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The Fusion of Anime Culture into Pro Wrestling



The invasion is complete. Anime has taken over pro wrestling. 

I never thought that the insane best-of series between Cesaro and Sheamus would result in the two becoming a great team with an entrance that comes straight from the world of Dragon Ball Z. In NJPW, Taguchi Japan, Suzuki-Gun, Bullet Club, CHAOS, and Los Ingobernables de Japon all battle for the right to be the company’s number one faction. It’s wonderfully ridiculous. While the stories between each faction may be new for some fans, many followers of the culture attribute it to the storytelling in Japanese manga and anime. Much like Goku in the Dragon Ball series, Kazuchika Okada is the ace of New Japan. However, none of these examples would be possible without the legendary wrestler, Rikidozan.

The Korean-born, Rikidozan, quintessentially opened the door for wrestling storytelling to become intertwined with manga and anime after becoming Japan’s post WWII hero. Rikidozan turned mostly American adversaries into allies which only skyrocketed his popularity and mystic among children in Japan. Before Rikidozan’s untimely death in 1963, he would train a young Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba. In 1972, Inoki and Baba would both leave their home of Japanese Wrestling Alliance to form New Japan and All Japan, respectively. The manga and anime series, Tiger Mask, would also become extremely popular in the late 60s and early 70s and also included Inoki and Baba as background characters. The man under the mask, Naoto Date, sought to destroy the very organization that had taught him villainous tactics as a child growing up in an orphanage. Tiger Mask had become the new, animated version of Rikidozan for kids of that time. When NJPW decided to create a real-life Tiger Mask character, it called upon Satoru Sayama who would start a legendary and successful feud with the Dynamite Kid.

While Rikidozan, Tiger Mask and other figures greatly influenced children of their respective generations, the 1980s and 90s brought a new wave of characters from Japan and into America. Japanese animation began swarming the US shores at the same time that Vince McMahon would begin his expansion of the WWF. 80s American cartoons, such as G.I. Joe and Jem, were outsourced to Toei Animation, the company responsible for the original Tiger Mask anime. In the early 90s, Toei and Saban Entertainment would collaborate to debut The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. In 1996, the two companies, along with Funimation, released the highly impactful series known as Dragon Ball Z into first-run syndication for American audiences. The series would receive a major boost when it debuted on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in 1998. 

Meanwhile in 1998, the wrestling world was drastically changing with the emergencies of the New World Order and D-Generation X. The generation of kids growing up at this time, such as myself, got to witness the brilliance of DBZ, the insanity that was the Power Rangers, Hulk Hogan as a bad guy, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, and The Rock in all of their glory. These things influenced me. They shaped wrestlers like Sasha Banks, The Young Bucks, and Dezmond Xavier. The relationship between Goku and Vegeta from the Dragon Ball series could rival some of the most dynamic duos in wrestling history. Depending on who you’d ask, Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay at the 2016 Best of the Super Juniors Tournament is either known as an embarrassment to the art of pro wrestling or a phenomenal spectacle that looked like real-life anime. The backlash from that one match defined the growing generational and philosophical gap between wrestling fans.

But NJPW isn’t blindly generating buzz from this generation of wrestling fans. New Japan’s parent company, Bushiroad, specializes in anime productions and card games. Since the company took over in 2012, NJPW has been involved with two non-wrestling related video games, Sega’s Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and Namco-Bandai’s Tekken 7. The likenesses of Kazuchika Okada, Yugi Nagata, Kenny Omega and other New Japan talents were used in the Tiger Mask W series. The show brutally mimics NJPW’s hard-hitting style of wrestling while also throwing a few well-placed shots at the WWE.

Oftentimes, we forget that wrestling is supposed to be a bit ridiculous. Casual fans get it. They understand that the wrestling is a means to get to the next storyline angle. As hardcore as some of us can be, we get so caught up in “good matches” that all we want is “good matches” without a story. I’ve rarely thought this way. Maybe, it’s because the only real episodic television that I grew up on other than Monday Night Raw and Nitro was Dragon Ball Z, Ronin Warriors, Sailor Moon and Gundam Wing. DBZ and Gundam would essentially have bouts that lasted multiple episodes, but the draw was the storytelling. So many of those fights would simply be driven by inner monologues by each competitor for the purpose of comparing strategies. I’ve seen Vegeta do it a million times. I’m sure Ronda Rousey saw it too. It’s all ridiculous, but it’s all the same.

Follow me @willmarelle on Twitter. My followers are not over 9000.

Shannon is a proud product of Detroit, Michigan. He's a connoisseur of all things hip-hop and pro wrestling and often compares the two forms of entertainment. He's a feature writer for FightBoothPW and also a corporate nomad.