that is not easy to come by even in the fattest of times for business. You can look at revenue and ratings and whatever, but given how American wrestling works nowadays with DVR and guaranteed television money, it makes reading WWE and AEW labyrinthine and difficult. Imagine trying to look at business for a country whose television you probably can't begin to understand. The point is that wrestling crowds are the first line of critics any wrestler will hear from, and they give precisely accurate results for the most part depending on variables like hometowns or birthdays being involved. In an era where not just anyone can walk in front of a crowd and garner a response, and trust me, any American wrestler who says Japanese crowds are "quiet" because they're "respectful" just wasn't fucking over when they worked there, the boos Taichi gets are more genuine than any hack journalist's parsing of which wrestlers' followings and careers are valid.

I don't know what if anything about Taichi causes this derangement among the tastemakers of American puro consumption. That being said, I'm not sure what their problem with Taichi is. Return on investment-wise, few wrestler in New Japan deliver on as consistent a basis as he does. It feels like in another era, he might be more appreciated. I feel like in a couple of years, there might be a reckoning on what he meant to New Japan during these years when Minoru Suzuki was closing his career down and someone else in the group had to get people to boo them. Maybe people outside of Japan will never appreciate what Taichi does. I think regardless of what people observing New Japan from afar might think though, the Black Mephisto means a whole lot more to that company than any one of them thinks.