AMAKUSA: Thnks fr th mmrs

AMAKUSA is a genius. In a matter of months he has overcome being cast as NOAH’s perennial loser, won (and lost) the GHC Junior Heavyweight championship and managed to turn denial of his past identities into a t-shirt slogan. Just in case you’re at all uncertain of my position I’ll say it again – AMAKUSA is a genius

But then, I am invested. Back in July 2022, I wrote an article about Haoh and his ‘weird underdog charisma’. After prompting me to write over 3000 words about the meaning of losing, he went and did the one thing I didn’t expect, he actually won, albeit now under the name of AMAKUSA. All he had to do was grow his hair, claim dissociative amnesia and possibly become possessed by a historical figure who died nearly 500 years ago (actually he did a whole lot more but we’ll get to that). I’m not going to feel bad about not predicting this one. 

In my opinion, there is no-one better to pull off a character like this – AMAKUSA/Haoh/Yuki Sato/Kenbai/Yasufusa/Sato-kyun has been juggling identities for most of his career. And, as AMAKUSA, he’s managed to weave those past identities and connections into his GHC Junior Heavyweight title reign, while simultaneously denying their existence. 

“Who does he think he is?”

On 30th October 2022, at an event fittingly dubbed ‘the return’, a mysterious masked man entered the NOAH ring to disrupt an attack on the GHC Junior Heavyweight champions, Seiki Yoshioka and Atsushi Kotoge. The attackers, composed of Kongo faction members, scattered from the ring while the masked man took centre stage. Dramatic entrance achieved, the man pulled off his mask revealing a familiar face to the crowd – surely this was Haoh, banished after a ‘loser leaves NOAH’ match with Tadasuke??? Tadasuke certainly thought so, shouting Haoh’s name from ringside. 

AMAKUSA makes his introductions, Oct 2022. Image credit: @pkdx

But Haoh was not the name this invader claimed. The man introduced himself as AMAKUSA, stating his desire to stand at the top of the NOAH Juniors, starting with (why not?) a match against Tadasuke. 

Despite AMAKUSA’s claims to the contrary, and the occasional willingness of commentators or fellow wrestlers to play along, Tadasuke was right – AMAKUSA is the wrestler formerly known as Haoh in NOAH. He is also the wrestler formerly known as Yuki Sato in numerous companies (most often with a home-base of Kaientai Dojo), and the masked wrestler known as Kenbai in Michinoku Pro Wrestling, and the wrestler performing the role of Yasufusa in the wrestling theatre that is Makai Project, and the absolute menace of a wrestler sometimes called Sato-Kyun as part of Men’s Teioh’s Men’s Club faction in BJW and elsewhere. He’s the wrestler who lost the DDT Iron Man Heavy Metal Championship to Dick Togo in Bolivia when Togo drugged him with sleeping pills. He’s the wrestler who tagged with Riho in Ice Ribbon, holding their International Ribbon Tag title. He’s the wrestler who was dubbed Kaientai Dojo’s ‘bad child’ and cheated his way to victory through the medium of glitter powder. Sorry, I hope I didn’t ruin the illusion for anyone there. (Neat fact: he’s actually been four different identities in NOAH, wrestling as Yuki Sato in SEM, Kenbai in the Junior Tag league, Haoh since 2020 and AMAKUSA since 2022).

But he IS also AMAKUSA. His appearance, with long braided hair, long pants and robes reminiscent of a religious order is markedly different to previous identities. He also speaks in formal language significantly different from Yuki Sato’s more…colourful addresses to the crowd. He IS someone new. Someone who, despite the differences, has more than a few connections to his (apparently forgotten) previous identities. 

AMAKUSA is very likely a nod, or more than a nod, to the historical figure of Amakusa Shirou. Born near Amakusa island, close to Kumamoto – the purported hometown of Yuki Sato and Haoh – on Japan’s southern island of Kysuhu, Amakusa was the Catholic leader of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 (Kenbai apparently came from Iwate prefecture in Michinoku Pro’s home region of Tohoku so totally unconnected). He was purported to have performed miracles, though not ones that saved the rebellion or himself. Executed at 17 and leader of one of the few uprisings of the Edo period, he is a dramatic enough figure in himself, but what makes him truly recognisable is his place in Japanese popular culture and the history of his region.

Amakusa Shirou has made it into several forms of media, from film to video games, including the widely-known Fate and Shin Megami Tensei series. He even got a reference in Makai Project. In some incarnations, Amakusa is a vengeful spirit, seeking to resolve his distant past – not wholly unlike AMAKUSA wanting to resolve unfinished business, first with Tadasuke and later with Hiromu Takahashi and Hi69.

AMAKUSA’s gear includes christian religious imagery, with a cross at his neck and robes and collar reminiscent of an historic preacher or missionary. He has dubbed one of his new moves, a finisher similar to a spiral tap or corkscrew senton, ‘the opening of the country’, potentially referencing the opening of Japan to foreign trade and missionaries, ending a policy started during Amakusa Shirou’s lifetime. Drawing on religious traditions is a common theme in AMAKUSA’s career, with both Kenbai and Haoh including references to buddhist traditions. Kenbai refers to a folkloric dance often aligned with buddhist services or celebrations. Haoh, standing as a pair with Nioh in Kongo’s signature pose, matches the image of the twin guardian statues (also called Nioh) at the entrance to buddhist temples.

Say a prayer but let the good times roll

Despite all the religious imagery and his adoption of an archaic speech pattern, AMAKUSA has not explicitly stated who he is. His response to questions about his past and identity – ‘isn’t that a foolish question?’ – has become so much part of his character that it has made it onto a NOAH t-shirt. Instead, his focus has been on reaching the top of the NOAH Juniors, claiming NOAH’s treasure and taking the division to a new peak. That focus has paid off. Less than two months after appearing in NOAH, AMAKUSA became GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion for the first time. Although he held the title for less than four months, he had three successful defences, a singles match with IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi, won on crossover shows with Dragongate and NJPW, and wrestled alongside Hiromu as part of the ‘All Star Junior Festival’. Not bad for a former fall guy. 

Perhaps most importantly, AMAKUSA has helped build confidence in the NOAH Junior division. With his reign overlapping with the untimely retirement of former junior ace Daisuke Harada and the injury of seemingly new ace Hayata, the division could have floundered. Instead, AMAKUSA’s defences have helped to highlight new and existing talent, and his connections outside of NOAH have brought additional attention to its junior wrestlers. As NOAH also explores bringing in wrestlers from Mexico again regularly, his long-held but still developing lucharesu style and international experience helps to bridge the gap for fans still adjusting to a variety of styles after a period of enforced isolation. And did I mention he’s a genius?

AMAKUSA’s talents were not exactly wholly ignored before he took on this new identity. He held several singles and tag championships in multiple companies, albeit small ones, but his size and speed relegated him to more of a showcase role than material for a potential ace or company representative. His characters were, almost by design, supporting ones – Haoh, Kenbai, Sato-kyun were all secondary to faction leaders with limited opportunity to step into the limelight. As Yuki Sato in Kaientai Dojo he did have a more prominent role but, with dirty tactics a core part of his arsenal, his talents as a wrestler were less of a feature than his talents as a performer. Several wrestlers appear to have rated him as an exceptional talent, but this wasn’t enough to get him to the forefront of a company. He needed an identity bigger than his size that also didn’t reduce him to it. AMAKUSA is that identity.

It’s always cloudy except for when you look into the past

AMAKUSA’s return was partly overshadowed by another significant event in the NOAH juniors – the in-ring injury of then junior champion Hayata. Hayata’s injury was an elbow fracture, keeping him out of the ring and title picture without a clear successor. Surprise new champion Ninja Mack quickly lost the belt to another non-permanent roster member in Dante Leon but, particularly after Hayata’s long and dominant reign, it wasn’t clear who could now take and keep the belt. 

AMAKUSA, with his history of being an underdog in NOAH as Haoh, might not have seemed an obvious choice as champion, but the relationships that were integral to his character as Haoh –  with Kongo members Tadasuke and Hi69 – proved an ideal platform to build and solidify a connection with fans and prove his worth. 

First he challenged Tadasuke, who was both Haoh’s first singles victory in NOAH and the man who led to his banishment, beating him in a ‘loser leaves NOAH’ match. AMAKUSA had already stated his intention to challenge Dante Leon for the GHC Junior Heavyweight championship by the time he faced Tadasuke on a Kongo produce show in December 2022, but that victory (especially given his history of losing in Kongo produce shows as Haoh) was symbolic of burying and rejecting his past. Tadasuke was insistent that AMAKUSA was Haoh. AMAKUSA not only did not acknowledge this, he proved its irrelevance by doing what Haoh could not and beat Tadasuke when it mattered. 

Then, several months later, a new challenger who insisted on calling him Haoh appeared in old tag partner Hi69. Hi69 was no stranger to name changes himself, having lost his former name of Nioh (and his hair) as the result of a match with Haoh, but this was about more than names – Hi69 saw it as a chance at revenge. Together, Haoh and Nioh had not been able to claim success as a tag team in Kongo and now, although both had shed their former names, only one of them was a champion. The match, headlining a Korakuen Hall show in a rare display of confidence in junior wrestling to sell in the venue, was a chance for Hi69/Nioh to prove he could also reach the same heights.

Their connections go back further than as tag partners Haoh and Nioh in NOAH, both overlapping in their time at Kaientai Dojo, AMAKUSA under the name Yuki Sato and Hi69 as, well, Hi69. In K-Dojo, their paths had rarely crossed, but NOAH (and particularly faction leader Kenoh) saw the potential in them as opponents. I wrote about their December 2020 match when exploring Haoh’s losses, suggesting that the match had been a crucial testing ground for each of them to prove their worth and also renew their connection as partners. Since then, two further singles matches had solidified their connection, albeit now as enemies. Following Haoh’s decision to leave Kongo and his tag partner at the start of 2022, the two fought to a violent and bitter 20-minute draw on January 22nd. Just three months later, the resentment between the two was still simmering, though mostly on Nioh’s side, leading to a high-stakes match in which the loser would lose both their hair and their name. Haoh won that match, showing his resolve, only to be beaten by Tadasuke and banished from NOAH two months later. Hi69 was understandably frustrated that the man who beat him made nothing of that victory and momentum.

By the time they met in Korakuen Hall in March 2023, long-time NOAH fans knew to expect something heated and special from their singles matches, even if neither man had the same name as before. The pressure on them to deliver was considerable – the show also featured a one-minute exhibition match between the retiring junior ace, Harada, and his long-time tag partner and rival, Kotoge. They couldn’t rely on being the most emotive tag-partner/rival storyline on the card. And they didn’t. The match delivered, but it was not a repeat of their previous hits. Both brought something new, with the match feeling more like Hi69 was fighting for the belt (which he was), rather than to prove a point (as he had previously). It was an extension of their story, which acknowledged where they were now, rather than relying on who they had been. Their positions, both with new names but only one with a completely new identity, make for an interesting comparison. Hi69 had a resurgence since his haircut and new name but he had to work for his redemption arc, ultimately falling at this last hurdle. AMAKUSA, on the other hand, was initially stuck in his losing identity as Haoh but managed to shortcut any need for a redemption arc and was able to solidify his winning position under his new name by using and also rejecting his past.

He tastes like you only sweeter

The most notable recognition of AMAKUSA’s past lives however, did not come from within NOAH, but from New Japan’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion Hiromu Takahashi, who recalled a special masked wrestler he’d worked alongside on excursion in England. That wrestler, Kenbai, had wrestled alongside Hiromu in England in a team dubbed ‘Tokyo Tornado’ and had given Hiromu his first taste of a (losing) singles title match for the 4FW Junior Heavyweight Championship. Kenbai had also helped encourage a homesick and dejected Hiromu and, although the two lost contact, Hiromu held onto a promise that they would face each other as opponents once again.

Hiromu had initially tried to revive this connection during the NOAH-NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 16 crossover matches, naming Haoh as the wrestler he wanted to face from NOAH. Although not billed on the card, Haoh had stood ringside as support during the Kongo-LIJ 5v5 match, with Hiromu making time during the match to pay him some attention. Beyond this though, there was little opportunity for them to meet, particularly given their respective positions in their companies. But by January 2023 and Wrestle Kingdom 17, it was a very different picture. Now GHC Junior Heavyweight champion, AMAKUSA sought out Hiromu to make a challenge for a singles match at Keiji Mutoh’s retirement show. Naturally, Hiromu accepted.

The match could have been heavily billed as NJPW vs NOAH juniors, but Hiromu repeatedly drew attention to the bond he had experienced with Kenbai and the importance of this match as a marker for both their journeys and their friendship. In doing so, it brought attention to the two of them as performers beyond their respective companies and an interest that AMAKUSA alone may not have been able to draw. The match itself was a fast-paced 11 minutes, playing more to showcasing AMAKUSA’s strengths than Hiromu’s, though Hiromu got the victory. It was a more than respectable showing for the NOAH juniors, and for AMAKUSA particularly. Within the match they made several nods to their history, Hiromu bringing out the mask of Kenbai that had supposedly been gifted to him, and AMAKUSA bringing out parts of Kenbai’s old moveset to try to win. Despite the hinted acknowledgement of their prior connection, Hiromu noted in his comments backstage that the man he had faced was clearly the true NOAH junior champion, AMAKUSA.

Hiromu’s respect and affection for his former connection did not end there, with an invitation to join LIJ (which AMAKUSA did not accept) and an invitation to wrestle alongside him in Hiromu’s ‘All Star Junior Festival’ (which he did). The former tag team and champs, alongside Kenbai’s former acquaintance Fujita ‘Jr’ Hayato, faced off against the mixed tag of Hayata, Kazuki Hashimoto and (by his own assertion) ‘dark’ Yamato. It was yet another opportunity for AMAKUSA to show that he was an equal to his greater famed peers. With a fresh name, he could also count on not being held back by previous identities that were not as well known. In this guise, he was simply the GHC Junior champion.

I’m looking forward to the future

Of course, given his dissociative amnesia, AMAKUSA’s reign couldn’t just be about revisiting old connections. He needed to make new memories to accomplish his goal of standing at the peak of junior wrestling. He did so in his first and third title defences, first with Junta Miyawaki, and then with long-term visitor Lanzelot. Both matches do build on AMAKUSA and Yuki Sato’s overseas experience, particularly in Mexico, but they also brought something new to NOAH in showcasing the diversity of potential in the GHC Junior Heavyweight title scene. In a classic sense of ‘raising the value of the belt’, these matches achieved that as much as AMAKUSA’s more familiar encounters.

Junta, of course, is not unfamiliar to NOAH fans. Trained in the NOAH dojo, Junta made his debut for NOAH in 2017 but injuries stalled his progression. His departure for Mexico at the end of May 2022 seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to develop away from the eyes of NOAH fans and advance his position upon his return. It wasn’t until AMAKUSA returned to NOAH in October that the connection was made between the timing of both their absences – it emerged that AMAKUSA, wrestling under a mask, had shared at least a little of Junta’s excursion. Then, in December 2022, a handsome stranger appeared to challenge the brand new GHC Junior champion. This was Junta in full glow-up, to the point that it took fans a minute to recognise him and some even mistook him for a somehow shorter Kaito Kiyomiya (no stranger to a makeover upon return himself). Junta was not quite so smooth on the mic as he was in his attire, but the match was set for NOAH’s big new year show – also the planned final match of the Great Muta against Shinsuke Nakamura.

Despite the grand stage, expectations of Junta and AMAKUSA in particular were not exactly high. The two aces of the junior division, Hayata and Harada, were absent with injury. AMAKUSA was an unfamiliar and unusual character with only a recent winning streak to his name. He could easily be nothing more than an interim or belt-warming champion. Miyawaki was NOAH-born, filled with potential, but also wholly untested in such an important position. Although the match was intended to spark interest with a young returning challenger, the card put the GHC Junior Heavyweight championship lowest of all the title challenges, lower than the junior tag belts.

They did their best to steal the show. The match, while it showed some tentativeness from Junta at points, was a great showcase of a new and improved Junta Miyawaki, drawing on both his NOAH roots and his excursion. For AMAKUSA, as he entered the ring, he did not yet have any of the trappings of a champion – no robes or grand entrance. He had held the belt for a matter of days, much like his two predecessor champions. He was still, like them, arguably an outsider, facing a NOAH-born wrestler. But his performance solidified his position as champion and brought attention to the GHC Junior Heavyweight championship despite the absence of the usual suspects in the division.

By the time he faced Lanzelot at the end of March 2023, AMAKUSA looked far more like a champion, with elaborate robes and a more confident stride. Fans had adjusted to his quirks of speech and his navigation of his past, even finding it amusing. Still, AMAKUSA was not so secure that he did not need to accept all challengers, including the relatively newly-arrived Lanzelot. A win in Lanzelot’s debut, followed by a win over AMAKUSA just ten days later set up a rapid title challenge from the former AAA Cruiserweight champion. Lanzelot made for convincing challenger but the match itself was also about confirming the place of both of them within NOAH. It followed a pattern of recent GHC junior title reigns of regular defences to outside talents, part of an ambition to not only be the best within the company but to elevate the company and junior wrestling. In a way, this defence was the one that confirmed AMAKUSA as part of a NOAH junior tradition. It also confirmed Lanzelot’s worth and status within NOAH, and a recognition of what he can bring. Interestingly, this was the least AMAKUSA-like match of his reign. It was easy to imagine Haoh or Yuki Sato performing the sequences in the early part of this match and there are times when he plays the underdog. Faced with a competitor who had some overlap with AMAKUSA in style and less history on which to build a distinction, perhaps it is easier to see the blurring between AMAKUSA’s layers of identities and experience. Or perhaps the mask was starting to slip as AMAKUSA was reminded of who he was?

Thanks for the memories

Of course, it couldn’t last. Since AMAKUSA claimed the title in the absence of a seemingly unbeatable champion, sooner or later he would have to face that champion to validate his reign. Hayata returned to NOAH in February 2023, and although he didn’t challenge AMAKUSA immediately, it was inevitable. During the build up and the match itself, in contrast to his position thus far, AMAKUSA seemed to falter, losing to Hayata repeatedly and finally. Once again, Hayata began a new reign GHC Junior Heavyweight champion. 

On the surface of it, like many things in pro wrestling, the character of AMAKUSA is sort of…ridiculous? Everyone knows he’s the same wrestler who was banished from this company just a few months prior. Everyone knows that he spent his interim months in Mexico, training alongside Junta and honing his skills for this new character. Other wrestlers have said as much to his face. But despite intense provocation, AMAKUSA has stuck to a new speech pattern and denial of his past, except where it might be convenient to hint at a recovered memory or two. He’s added moves to his arsenal that show an evolution of his style. He’s even changed his ring shoes! And it works. Where such a dramatic story and character portrayal might be distracting, somehow this has only served to highlight the talents of the man beneath the voice and costume. Where previously it was common to mention his height or his losing record, seeing him as small, fiery, but ultimately destined for a mid-card position, now we just have AMAKUSA, former (and hopefully future) GHC Junior Heavyweight champion.

Time will tell whether it is possible to keep up a character with amnesia long-term, and even whether that character has any relevance or space for development now he is not champion. If he wanted, AMAKUSA has many more stories he could try to recapture from his lost memories – his connections with Michinoku Pro as Kenbai, or his feud as Yuki Sato with the now freelance Kaji Tomato (I would truly love to see what AMAKUSA makes of the tomato dance). He could pay a visit to his old K-Dojo compatriots or fellow Dick Togo trainee Daisuke Sasaki in DDT (give me a press conference with Sasaki telling drunken stories about Yuki Sato and AMAKUSA denying all knowledge, please). But he can perhaps be most powerful in helping to build NOAH’s future. His match with Junta was one of the highlights of Junta’s brief first return from Mexico. Junta will need allies and experience when he returns again at the end of April 2023. AMAKUSA can also provide a bridge between NOAH’s main roster and the luchadors who sometimes appear segregated on the card. Whatever happens next he is, at least, in a position now where both his past and future presents possibilities rather than predictability. So for that, AMAKUSA, thanks for the memories. 

Hiromu and AMAKUSA shake hands
Image credit: @PKDX