The Perpetual Invention of Detail: Shiozaki and Nakajima
Watching Shiozaki Go and Nakajima Katsuhiko’s recent warm-up matches for NOAH’s 2022 New Year Budokan show has felt, at times, like a time slip. Were it not for Nakajima’s blonde spikes and the lack of taping on Go’s arms, there are moments that could almost be October of the previous year. Almost.
The November 22nd clash of 2020 between Shiozaki and Nakajima has a special place in my heart for many reasons. It was my favourite defence of Shiozaki’s reign. And yet, when their Budokan match was announced, I wasn’t excited to see it repeated. Both have bigger stories than their relationship to each other and I feared that those stories could be lost. But watching the matches that build up to the New Year show, particularly with Kenoh and Kaito alongside them, I have been struck by not just the similarities but also the subtle differences to a year previously. Unlike last year, Nakajima’s awareness of Kenoh in and outside the ring has changed. Shiozaki’s emotions appear more steady, more certain. I fell in love with them all over again. I was reminded that the reason why their November 22nd match was my favourite was that it was not only incredible in and of itself, but that it was more than just one match. It was the culmination of all their matches before. Through seven matches over nearly three months, from betrayal to violent resolution, the details in their in-ring work told an emotionally complex tale that built on their previous relationship and took it to new places. Meaningful glances, careful touches, their choice of moves and involvement of their tag partners were all small but exquisite details that told a multitude of complex stories.
So, ahead of January 1st 2022 and what will doubtless be another match that is really more than one match, this article is my love letter to the little things in those matches. To the details that provided hours of debate over what they might mean for the outcome of their match, for their relationships, for their characters. It is a love letter to the things in wrestling that make it possible to watch opponents face each other for the hundredth time and still find meaning in their exchanges.
The following is an account of some of the details that meant something to me and how I saw them. It is neither exhaustive nor definitive. I believe that wrestling can provide meaning for different people in different ways at different times. This is one reading. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you want to share your own.
The build up
Nakajima Katsuhiko betrayed Shiozaki Go on the 30th August 2020 in front of a small and shocked crowd, ending their partnership as Axiz and seemingly aligning with Kongo. Between the moment of betrayal and meeting as opponents competing for Shiozaki’s GHC heavyweight belt in November, they faced each other seven times. In the first two of these, Nakajima was only a betrayer, not yet a challenger. The remaining five took place after Nakajima won the N1, making them more formally ‘build up’ matches. All seven were tag matches, with Shiozaki and Nakajima only having limited time in the ring together to draw out the threads in their stories. Still, these were many more matches than the build-up for other title fights and they provided opportunity for detailed storytelling in their interactions.
Every one of these matches involved the same four men – Shiozaki, Nakajima, Kenoh and Kaito. The magic they made is not Shiozaki and Nakajima’s alone but Kenoh and Kaito have their own stories, too detailed and fascinating to do justice to here. As the title matches at the Budokan demonstrate, the four men are linked in multiple ways. Those other stories deserve an article of their own.
Red riding hood and the infamous panties of betrayal
On the day that Nakajima put an end to Axiz, he had done so dressed for what seemed like a different occasion. Shiozaki and Nakajima had come to the ring wearing brand new matching trunks and kneepads, intricately detailed in black and gold. The unity in their gear made the betrayal all the more confusing. Was it a trick? Surely you don’t buy matching gear to wear just once?! How long had this been coming?
Just a week later, on 6th September, the black and gold was gone. Nakajima, entering to the slightly tinny sounds of heartbreak mosh echoing around the Fujisan Messe exhibition hall, was now clothed in a deep red. His coat, with studded black accents and a heavy hood that concealed his face, brought to mind the cloak of a traveller, an assassin, a hangman. His colours seemed muted in comparison to the brightness of Kenoh, Kitamiya and Inamura who entered with him. In the red we saw Kongo’s colour but, in the shade and design, also Nakajima’s. His attire left questions about Nakajima’s relationship to Kongo but marked a clear break from his relationship with Shiozaki. It brought a sinister air to his movements and, in hiding his face, we were still none the wiser as to how he was feeling.
When Shiozaki entered the hall that day, it was in his green and white and gold. Nothing new there. But his usually fresh and clean shaved princely looks were shadowed by a mass of stubble and tired looking eyes. Shiozaki, like us, appeared to be in shock, still uncertain at these new developments.
The efforts made by both in their outward appearance added layers to their story, raising questions about loyalty, motivation and Nakajima’s true nature. Was it really a wolf under the red hood?
Becoming Kongo’s Nakajima
Nakajima’s betrayal of Shiozaki was so swift, so unexpected, that believing that he had new loyalties in Kongo felt a stretch. What either he, Kongo or Kenoh specifically had to gain from their alliance was unclear. And when Nakajima first entered the ring as a member of Kongo, there was an uncertainty about just how much he was truly part of the faction. The position he took up in his entrance, perched on the ring post, put a physical distance between him and his faction mates. He and they barely made eye contact.
But from match to match, the distance between them appeared to narrow. Nakajima went from brief and guarded glances in Kenoh’s direction, to storming the ring alongside Kongo when a pinfall seemed imminent. Though neither Kenoh or Nakajima seemed to make an effort to communicate or exert any influence over the other, it became apparent that they were in sync. None more so than when Kenoh appeared in the ring alongside Nakajima, Shiozaki between them.
“A moment of chaos brings Kenoh and Shiozaki into the ring together. Nakajima, previously sprawled against the ropes, moves to stand behind Shiozaki, a traitor at his back. There is a man, an enemy, on either side of Shiozaki now as he kneels, clutching his arm. Kenoh and Nakajima stand, waiting for the moment to sink in, for the crowd to see the symmetry between their stance and the positioning that sets up Axiz’ signature move, ‘endless love’.
Nakajima pulls Shiozaki to his feet by his hair, aiming a kick to his back that pushes him forward into Kenoh’s range. Nakajima does not look at Kenoh but waits. Kenoh responds, a kick aimed at Shiozaki’s chest. Shiozaki is pushed back and forth between the two men as the kicks fall faster, harder, forcing him to hunch his back to protect his injured shoulders and arm. He collapses to the floor, gasping as Kenoh and Nakajima’s feet push him out of the ring.”Fujisan Messe, 6th September 2020
Kenoh and Nakajima’s cooperation, taking place in their first match as teammates and repeated in almost every match except for 28th October at Korakuen, told a story in itself. It was a demonstration of their alliance and of Nakajima’s willingness to take something he shared with Shiozaki and to remake it. The minor differences in how it was used told of a growing cooperation. At first the move seemed almost circumstantial, a natural consequence of their shared talents. Then, by their third match on 24th October in Niigata, when both rolled into the ring simultaneously, neither the legal man, it was clear intent. By their second Korakuen match of the series on 11th November, when Kaito also ended up sandwiched between their vicious kicks, it was not even about Shiozaki any more.
Bits and pieces
It goes without saying that a great many wrestling matches, particularly in long-term rivalries, involve the repetition of set pieces or sequences of moves that are familiar and lead the audience towards an expected conclusion. The seven matches in this series not only featured the same sequences but almost exclusively featured the same sequences. It was the same match every time. And it was not.
By the go-home match, it was like watching them trying to run through the same level on a videogame trying to get just that little bit further this time, thumbs pressed to a gamepad in frustration, screaming as they fell to the same old tricks. Their frustration was palpable. They were stuck in a loop, neither able to escape the other or the predictability of their reactions. No matter who came out better in these set pieces, they found themselves in the centre of the ring, screaming at each other, all kicks and chops and resentment.
These sequences showed us that it was possible to know someone completely and still find yourself at their mercy. They showed us how evenly matched they were. They gave us patterns of expectations that were used to devastating effect in their championship match.
I only have eyes for you
From the first match, Shiozaki kept his eyes on Nakajima, studying his every move, whether in the ring or out of it. Nakajima pretended indifference but somehow was always there whenever an opportunity came to knock Shiozaki down or grab his attention. At times they would stare pointedly in the other’s direction whilst attacking or pinning an opponent, using them as an example, a proxy for their frustrations.
“Shiozaki pauses at the ropes, leaning on them as he looks to his left, eyes scanning over the hunched figure of the man who betrayed him. But Nakajima’s face is still hidden. He climbs through the ropes, at first turning away but then seemingly drawn back to stare at Nakajima in the corner. Shiozaki’s lips are pressed tight and his breathing is almost forced, though whether rage or pain or both consume him is not clear. He doesn’t take his eyes off Nakajima now, taking half a step forward and holding himself there as Nakajima pulls back his hood, only revealing his masked face.”Fujisan Messe, 6th September 2020
Over the course of seven matches, Shiozaki’s expression of pained confusion turned to anger, then disdain, then to fury and defiance. His stares in Nakajima’s direction, the set of his jaw and the deliberate and knowing nods of his head told of his pain and his determination. Nakajima, for his part, moved between sadistic grins and gritted frustration, balancing one with the other, never quite settling.
As the date of their reckoning drew closer, they seemed ever more drawn to each other, unable to control their anger. They broke off from attacking opponents to knock the other from the ring. Where their first touches in a match were cautious, their second and third were violent and seemingly unrestrained. Over and over, they started seemingly determined to engage on their own terms and ended up brawling in or out of the ring. Repeatedly, Nakajima’s desire to hurt Shiozaki surfaced in violent attacks. In a foreshadowing of the brutal elbows he would land on a downed Shiozaki in their championship match, he had to be dragged by the referee from a similarly violent attack in their third match in Niigata. The pacing and content of their matches told a story of two men unable to escape each other or the pain and fury they inspired. Their expressions and gestures gave us the reasons for that pain and the need for its resolution.
The exquisite care of execution
By the time Nakajima and Shiozaki stood opposite each other at the Yokohama Budokan in November, they carried with them many different threads with which to craft a stunning conclusion. They had woven those threads with gestures, small and large, and with nods to future and previous moments in their history. They wove them together with stories old and new, intertwining them with the stories of those they shared the ring with. As I watch them now in their build up matches, working on crafting new patterns from old stories, I’m as excited as ever to follow where the threads will lead and to see the final picture.
Image credits @noah_ghc
Ruth is @ruthisanotter on twitter.