Joshi Spotlight: An AJW Documentary From France

* So in 1991, the “La Une” channel in France decided to do a documentary on All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling. They were invited to go on tour with the, interview the wrestlers, and see the day-to-day operations of the show. It’s about 55 minutes long, and focuses on a small handful of people: Highly-ranked Bull Nakano & Aja Kong, rising star Manami Toyota, and American trainee on an excursion Debbie Malenko. Thankfully, YouTube has an English subtitled version.

Despite pretty well everyone knowing the secret of pro wrestling by 1991, this whole thing is in kayfabe- rivalries are treated as real, people want to win matches to make more money, etc. Curiously, the promotion’s owners, the Matsunagas, are not really given much attention.

We start with Aja Kong & Bison Kimura doing a rad “Jungle Jack” theme song that sounds like it should be being played at the Foot Clan’s headquarters in the Ninja Turtles movie. The host speaks to the audience directly about how women’s pro wrestling is extremely popular in Japan, but it’s a harsh world where “The losers get no pay”, and while the top star is a Queen, everyone else are “like monks”, unable to have love affairs and have to do all the drudgery work like cleaning.

We start with Bull Nakano, then the Ace and WWWA World Champion- “The Blue Queen” makes 48,000+ yen per fight (like $409 in 1992 U.S. dollars?) and weighs 260 lbs. (she’s big, but that seems high- she’s only 5’8″! Are they using “Adam Cole pounds”?). Half-Black, Half-Japanese Aja Kong weighs 242 lbs. and makes 31K yen per fight. Glamorous Manami “Cinderella” Toyota weighs 138 lbs. and makes only half that. Okay, that’s news to me that either used those nicknames (unless the doc just invented it- the subtitles keep using “Manami” while the narrator repeatedly says “Cendrillon”- Cinderella’s French name). And they use that as Manami’s ONLY name during the advertising for one show! She hadn’t even won major singles gold at this point, so I have no idea why they decided to focus so much attention on her.

Manami Toyota (Wrestling) - TV Tropes

Pictured: the reason they lavished so much attention on her.

We go on tour with the 35 wrestlers as they tour the various islands of Japan. Bull (who has a dog and is reading manga on their big bus) says this is a rare opportunity to meet people outside of their cicle (“I don’t have a private life”). Manami voices her desire to win the All Pacific Title (their IC belt-equivalent), “It gives you more credibilitiy with the fans and would solidify my fanbase. I need that title”. A bit deal is put on the finances and bonuses you get for winning such things- the “kayfabe” reason people want to win their bouts (which gets ignored on TV these days). The wrestlers themselves have to put together the arena for the show- midget wrestler Little Frankie is putting numbers of the assembled chairs- the doc calls this “ingenious” as a way to cut costs.

Bull: “I also have to think about my age. You know I’m 23. I’m old”. She’s paired off with Akira Hokuto, who is a big, popular star but is never named once in this whole thing- “I’d like to continue until I’m 30” (she pretty much did!). The midget match is shown- it’s explained that there are very few midget wrestlers left, and later the promoter explains that various groups have complained about them using these guys for comedy as discrimination (in 1991!), but he thinks it’s their best way to make money. The doc mentions the “local Yakuza clan” is in attendance, with their boss hiding his face from the cameras, lol.

The main event starts! A trios match featuring Bull & Manami on opposite sides. For a second, the doc seems to break kayfabe- “The bouts are planned meticulously. The first 10 minutes are a sort of exhibition of pro wrestling. Afterward the real match begins”. That’s a funny way of saying “the first part of the match is B.S. and warming up until they really get into it”. Manami loses to a Guillotine Legdrop/Missile Dropkick combo from Bull & Akira (Manami: “I don’t give importance to my body”- which is pretty much her wrestling style summed up in a nutshell), and Bull immediately has to haul to her merchandise table to sell her stuff- sweaty, hurt and her hair totally f’d up, it’s quite a sight. She signs autographs while the subordinates take apart the ring in one hour.

The next stop on the tour hits as we go to the AJW HQ for the training (“cannon fodder”). Shinji Ueda represents the office here, talking about their origins in 1968 and how selecting the rookies works- 3-4,000 applicants arrive, and after cardio & gymnastics tests, about twelve are selected. “They used to come from poor families and aspire to find a decent place for hteir parents- now they do it out of love for pro wrestling”. Takashi Matsunaga, AJW’s President, specifies Takako Inoue, who just released an album (she’s the “Pretty Girl”/Idol wrestler) as doing very well, then mentions “Hasegawa” (Sakie, who showed a lot of promise and was the most pushed of her class until her early retirement in 1996) as having great showings already.

We take a look at two newbies- Debbie Malenko is an American here on a six-month training excursion (but lasts a bit longer than that)- she’s excited to be there, knowing this is the most competitive place. As an American, she is allowed certain perks- unlike anyone else, she’s allowed a boyfriend. Unfortunately, she horribly broke her ankle catching one of Manami’s dives. Bull leads the training in the arena, with Torisu’s weight and inexperience “being a recipe for disaster”.

Matsunaga points out that Bull’s never been injured in 8 years, which is remarkable. Her debut at 15 is mentioned, as he bluntly calls her a “problem child”- her mother dropped her off at the dojo. “Her mother was worried, and moreover she was fat”- at her wit’s end, Bull’s mom just dumped her there and said wrestling might be her only way out.

The doc describes AJW’s style as “a mixture of karate, judo & Pancrase”, but points out that it’s the acrobatic feats that have elevated it. I FOUND THE GUY TO BLAME FOR “MOVEZ”! Debbie fights in an early match while Manami prepares for her musical performance- for some reason Toshiyo Yamada, who is ALSO singing and is shown doing so, isn’t even named. I mean yeah, Manami’s the one with the looks and the miniskirt and the fishnets, but COME ON, that’s just rude. We finally get a shot of how Bull lifts her hair (a curler and lots of hairspray- “the idea came from her manager”). There’s a hilarious bit as they explain how one of the perks of Bull’s position is that her subordinates do work for her, and you see a young Kyoko Inoue & Tomoko Watanabe (not named) caring for her two dogs while Bull plays Super Mario World with this look of childlike wonder on her face, haha.

AJW comes to the Hofu region, where the focus is again on Manami, whose family is from here. Her widower father and her sister show up with a grandparent and her sister’s kids, and holy god is there a LOT of family resemblance here (especially the dad, who has the exact same face shape and cheekbones). Manami explains her personal difficulties- of her parents, only her mother supported her dream to become a wrestler (“My mother was my friend and confidante”). Now that her mother’s passed away (she & dad visit the grave later), she feels somewhat alone. He explains that at first “it looked like a street fight to me”, and once a match even reached bloodshed. “Now I’m accustomed I keep telling myself That’s Puroresu, but every time it’s like the first time in my mind”. Dad even does some “playful teasing”: “You and your friends are good, but you are not at the level of Bull Nakano & Aja Kong- these two can crush you”, which draws some nervous laughter from his daughter.

220-lb. rookie Akemi Torisu is mentioned as an example of someone who avoided the usual selection process- as they have Bat Yoshinaga doing shoot-fights on the shows, Torisu was specially selected for her karate experience as an opponent in those bouts (she loses here to Mayumi Yamamoto in a “muay thai” bout to add variety to the shows). However, Matsunaga mention her as overweight and they want her to get slimmer. She wouldn’t last- she’d be gone in 1992, as would Yamamoto.

The three “Nos” are finally mentioned- No Drinking, No Smoking, No Love Affairs. The narrator says “The promoters claim their youth must be given to the audience but it’s them who’s taking it away from them”.

The huge Cage Match main event of Bull Nakano & Monster Ripper vs. Aja Kong & Bison Kimura is now detailed, with the Bull/Aja grudge explained. “Aja is for Asia, Kong is for King Kong”, Aja explains, saying “I hate her- I want to take her belt” of her rival. Ueda says bluntly “If you look at her face you can probably guess her issue”- her mother was Japanese and her father was a Black American soldier she’s never seen. The doc explains that mixing with Black people is controversial, and even seen as treasonous by some! Now that her mother’s dead, Aja is alone. Then, in a heartbreaking story, Aja says her desire is to become famous and go to New York, where her father lives, wrestling in Madison Square Garden (ALWAYS MSG with Japanese wrestlers). She hopes that he’ll see her and meet up with her “Surely my father’ll recognize me. I just hope that he’ll try to contact me- I want to meet my father at least once in my life”. And as far as I know, she never did.

Bull plays Pachinko (a very noisy game involving steel balls) while going on about the Aja feud- “She was a member of my stable. She started at a very high level and couldn’t go any higher- that’s why she left. I don’t blame her- I would have done the same”. Then, in the most boss line EVER, she says “There’s no room for feelings here. I know she hates me. Good for her- she’ll need it to beat me”.

Manami arrives at her teeny-tiny 10-square-meter apartment and plays with her kitty (if you find her on Twitter, she’s STILL obsessed with her cats) as the doc explains if she wins the match tomorrow she’ll be able to afford a bigger one. The “Legendary Goddess” tapes released in 1993 show most of AJW’s stars live in ridiculously-tiny domiciles- common in Japan, but a sign of just how poorly paid stars in even a successful promotion were. Her match is shown in all its spotfesty glory, as she, Yamada, Hokuto & Kyoko fly all over the place. We don’t see a winner, but Manami hits her Quebrada off the top rope, looking suicidal. The doc explains they go into a “trance” and take insane risks as the matches go on.

The main event: Ripper & Bull aren’t friends and neither knows why they were forced together. Aja, back from peritonisis surgery, makes a HUGE splash off the top of the cage but eats crap on it, “reopening her wounds” (“By jumping from this height, Aja Kong has disemboweled herself” goes the narration) and has to be dragged out of the match, even while she tries to continue. This keeps her aura strong and gives her an “out” for losing- Bison is crushed by Bull & Ripper, but Ripper attacks BULL- “However, Monster Ripper betrays her partner. She wants to show her who is the real champion. She will be punished for her temerity”. AWESOME.

So in a move Bull would do a few times over the years, she climbs to the top of the steel cage and hits her Guillotine Legdrop all the way down. A pro wrestler (Flesh Gordon- no, really) watches this on tape and says he’s never seen anything like it in all his years as a wrestler- “Imagine the after-effects in 10, 5, maybe even a year- it’s surreal; almost insane”. Bull justifies it as needing it to finish the match, even after her doctors warned her never to do it after the last time. “I was scared… and yet I jumped”.

Amazingly, we meet the Family Nakano, as Bull’s hilariously normal-looking parents have her over for dinner. Her dad (look at those eyebrows!) shows home movies of Bull as a child while we see clips of the match with everyone bleeding. We get a shot of a Hair vs. Hair Tag Match from earlier in the year, watched by a young amateur wrestler named Kimie and her mother- Kimie has a day job but is an amateur champion. I love how the doc actually has to explain why one woman in her office is wearing a mask (“This mask is not for pollution, but to prevent others from getting sick”). This is explained as an avenue of sports increasing in popularity thanks to pro wrestling.

Finally, we meet Dump Matsumoto- having retired in 1988, she’s our example of the “good side” of the biz- other retired wrestlers become maids at the AJW dojo or servers in their restaurant, but Dump is now a TV celebrity, appearing on various shows as a special guest. “During this period (ie. her career) life was hard. But it’s thanks to these moments that I’m here. In life to succeed you have to suffer first” (that might be the Japanese national motto). Finally, we see a clip of her demolishing a young rookie- Bull Nakano. And now you know… the REST of the story. Dump explains she might return, but only in MSG (AGAIN WITH MSG!), “Not in Japan I don’t want to wrestle again in Japan, believe me. ESPECIALLY with these Japanese promotions”. And the narrator closes out with “For every success story like her, hundreds more end up forgotten, behind a counter” (*cries in retail worker*).

This is a fascinating little “snapshot” of an era- it treats wrestling like it’s real (even while showing Kyoko Inoue’s “standing surfboard” wheelbarrow hold) and focuses on a handful of people. The promoters are made out to be rather heartless, forcing their wrestlers to “live like monks” and have no joy in their lives, and not pay them if they lose (I… don’t think that’s a real thing in kayfabe). It pulls few punches about girls failing out of the business, and even shows concerned family members. Looking at the sadness a lot of them had in their lives (Aja was bullied in school; Bull was a wild child; Aja & Manami have lost their mothers and are only in their early 20s) makes them feel a lot more human, even as they treat their wrestling feuds like actual combat.

Looking at the varied levels of stars was a good way to do it, with Debbie & Akemi giving unique perspectives, but it’s odd that Akemi didn’t speak on camera, nor did we get any information about people who were clearly partnered up or close to the main stars- Bison, Yamada & even Hokuto (who was clearly Bull’s companion in half the shots backstage, and even speaks on camera a few times) didn’t get named! I guess they only had 54 minutes, but still- the put a big bit on the midget wrestlers and nobody else gets talked about, lol.

I feel like tossing Dump out there as a success story and then having her take a shot at AJW’s promoters is a deliberate “gotcha”. I wonder how AJW’s office treated this when it came out, haha.