The Growing Pains Of Kaito Kiyomiya, Aged 26 ½

On 21st February 2023, NOAH’s young ace and GHC Heavyweight Champion Kaito Kiyomiya will face NJPW’s World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada in a long-anticipated dream match between the two champions and companies. Kaito has been calling for the singles match since May 2020, finally receiving his wish as part of Mutoh Keiji’s final retirement show. 

No doubt the match will invite comparisons between one blonde drop-kicking champion and another. Both were young champions. Both have sought to take their respective companies into new eras. However, for Kaito, these comparisons themselves represent part of the challenge he has to overcome. In recent years, Kaito has struggled to establish his own identity, frequently finding himself defined in relation to others. The connections drawn between him and Misawa, Shiozaki, Kenoh, Mutoh, and now Okada, have acted both as a scaffolding and a prison for the ‘young ace’ character. 

One indication of this can be found in his costumes which, starting with his emerald green trunks in homage to Misawa, have sometimes appeared to reflect those he is inspired by more than representing innovations of his own. But innovation is hard, and navigating between inspiration, influence and imitation – all essential components of puroresu that link young wrestlers to their rich heritage – has left many a potential ace floundering. As February 21st approaches, Kaito appears more determined than ever to make his own mark, where he has failed to do so in the past. But just who is Kaito Kiyomiya?

The (baby) face of a company? 

From the point that he became GHC Heavyweight champion in December 2018, Kaito has sought to present himself as the face of NOAH – a younger, fresher face to take the company into a new era. 

Kaito holding a Tokyo Sports award

The face that Kaito has presented is one of youthful dedication, with a stubborn undertone and a bashful charm. Although his style has shifted over time, his tiktok still demonstrates the aura of ‘kawaii’ that surrounds Kaito’s image. Designed to appeal to a new and younger fanbase, ‘Kiyopi’ has built up a strong following, with appearances on reality tv extending NOAH’s reach. It worked, for a time, as Kaito won Tokyo Sports’ Fighting Spirit Award in both 2018 and 2019, and was named NOAH’s MVP of 2019.

His youth has been a built-in aspect of his story and success, but it has also been a hindrance. As Kenoh stated in the build up to their most recent singles match, it is not enough to simply be a wrestler who does their best. In typical Kenoh fashion, he hit on a very real problem for Kaito – the potential blandness of a ‘good guy’ character who relies on the tropes of youthful enthusiasm and determination. Such a character is limited in its appeal, particularly when it comes to standing out in the wider world of puroresu. 

When Kaito called out Okada for the first time in May 2020, both had lost their titles. In Kaito’s view, they were two of the best, seeking their way back to the top. But Okada’s resounding silence in response was reflective of the criticisms of Kaito and NOAH as a whole – why should a former IWGP champion have to answer the call of a one-time champion in a smaller promotion? 

Heir to a legacy (or two)

Much has been made of Kaito’s respect for Misawa, Pro Wrestling NOAH’s founder. He is cited as Kaito’s inspiration for applying to join the NOAH dojo and Kaito adopted Misawa’s emerald green in his gear and the tiger suplex as a key part of his arsenal. At the time that Kaito debuted in 2015, emphasising the links between this young trainee and NOAH’s history was likely part of endearing him to fans. NOAH struggled through the Suzuki-gun invasion era and business scandals to maintain its positive image and connection to legacy has become a strong part of NOAH’s storytelling, making the link to Misawa a potentially important one for a future ace.

Unfortunately for Kaito, the inspiration he has taken from Misawa has put him in a difficult position. While some want to crown him heir to Misawa’s legacy, this makes it more challenging to establish his own identity in the shadow of a widely-known and loved figure. His connection and how it has been emphasised has cast Kaito as a potential imitator, compared to the achievements of Misawa, rather than inspired by Misawa’s wrestling and ideas. Kaito himself has tried to outline that it is Misawa’s drive to push forward, to create something new from something old, that he wants to embody. The need to move beyond Misawa, while also honouring that connection, creates a burden for Kaito (and others in NOAH) that can be challenging to navigate. 

A similar balancing act has been created by Kaito’s slightly confusing relationship with Mutoh Keiji, which spanned from early 2020 to July 2022. At first, it appeared that Mutoh might be an obstacle Kaito could pit himself against, learn from, and overcome. Eventually, that did happen, but the path was a long and winding one, where Kaito repeatedly lost and did not, in himself, appear to grow. Mutoh himself appeared more reluctant babysitter than mentor, more tough love than puroresu love. 

In his attempts to overcome Mutoh, Kaito became increasingly obsessed with the legend. He took on elements of Mutoh in his image, adopting some of his moveset. But it remained unclear whether Kaito was a potential heir to Mutoh’s legacy or a young (and unsuccessful) imitator. At times in this journey, Kaito seemed to lose himself, turning from his bright emerald green to a darker palette and appearing frequently with the faction of Stinger, full of moody, quiet and not particularly well-behaved junior wrestlers.

Kaito with blood streaming down his face

In a match in May 2021, Kaito took repeated chair shots from NOSAWA Rongai, resulting in blood streaming down Kaito’s face. It was a dramatic visual that, combined with Kaito’s connection to Mutoh (famous for the Muta Scale in match bloodletting) and more gothic appearance, seemed to point to either a potential character change or a solidification of Kaito’s babyfaced image. Unfortunately, Kaito’s position hovered between both, with no payoff to match the dramatic violence of the encounter. The motif of ‘make Kaito suffer’ also seemed to haunt his future endeavours, pushing him repeatedly into the position of underdog, often without any success. 

It was alongside Mutoh (and perhaps, in part, due to Mutoh’s influence) that Kaito finally got to face Okada in a tag match in January 2022 at NJPW/NOAH Wrestle Kingdom 16. Kaito lost painfully to a rainmaker from Okada. He was helped from the ring by Mutoh, who commented that this was only the beginning for Kaito. While true, seeing the youngest former GHC Heavyweight Champion crawling away on the floor while Mutoh pointed to his potential future felt like a damning indictment of what Kaito and NOAH could bring to the table. Okada later offered Kaito a position as a ‘young lion’ in NJPW, which was a clear insult that nonetheless reflected the greatest criticisms of Kaito – he was without character, reliant on the support and influence of others and unable to represent NOAH as an equal to NJPW. 

When Kaito finally beat Mutoh in July 2022, his reward came in the form of ‘three heavenly gifts’, directly receiving three of Mutoh’s legendary moves with the approval of their innovator. Although a strong endorsement of Kaito as the future of pro wrestling, this inheritance is also a potential challenge. Mutoh’s legacy is not NOAH’s legacy – his history with NOAH is far too recent. This leaves a lack of clarity about whether Kaito can then truly be NOAH’s representative. Given that the “I am NOAH” catchphrase became a point of contention between champions and potential champions over 2021 and 2022, doubt over Kaito’s connection to the company’s legacy also raises questions about his suitability for its top position.

Kaito delivering a shining wizard to Mutoh

Beating Mutoh has been a turning point for Kaito, leading him into winning the N-1 Victory tournament and then beating long-term rival Kenoh for the GHC Heavyweight title. However, this period has also been a learning curve, as Kaito has slowly had to break away from the heavy expectations of legacy to forge his own path. It has also meant trying to step out from the shadows of its current leading men, where more recent connections haunt him as much as the ones of older wrestling legends. 

The ‘younger brother’

As the youngest GHC Heavyweight Champion, Kaito naturally has to prove himself against older and more established wrestlers. In particular, he has had a heated ongoing rivalry with Kenoh and a more subdued, but also highly significant, rivalry with Go Shiozaki. In both cases, the younger Kaito has been opponent and teammate to his rivals, clashing with them over how best to carry NOAH to greater heights. Both have ended up adopting an ‘older brother’ position in relation to the young ace – claiming willingness to see him succeed but pointing to his naivety and youth as potential weaknesses, particularly for a champion. Kenoh, in particular, was keen to relieve Kaito of the ‘burden’ of the GHC Heavyweight belt and the unfairness of the expectations on such a young champion. 

Being ‘younger brother’ to such dominant personalities is not, in itself, entirely a problem. The position of plucky underdog has served Kaito well on many occasions and, in the ring, his scorecard against each is not wholly one-sided. They have also been occasional allies, particularly Go, with whom Kaito enjoyed a short run as GHC Tag Team champions.  However, being the underdog wears thin, and comparisons to Kenoh and to Shiozaki have, perhaps unfairly, suggested that Kaito’s character is lacking. 

In his language and demeanour, Kaito has, at times, attempted to try to match his opponents – dropping honorifics when responding to Kenoh, or presenting an arrogant front to Shiozaki. Unfortunately, he has been facing the masters of their craft. There are few who could match Kenoh’s anger in full flow, or Shiozaki’s princely arrogance. They present complex but well-loved characters, with exposure outside of NOAH and both with the drive to lead NOAH through challenging times. As the ‘younger brother’ to NOAH’s princes, Kaito has to prove himself worthy of inheriting the throne. It is not enough for Kaito to be able to compete with them in the ring, he also has to compete on personality and on the force of his vision for NOAH. 

A New Hope?

One of the strongest criticisms of Kaito throughout his career, even when largely successful, has been the lack of clarity about what his vision is for NOAH in future, particularly as its champion and ‘face’. Where others might bring their own standing and prestige to the belt, or offer a rallying cry like ‘back to the budokan’ or ‘we are NOAH’, Kaito’s offer is less clear. Simply holding the belt and beating challengers is not enough to grow the company financially, or in status, which has been the mission of other champions. In his first reign, Kaito sought to offer a ‘new scenery’ to NOAH but this relied heavily on his own youthful determination. Ultimately, it wasn’t a scenery he could create alone. 

Kaito at a new hope show

Kaito’s most recent reign also offers a glimpse of a new hope for how he might shoulder the burden of champion. In his path back to winning the GHC Heavyweight Championship, Kaito initially relied on Mutoh’s three heavenly gifts to lead him to victory in the N1. However, it quickly became apparent that relying on an inheritance was not enough. Although Mutoh’s moves helped him to defeat former champions like Nakajima, Sugiura and Kojima, they weren’t enough on their own. He lost his opening match to a new challenger, Jack Morris, who beat him with the Tiger Driver – a move made popular partly through the efforts of NOAH’s own Misawa. It was ultimately a modified Shining Wizard, Kaito’s own innovation on his inheritance, that secured him victory in the N1 and then finally victory over champion Kenoh in September 2022. 

In the subsequent years, Kaito has been quietly developing the basis for a new scenery. He has grown into a role as mentor to younger wrestlers Junta Miyawaki and Yoshiki Inamura. In working opposite and alongside these younger wrestlers, Kaito is now becoming the benchmark for their development – finally, others are comparing themselves to his achievements, rather than finding him lacking. But Kaito has also been more than a benchmark, and is actively creating an identity and platform for NOAH’s younger talent. Building on the ‘New Hope’ shows put on by NOAH during covid restrictions, Kaito has played a leading role in annual ‘New Hope’ produce shows that focus on NOAH’s younger roster and new external talents. These shows are notably different in atmosphere to NOAH’s usual schedule and offer a tangible insight into what Kaito Kiyomiya’s new scenery might look like. Kaito’s vision may provide the basis for the rise of young talent that NOAH has seemingly overlooked and underused in the era of older champions.

Kaito also hasn’t stopped there. In Kenoh’s most recent challenge in January 2023, the GHC title match was placed second on the card to the Great Muta’s match with Shinsuke Nakamura. For Kenoh particularly, this was an outrage that meant he and Kaito needed to go beyond what they had done before to overshadow the main event.

The match built beautifully on their established rivalry but also clearly demonstrated a next step for both of them. For Kaito, it was a step not only out of the shadow of his rivalry with Kenoh but also out of the shadow of Mutoh, who had taken the position that the title holder would normally claim on the card. Kaito won the match not only with a modified Shining Wizard but also with a modified Tiger Driver, building on both of his inherited legacies with his own innovations. 

The Ace

Kaito’s victory in the Budokan demonstrated his resolve as a champion, as might be expected of him. His next step, however, was more unexpected. As Kenoh and his Kongo faction faced off against Naito and LIJ at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 17 in Yokohama Arena, Kaito once again found himself opposite Kazuchika Okada. Mere minutes into the match, while Okada had Kaito’s tag partner Inamura in a hold, a kick from Kaito to the face of Okada started a dramatic brawl that had the match called as a no-contest. The kick and the force of feeling with which it was delivered, to a partly defenceless Okada, was both uncharacteristic of a baby-faced champion and entirely appropriate for a leading invader. This was not your naive pretty-boy, clutching at the coattails of legends. This was GHC Heavyweight Champion, Kaito Kiyomiya. Finally, the frustration he appeared to have been building in his darker moments in the past few years had an outlet that makes sense. Finally, nearly three years since he first called for it, Kaito gets his singles match. 

As Mutoh Keiji exits the stage, I believe it is time for a new hope for NOAH that connects its past and its future. The singles match with Okada has the potential to reveal a matured, post-Mutoh Kaito or, yet again, could define Kaito by who and what he is not. Kaito’s old hope to ‘experience the rainmaker’ needs to make way for a new hope that isn’t more about his opponent than himself. For me, this match is not a question of victory of one champion over another, or of one company over another, but is about whether Kaito can claim the recognition he craves, first from Okada and then from the wider wrestling world.

Kaito in gold and brightly coloured gear, wearing the title belt

Images used here are from @noah_ghc on instagram or @njpw1972 on twitter.