On the first of February, 2012, majority ownership of New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), Japan's largest pro wrestling promotion, transferred from Yuke's Co., Ltd. to Bushiroad, Incorporated.
If Yuke's sounds familiar to you, it's because they've been the primary developer of WWE videogames since 2000's WWF SmackDown! for the PlayStation, working with publisher THQ. Stateside, their more well-known recent titles include, the UFC Undisputed series (again with THQ) and the Rumble Roses series (with Konami).
Even before Yuke's entered the picture, the first decade of the 2000s found New Japan in a poorly-handled MMA cross promotion and an MMA-influenced wrestling style. Inoki thought pro-wrestling's waning popularity was due to MMA's rise and "exposing" pro-wrestlers as not "real" tough guys. Inoki's solution? Bring in MMA fighters with no pro-wrestling background and have most of them win, and have New Japan wrestlers compete in shoot MMA bouts (with less-than-stellar results).
It was disastrous for New Japan and their popularity further withered. Antonio Inoki was forced out of the company due to financial woes. AsahiTV moved their television spot to the middle of the night on a weekday. A jaded Brock Lesnar legitimately held the IWGP title hostage. The company slashed costs and continued to lose money.
In 2005, Yuke's bought a greater-than-50% stake in New Japan in a move described as a "salvation" by New Japan's then-president Simon Kelly Inoki (Antoni Inoki's son-in-law) who had reached out to Yuke's in an effort to stave off a threatened buyout by a third-party due to financial troubles. New Japan had been losing money and was in dire straits.
What Yuke's paid was never reported, but the price was described at the time as a "firesale". Yuke's and New Japan had a business relationship before the sale, with Yuke's developing New Japan licensed video games since the 1990s. The last New Japan game Yuke's released was Wrestle Kingdom in 2005, a name later adopted for New Japan's flagship January 4 Tokyo Dome show.
New Japan was able to right the course by the end of the decade and show signs of life. The torch was passed to Hiroshi Tanahashi in January 2009 with a win at Wrestle Kingdom III over Keiji Mutoh; a new star was made in the charismatic Shinsuke Nakamura from their ongoing rivalry (he had survived the MMA experiment by winning all but one of his shoot MMA fights); and a new crop of pro-wrestlers were working their way up the ranks. By January 2011, New Japan was once again a profitable company.
Bushiroad is a relatively young Japanese company founded in 2007, whose primary business started with collectible card games, later expanding into related media franchises (anime, manga, radio serials, etc.) and a mobile gaming platform. Their target audience in Japan is the youth and young adult subcultures surrounding anime, manga, and video games. By all accounts they have been successful in placing their properties in popular magazines and television networks, attributing their success to a strong focus on advertising.
Over the summer of 2011, Bushiroad ran its own pro-wrestling show at Kouroken Hall in Tokyo featuring mostly ZERO-1 and DDT talent such as Kota Ibushi and Kohei Sato, and included a tag team match with wrestlers playing the gimmicks of Schwarz (played by Yoshihiro Takayama) and Weiß from one of their most successful media properties. Most notable from the show, was that Bushiroad CEO Takaaki Kidani took part as a non-wrestler character. Bushiroad had also sponsored pro-wrestling events in Japan such as DDT shows and New Japan's 2011 G-1 Climax.
It was around this time that Bushiroad contacted Yuke's about buying New Japan. While initially reluctant to sell, Yuke's did eventually agree. The sale came as a surprise to nearly everyone in and out of New Japan with negotiations remaining quiet.
At the press conference announcing the sale, Bushiroad CEO Takaaki Kidani stated he had plans to grow New Japan's from ¥1.1B to a ¥4B company in a few years, and eventually overtake WWE in global popularity--a very high bar to set. The most successful entertainment exports into North America have been in the markets that Bushiroad deals in, but like in Japan, it makes up a small subculture in the United States.
Presumably the sale took place because Bushiroad really did see a potential for growth in New Japan and synergy in how they've marketed their home-grown media properties. Bushiroad announced plans at the time to expand merchandising and open other revenue streams for the company. Bushiroad reportedly paid ¥500M ($6.5M) for the company, buying up not just Yuke's share, but the remaining shares to gain full ownership. New Japan had become a profitable company and one can see how promoting media franchises could sync up with promoting pro-wrestling in the general media, but it's likely that another factor played a key role in Bushiroad's decision to buy: Takaaki Kidani is a big pro-wrestling fan. And he wanted to take a hands-on approach with New Japan.
By all accounts 2012 was another great year for New Japan. Business continued to grow. The young Kazuchika Okada was pushed successfully and made into a star in New Japan. The 2013 Tokyo Dome show had the highest paid attendance in years, capping off a year of strong house show business. They began offering their big shows on internet pay-per-view in Japan--a country where pay-per-view isn't an established part of pro-wrestling and few people have it available in their homes like in the west--and was successful. Internet pay-per-view (iPPV) was extended worldwide, and while the number of buys outside of Japan hasn't broken five digits, it continues to grow with each event.
So it might have come as a surprise when, as reported on this site, there was tension backstage after the culmination of another successful growth year for New Japan.
The tension seemed to stem from Kidani being too hands-on without adequately communicating with New Japan's established management, top talent, and bookers Jado & Gedo. From the information we have, if Kidani is guilty of anything, it's of not knowing how to navigate the politics in the front office of a pro-wrestling organization.
It started in August at the 2012 G-1 Climax, with the return to New Japan of Kazushi Sakuraba and Katsuyori Shibata. Both were signed to contracts with New Japan by Kidani, as it came out later, unbeknownst to New Japan's management. Kidani wanted to shoot an invasion angle with non-New Japan wrestlers with MMA backgrounds, and the return of Antonio Inoki as a non-wrestler.
Sakuraba is an aging star, arguably the most famous Japanese MMA fighter in Japan, and still a draw in the country. And, as it turned out, still able to go, having had one of the best matches on one of the best New Japan shows in recent years. Kidani cornered Sakuraba at the Tokyo Dome, but nothing came of it in terms of building an angle.
Shibata was a young, rising talent in New Japan when he left to pursue his own MMA career in January 2005. His career in shootfighting flopped, and Shibata's perceived turning his back on New Japan was another source of tension backstage when he returned.
A lot is made of Kidani's reported fandom of Eric Bischoff's nWo angle in WCW, and that he wanted to play an on-screen character in his planned angle. The story goes that WCW's nWo invasion was inspired by the UWFi invasion of New Japan in the mid-1990's. The UWFi angle was, like Kidani had pitched for today's New Japan, an invasion of "shootfighters" from UWFi--a worked pro-wrestling promotion with a heavy shootfighting influence.
UWFi was near folding, and as such New Japan was able to dictate the direction of the angle thanks to their pocketbook. New Japan talent largely went over UWFi (proving New Japan's wrestlers were the baddest men in Japan) and UWFi later shut its doors. In terms of business, the angle was very much a success for New Japan.
But to modern New Japan, an invasion of shootfighters didn't harken back to the successful UWFi invasion. It brought back memories of Antonio Inoki bringing in MMA fighters and having them go over pro-wrestlers, of pro-wrestlers having to play MMA fighter in shootfights with disastrous results, and it brought back the days of the company sinking into financial collapse.
From all that's been reported, Kidani's vision for a shootfighter invasion did have much more in common with the UWFi invasion. Sakuraba and Shibata are both great pro-wrestlers on top of being MMA fighters. But with the wounds of the mid-00's so raw, New Japan had no interest in running with anything MMA. Jado & Gedo and the rest of New Japan nixed it.
Sakuraba and Shibata, both slated to win their Tokyo Dome matches to set up the invasion, lost their matches. Kidani in Sakuraba's corner did nothing. Neither Shibata nor Sakuraba are announced for any future New Japan shows. It's unlikely we'll see Kidani at New Japan shows playing anything but the upstanding owner of Bushiroad.
After the Tokyo Dome show, the tension finally came to a head and Kidani announced that he would be stepping away from running New Japan.
It's unclear who is responsible for initiating some of the changes we've seen in New Japan this year. For example, the title shot won at 2012's G-1 Climax by Kazuchika Okada was represented by a painted briefcase that bared a striking resemblance to WWE's Money in the Bank briefcase. But we do know that Bushiroad was responsible for expanding merchandising and for the introduction of iPPV, both successes. New Japan is being brought into the fold at Bushiroad: In October 2012, Bushiroad launched a card game based off New Japan talent called King of Pro-Wrestling. (Yes, one of the best pay-per-views of 2012 was named to promote a trading card game.)
Kidani may have announced he has stepped down, but he and Bushiroad's influence on New Japan has been nothing but positive so far in terms of business. And whether you think a shootfighter invasion might have worked or not, there is something to be said for Kidani ceding to the people in New Japan who have been doing pro-wrestling their whole lives, and who have creatively resurrected New Japan from near-death. Kidani controls the purse strings so Kidani calls the shots, and he ultimately assumed Jado & Gedo and the rest of New Japan knew better than him. Based off of their success at rebuilding New Japan, it wasn't a bad call to make.
Of course, this is pro-wrestling. StrongStyleSpirit floated the idea that stepping down publicly may be just another way to make an invasion angle even hotter when they eventually shoot it, but Shibata's loss at WrestleKingdom wouldn't make any sense if they weren't going to make the shootfighters a real threat. A great strength of New Japan's booking has been its logic, and Shibata's loss would be illogical.
Kidani might be out as far as having any say in the booking, but he's still apparently wheeling and dealing for talent. Yuzuki Aikawa, the gravure idol and recently retired pro-wrestler who helped turn the new joshi promotion Stardom into one of the most popular in the country, was recently contacted by him. He wants her to join New Japan--a company that doesn't often incorporate women into the action.
As westerners, I think we too often look for quick equivalents between western and Japanese pro-wrestling. Hiroshi Tanahashi may be the top babyface in New Japan, but he isn't John Cena. Tanahashi's reign has seen New Japan continue to grow, while the opposite holds true for Cena. Likewise, Takaaki Kidani might have bought a struggling high-level pro-wrestling promotion, but he isn't Dixie Carter. He does understand pro-wrestling at a certain level. He was a thirty-something man when he watched UWFi invade New Japan, saw its success, and wanted to revisit a popular angle with a modern twist. He's not pitching stuff that hasn't worked in the past, and he's listening to people who have a track record of success in the business.
He also wanted to inject himself in the angle--something that's been questioned. I don't know what kind of performing chops he has, but he seems to me to play well the part of the eccentric businessman in the press. And there would be an element of realism in him and a banished Inoki leading an outsider invasion: as this whole ordeal has proved, he is an outsider in New Japan.
So far that's proven to be a good thing.
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