The avant-garde Pro Wrestling NOAH promotion takes its crowd-less conceit to giddy heights, turning it into a work of absurdist genius.
On March 29, 2020, GHC Heavyweight Champion Go Shiozaki and challenger Kazuyuki Fujita stepped into the middle of the ring in an almost empty Korakuen Hall. They remained there, with only the slightest shifts in position and posture, for a little over 31 minutes. Then, Fujita guzzled hand sanitizer and attempted to throw Shiozaki off a balcony. Somewhere in between these two extremes, they found the time to engage in technical mat work and strong style striking.
I’m a casual follower of the Pro Wrestling NOAH promotion, but I was so intrigued by the mix of awe and consternation that the main event of their 20th-anniversary show was causing amongst fans and critics that I immediately sought out a replay. I consider absurdist pro wrestling one of life’s greatest pleasures, and a 30-minute stare-down match sounded like an amusing stunt. Or maybe a cleverly executed concept that pushed the audience’s expectations — and tolerance — to its limits, not unlike my favorite Mr. Show skit, “The Story of Everest”.
While Shiozaki vs. Fujita certainly contains those elements, what I saw ended up being far more than that. It was the kind of work that can redefine a medium.
To explain such a seemingly hyperbolic conclusion, I’ll probably need to explain pro wrestling a little. Not in the sense that it’s “fake fighting” or “an athletic performance with a predetermined outcome,” or “a criminally underrated and misunderstood art form,” or however else it generally gets described. But how it functions as a medium.
While there are almost limitless variations on style and presentation in wrestling, most are performed in front of a live audience, constructed primarily for that audience. It’s closer to a filmed stage show or sporting event than a film or television program. It might reach wider audiences through TV and streaming, but that viewing experience (especially outside of promotions that rely more on broadcast deals like WWE and AEW), is more akin to being a bystander or even a voyeur. You’re watching the matches, but you’re also watching how the live crowd reacts.
NOAH Pro Wrestling NOAH 20th Anniversary ~ NOAH The Chronicle Vol. 2 began its existence as a regular pro wrestling card. COVID-19-related public health measures forced the company to turn it into an empty arena show. The majority of its matches operated under the most straightforward interpretation of a no-audience show: a wrestling show that happens while no fans are in attendance. Despite their absence, they still function as the primary audience. Viewers on the other side of the screen are still watching; they just happen to be watching a show that was made for people who can no longer be there.
In the early moments of the Shiozaki vs. Fujita main event, though, that relationship begins to shift.
From the moment the bell rings, nothing happens between Shiozaki and Fujita — or anything surrounding them, for that matter — that could transpire the way it does if it had been held in front of more than a few cornermen, a skeleton production crew, and a handful of photographers. This is partly due to logistics: the challenger could never have dragged the champ through Korakuen’s hallway arteries with nearly as much unfettered, single-minded malicious glee if there had been any members of the public milling about.
But it’s also about the way a live audience would have engaged with the in-ring action (or inaction) and how that inevitably would have altered the viewing experience. There is no wrestling audience in the world — not even one that has been asked to only clap instead of audibly cheering, which is the current mandate for live audiences in Japan — that would stay silent during a half-hour stare down. They would respond to it, and that response would become part of the show. It would also provide a bit of catharsis to viewers who could only express their frustration or their excitement to a screen.
Viewers on the other side of the screen are still watching; they just happen to be watching a show that was made for people who can no longer be there.
Unable to stage on a more traditional match for a live audience, and free from the potential real-time feedback of trying something new with that same audience, Shiozaki and Fujita tried something different: Nothing.
In the case of this specific match, I think that it’s almost impossible to address the dynamics of this match in any depth without invoking work from other media. There simply aren’t enough other matches that even attempt to do what this one does. The closest comparisons and the best reference points come from elsewhere.
I saw a few people compare Shiozaki vs Fujita to 4′33″, experimental composer John Cage’s famous piece in which musicians are instructed not to play their instruments for four minutes and 33 seconds. It’s an apt one, given that, in the absence of wrestling, the small happenings surrounding the two men become a part of the spectacle.
A friend of mine thought it was more like Koyaanisqatsi, the 1982 dialogue- and narration-free experimental film from director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass. Reggio, after all, believed that dialogue no longer described the world in which people lived at the time. A regular wrestling match, with all of its touching and breathing on each other while being surrounded by people expressing themselves through droplet projection, no longer described the world in March 2020.
The reference point that I keep coming back to, though, is Wavelength.
Released in 1967, the short film by Canadian artist Michael Snow is considered one of the most accomplished and groundbreaking experimental films in history. Wavelength, as Snow himself described it for the 1967 International Experimental Film Festival of Knokke-le-Zoute, is “a continuous zoom which takes 45 minutes to go from its widest field to its smallest and final field. It was shot with a fixed camera from one end of an 80-foot loft, shooting the other end, a row of windows and the street. Thus, the setting and the action which takes place there are cosmically equivalent.” As the camera makes its slow journey to the conclusion, a series of four different actions, or “human events” takes place in the periphery of the room.
I won’t try to argue that Shiozaki vs. Fujita will be considered as accomplished or revolutionary as Wavelength is. But it experiments with time, setting, and audience expectations in similar ways.
The 31 minutes it takes the stare-down to go from its widest field (the six feet of space between them when the bell rings) to its smallest (the double leg takedown from Fujita that finally initiates the wrestling component of the match) stoke the same tension in the viewer as they toy with the anticipation of action and the perception of time.
As in Wavelength, what happens on the outskirts of this slow approach takes on significantly more meaning. The sound of the photographers’ shutters echoing through the empty venue — gaining speed and volume with each subtle shift of a foot and slowing down again with each return to stasis — becomes part of the story.
So does each tiny movement from each wrestler’s corner. The referee’s efforts to manage the situation in the ring and the time-elapsed announcements at each five-minute interval, which are part of the background of most wrestling matches, take on new significance. The absence of anything more traditionally resembling action as we know them in film and wrestling also allows the other skills of the artists involved to shine through in new ways.
For Snow, Wavelength demonstrated the strength of concepts as an artist and technical abilities as a filmmaker. For Shiozaki and Fujita, this match demonstrates their deep understanding of the psychological aspects of wrestling, their stage presence, and how much can be conveyed in the moments between the moves.
Wrestling can be an extremely adaptable art. In the year since this match occurred, promotions and performers all over the world have come up with a wide range of responses to the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have been ill-advised, like running shows with live audiences in virus hot spots. Some have ended up looking downright dystopian, as is the case for the WWE’s Thunderdrome setup, which surrounds the ring with videos of fans watching at home.
Many have been creative. Cinematic wrestling is a type of wrestling that, much like it says on the tin, is staged more like a film. Cinematic wrestling has experienced a boom period of late, with WWE’s Boneyard Match from WrestleMania 36 providing a particularly interesting change of pace for the promotion. DDT’s loving parody of cinematic wrestling at Wrestle Peter Pan 2020 was inspired. ChocoPro, a promotion developed specifically for an online audience by the pro wrestling visionary Emi Sakura, has been particularly innovative and exciting. But no other match has accomplished anything like Shiozaki vs. Fujita.
Revisiting the match as its first anniversary approaches, I’m even more impressed by how quickly this performance adapted to its circumstances, and how the performers involved jumped on that opportunity to take creative risks.
I’m also in awe of how perfectly it manages to capture the time, either intentionally or unintentionally. How the anxiety around social distance and contact can be read into extremely delayed engagement between the wrestlers. How the half-hour feeling out process can represent the new ways we’ve had to figure out how to interact with and read each other. How the surreal use of — and the very presence of — a giant bottle of hand sanitizer can reflect the panicked overconsumption in the face of the confusing new reality of last March. How painfully relatable Shiozaki’s eventual victory, a largely glory-free, bloody, skin-of-the-teeth survival, feels.
For the way it seemingly effortlessly recalibrates the relationship between wrestling and viewer, for the creative risks it takes, the way those risks pay off, and for its strange representation of strange times, Shiozaki vs. Fujita is one of my favourite matches of the past year. It will likely remain one of my favorite pieces of art produced in any medium during this pandemic. I’m also willing to argue that also it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.