RIP the AJW we knew- it becomes a shell of itself in 1997, losing 2/3 of the roster.
JOSHI IN 1997- JOSHI EXPLODES:
* Okay, so it’s big things afoot- 1997 is the year the joshi scene in Japan completely explodes, as All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW), the signature company of joshi, goes bankrupt. The owners’ bad business decisions (most notably, a restaurant chain) combine with fading business all over, and AJW stops paying its wrestlers partway through 1997. Some rookies stick around, Kaoru Ito & Tomoko Watanabe form the backbone of the loyalists, Yumiko Hotta steps up as the new Ace as she’s still loyal, and Manami Toyota is convinced to give up retirement and get a contracted gig… but they lose half the wrestlers and most of the stars.
It’s time to talk about the collapse of All Japan Women (briefly). The Matsunaga’s wasteful spending had led to them having major financial difficulties since 1996 (and possibly years earlier). Zenjo had been cold for some time which didn’t help things, but the reason was the Matsunaga’s losses in real estate, stocks and their other businesses. During the 1980s economic bubble, the brothers got heavily into real estate, and among many other investments, attempted to franchise a Ramen house restaurant chain. Once the bubble burst and the real estate market nosedived, they took out significant bank loans to prop up their business, racking up huge debt which they were unable to pay back.
Payments to talent and office staff had been late or unpaid since 1996, and no one had been paid since March. The only reason they could survive without being paid for so long was because they lived in the company building, but on the road, they had to rely on the venues to supply food. Their patience came to an end on August 20. Kyoko Inoue, Rie Tamada, and Yumi Fukawa announced they would be leaving the company after the show and it was clear to everyone that there were issues with management. After the show, the wrestlers went on strike in front of the office and demanded their unpaid salaries. The story broke days later, and a press conference was held by the company on September 12 revealing the extent of the financial problems. The company was one step away from bankruptcy, and ended up filing for bankruptcy in October.
Between August 20 and September 21 over half the roster left the company. Toshiyo Yamada had already departed on 7/13, the rumor was that Zenjo wanted to retire her but Chigusa wanted her in GAEA and a deal was made for her to transfer, which did happen but you’d have to think the financial issues played a role as well. Aja Kong made the next announcement that she would be going freelance and finishing up on 8/20. Rie Tamada and Yumi Fukawa would also finish on 8/20, so too Kyoko Inoue but she would stick around to finish the matches she’d committed to.
Yoshiko Tamura, Misae Genki and Tanny Mouse would be finishing up soon after. Mariko Yoshida was out injured, but she would be leaving as well. Mima Shimoda, Etsuko Mita, Saya Endo, Chaparrita ASARI and Yuka Shiina would all finish up on 9/21, though Shimoda and Mita would stick around until October to finish their commitments. And if that wasn’t enough, referee Daichi Murayama, ring announcer Yoshitada Okita and front office man, Rossy Ogawa would also be leaving. After those fourteen wrestler departures since 7/13, the Zenjo roster after 9/21 will consist only of Manami Toyota, Yumiko Hotta, Takako Inoue, Kaoru Ito, Tomoko Watanabe, Kumiko Maekawa, Momoe Nakanishi, Nanae Takahashi, Miho Wakizawa, Miyuki Fujii and two new rookies, Nana Nakahara and Noriko Toyoda.
Aja Kong, the former Ace, quits and forms ARSION with AJW office dweeb Rossy Ogawa (joshi ain’t seen the last of HIM). Mariko Yoshida, developing a new Shoot-Style-inspired form for herself, joins her. Kyoko Inoue, freshly the Ace of the company, quits and forms Neo Ladies and takes some of the best rookies with her. Las Cachorras Orientales, now true main eventers as an elite heel team, quit and join Neo and also eventually become freelancers, benefitting every company in joshi.
But it’s all over, just about. It’s a dreadful year that apparently the people involved STILL don’t like to talk about- I can’t imagine the uncertainty and anxiety I’d be feeling in their place- people like Kaoru Ito & Tomoko Watanabe, who’d been working for YEARS under several “tiers” of senpais, were just now hitting the next level and then your company might die? All the rookies who were busting ass for years and paying back the company for their training and now there’s no money AT ALL?
THE YEAR’S OTHER STORIES:
Kyoko Inoue’s Failed Main Event Run:
* Kyoko Inoue receives the “God Push” in AJW starting in December ’96 when she defeats longtime rival Manami Toyota for the first time in basically ever to become WWWA World Champion. Alas, it’s as fortunes have already fallen and she isn’t even drawing the reactions she used to. Kyoko had, to put it delicately, put on quite a bit of weight and had slowed down a lot without the ability to compensate (she apparently does better later on) and so the matches are suffering. Still, she manages a couple of ****-ish matches in 1997.
Desperate to give her credibility, AJW also combines all the titles into one just for her, as she beats All Pacific/IWA Champion Takako Inoue the very next month to become a TRIPLE CROWN Champion- this largely drops the IWA Title for good (it was never anything more than a trophy for an upper midcarder anyways). Kyoko drops all three belts in May when she fails to defeat Kaoru Ito in a 60-minute draw- the old “I can’t be the champion if I can’t win” deal, but she wins the vacant title back the next month. Ultimately, however, she loses the belt two months later to Yumiko Hotta, who unlike Kyoko, isn’t quitting the company over lack of payment. So Kyoko’s longtime status as a huge fan-favorite, and her long crawl towards credibility (being put over by BULL NAKANO of all people, then Aja & Manami), all ends up with a Red Belt run of maybe half a year- a true disappointment. She would found Neo Ladies, one of the early hits as far as splinter promotions went, taking a bunch of hot rookies with her. Its success wouldn’t last, but it’d be around for ages.
LCO’s Main Event Run- Joshi’s New Icons:
* Las Cachorras Orientales… man, do THEY have a banner year- once they hit big it’s banger after banger after banger, and they are BY FAR 1997’s best source of good matches. It looks awful to start 1997, which makes this all the more bizarre. Etsuko Mita was hitting that “Midcard JTTS” role in 1996, and was starting to job to the next generation’s stars. In the Japan Grand Prix, she’s almost dead-last in the round robin, and even loses a fluke to the tiny Chaparrita ASARI. Her career appears nearly doomed to this, never having even gotten singles gold… and things barely look better for Mima Shimoda, who despite being Tag Champion for most of the year, failed to have ANY of the heat from Akira Hokuto or Manami Toyota, two Main Eventers, rub off on her. In fact, her run as their “little buddy” partner actually seems to have been disastrous, as she loses credibility and respect, and kind of diminishes her character.
So suddenly her & Manami lose the Tag Titles in January ’97 and she’s got nowhere to go… and her & Mita reform LCO (the Oriental Bitches) and completely revolutionize AJW and themselves by becoming a pair of nasty, chaotic, vicious Main Event Heels who dominate the middle of the year with matches full of blood, cheating and utter mayhem. The “LCO Match” (like old AJW cheating-filled heel matches but with epic moves and head-drops) becomes a new standard in wrestling from this point on, and they enter the top of the card and never leave it while a pair- even as AJW splits apart they become god-tier freelancers, hitting nearly every company as invading bitch heels who murder the rookies and prove to be the ultimate test to any of the superstar duos these splinter promotions can muster. They are leaving the company but remain top stars in the back half of 1997, having multiple ****-ish matches and two ***** ones!
It can’t be stated enough how much this LCO revival saved both of their careers- Mita was probably gonna be jobbing to Rie Tamada by year’s end if this hadn’t happened, and this became inconceivable within months. Their ***** cage match against Ito & Tomoko is one of AJW’s best matches of the ’90s and even served to cement the latter as the stars of the future, too. LCO oddly, while elevating themselves, become the means by which nearly every other upstart wrestlers in the business elevates themselves.
“The LCO Match” will be a recurring element in the next 10-ish years, though, with LCO shipping themselves around as top-tier freelancers to every company, often engaging in brutal feuds with their most-liked up & coming wrestlers, losing the final match and putting others over. It’s a good gig, and I kind of consider them the Last Big Stars of Joshi (don’t @ me, Stardom bros!).
The Former Ace Leaves:
* Aja Kong has a rough year- her time as Ace is long over and she’s no longer a draw, but the company appears to acknowledge the need for star power, and so here she sits, still challenging for the Red Belt. Her & Kyoko headline Wrestling Queendom 1997 in a ****1/4 main event, but the bloom is off the rose, and manages to cap off her rivalry with Manami via a ****1/2 30-minute draw in the Summer- she’s still got it. But she quits AJW when she stops getting paid, and starts to build the new company Hyper Visual Fighting ARSION with Rossy Ogawa, an AJW office goon (who was often left to book while the bosses blew money and ruined themselves).
Manami’s Star Fades:
* Manami Toyota enters a new phase of her career: “Manami the Rookie-Slayer”. Now acting like an arrogant, haughty asshole, she ignores the offense of up & comers, buries their attempts at comebacks, and more, but then each match sees her pay for her attitude and she ends up doing the “Hey, you’re okay, kid!” at the end. But the matches are MUCH lazier than her old standby and the crowds pick up on it and reactions for her stuff die down.
Not that she has much reason to celebrate- she allegedly wanted to retire soon, and so was “giving back”- after jobbing to Kyoko in December and no longer being the Ace, she soon drops the Tag Titles to a rookie team. She’s also the first main eventer to job to Kaoru Ito (in a match that teases a 30:00 draw, but Manami jobs clean to a finisher with 31 seconds to go). Physically, she’s not what she once was- she’s a bit “softer” than her ripped prime (when her legs were pure muscle), but she’s lost her old athleticism and flippiness. She now has to do her former Running No-Hands springboard by carefully bouncing her shinbone off the top rope and guiding herself using a free hand, THEN flipping. This immediately stops “wowing” the crowd like her old version did, and is just the beginning, as she struggles to modify her style with her new body.
The Rise of Kaoru Ito:
* Kaoru Ito is one of the few people who ends up in a good position very rapidly- she beats MANAMI TOYOTA of all people in March 1997, and goes to a 30:00 draw with Aja Kong, meaning she’s immediately getting the Rocket Push. A (60:00) draw with Kyoko in a World Title Match only cements this, and it’s clear Ito’s being groomed for the top spot next. Alas, this is the beginning of “SHE WHO CANNOT BE PINNED” Ito, as she ends up kicking out of everything short of a ballistic missile, getting herself over sure, but it makes her matches a bit unbelievable, especially for someone who was a midcarder only last year. But make no mistake- they beat you over the head with “Ito is the New Star” and she’s a big deal.
Tomoko & Kumiko- The New Tag Champs:
* Tomoko Watanabe & Kumiko Maekawa surprise me by beating Manami/Shimoda for the WWWA Tag Titles in January, and make a surprisingly good duo. Tomoko has gone from “clumsy kid” (1993) to “up & comer” (1995) to “the best babyface seller in the company” (1996) and by 1997 is now REALLY good and having a ton of great comebacks. Her selling is “1980s mega-babyface joshi” tier and she’s gotten much more believable as the year goes on. Kumiko is still somewhat clumsy and unready as a star, and spent WAY too long getting groomed as the “top rookie” to the point where the push comes out of nowhere, but her legit karate credentials go a long way towards elevating her. Her lethal Pump Kick and the “sometimes missing” Ax Kick are huge parts of her arsenal, and she backs up Tomoko as the rookie in the squad. Their matches against LCO are routinely some of the best of the year, having a reliable **** floor and going higher. They lose the tag titles but often look great in attempting to win them back.
THE OTHER STARS:
* Yumiko Hotta had a weird 1996-97, and a lot of it is about AJW trying to get her over as a “Shooter”- all of puro kinda went “Shoot Crazy” in the years around UWF-International hitting it big, and this was AJW’s shot at it. She lost some legit fights but was treated like she could take anyone in the company. But for YEARS Hotta was merely the “reliable upper-carder” who could give the Champ a great showing but lost in the end… and suddenly she WINS. Hotta defeats Kyoko in August to become WWWA World Champion, finally getting the top role after years of trying. Annnnnnnnnd- it’s not a great look. She was legit VERY good in a lot of matches over the years, but like everyone else had slowed down and I haven’t seen a good match in ages. She’s more or less the Champion because nobody else in the company was ready and Manami had already had it.
* Takako Inoue has a pretty bad year, unfortunately. She ended 1997 with the combined IWA & All Pacific Titles, becoming a potential future main eventer (though that’s a job she apparently didn’t want) or at least “the most pushed upper midcarder”, but things quickly go downhill as she loses both to the Champ, her old partner Kyoko, in January, in a match that is almost never made to look even remotely competitive. The fans don’t buy Takako at all and the heat is pretty dead. Kyoko drops the All Pacific in May and Takako promptly wins it back… but has to drop it the next month due to, uhhh… stuff? I thought injury, and she ends up in a bunch of 7-minute draws in shows the next month for some kind of odd series that involves other wrestlers, too. So Takako has all these weak White Belt reigns that just serve to emphasize her position as “the lesser star”. At least she’s sticking around- she oddly doesn’t join her pal Kyoko in Neo.
* Mariko Yoshida was set as “The Next Big Push” after Ito but uh-oh- she’s hurt mid-year and quits. She would be the foundation of ARSION, further developing her grappling-heavy style.
* Momoe Nakanishi actually becomes a somewhat hot rookie promptly- winning the jobbery AJW Junior Title in February but actually winning the 4th-tier AJW Title in December, which results in the AJW Junior belt being completely dropped! The belt oddly returns 5 years later. Momoe also wins the Japanese Tag Titles with fellow rookie Nanae Takahashi. The end of the year sees the true start of her legend, though, as she is massacred in a Tag Title match against LCO, takes a vicious beating and lands plum on her head off the top rope (via Shimoda’s Death Lake Driver) and looks fantastic in defeat. It’s clear they saw potential in Momoe early, and it would apparently be well-founded, as she is eventually ridiculously decorated with belts over the course of her career.
* Chaparrita ASARI has a bad year- she holds her WWWA Super Lightweight Title (a belt created just for her) for an entire year, but gets injured in January and misses half the year, then pops up until the dissolution of everything in the fall, as she quits AJW.
* Yoshiko Tamura has started to look really impressive, becoming a top rookie, and a definite future star. She has a ***1/2 match with Toshie Uematsu at a GAEA show, showing just how good she’s gotten, AND she’s the WCW Women’s Cruiserweight Champion for a few months, beating Toshie before losing to Sugar Sato. But she quits in August and will join Kyoko’s Neo promotion. She’d hit her peak in the Dark Ages.
* Yumi Fukawa started getting focus in the early part of the year, as they were pushing her in “gravure” (sexy photobooks and the like). This apparently led to a LOT of heat with Takako (the previous benefactor of that push) but things looked bright… but she quits in August and is to join Aja Kong’s ARSION.
* Rie Tamada is seen rising throughout much of 1996 and should probably have been beating elders in 1997, but she quits with Aja Kong to join ARSION. She was herself kind of a damning indictment of joshi at this point, as SHE was the best they could do after 1990 to elevate big stars, and she peaked and “Kind of pretty good”.
* AJW has a smattering of rookies and up & comers throughout the year, but loses most of them. Of the ones quitting, Yuka Shiina had just gotten some new gear and was looking impressive as a rising shitass who was in great shape. Gawky Misae Genki might have started to show off some power stuff but isn’t focused on much. Tanny Mouse the comedy wrestler is still at the bottom of the card. Saya Endo had been active as LCO’s goon, helping them cheat, but was also quitting.
* Staying are Nanae Takahashi (a future star, but very green), Miho “Wacky” Wakizawa, Miyuki Fujii and two new rookies, Nana Nakahara and Noriko Toyoda. Also Kayo Noumi returns from her like, fourth attempt at quitting.
JWP IN 1997 (THE YEAR OF HIKARI FUKUOKA):
-Oh god you think *AJW* had it bad? Check THIS shit out.
* Their biggest story by far is of course the tragic death of Plum Mariko– the frequently-injured submission wrestler died after taking a Ligerbomb over the summer (it burst what was likely a pre-existing concussion-related issue in her brain), which became a huge news story. It would cast a pall over the entire company and it would never recover.
* JWP’s multi-year plan finally comes to fruition in 1997- I don’t see a lot of their stuff from 1996, but by ’97 Hikari Fukuoka is FINALLY ready, and the little Manami Toyota clone successfully defeats Dynamite Kansai for the JWP Openweight Title in April, and becomes the promotion’s new Ace! Hikari by this point had added a spectacular series of moves to her repertoire, including an amazing Rider Kick (a forward flip missile dropkick to the face or neck) and a Moonsault STOMP, making her a tape-trader favorite. However, her title run doesn’t set the box office on fire. She’s still active, for the time being.
* Dynamite Kansai, unfortunately, had seen better days- a “collagen disorder” (something affecting the joints) left her in agony a lot of the time, and this would quickly ruin her match quality. She’d have to do shorter matches from here on out. But full credit: She went absolutely all-out in putting over Hikari in the title switch, making her look awesome. In the meantime, she & Aja would take their old rivalry and form a great “Monster Team”, often showing up in the uppercard here and there demolishing midcard wrestlers.
* Mayumi Ozaki actually gets the most play in GAEA Japan of all places, where she starts actively recruiting young rookies to “OZ Academy”, much to Chigusa Nagayo’s annoyance. The two engage in a feud in GAEA territory. Ozaki’s JWP loyalist, Rieko Amano, shows a lot of potential as a good technical wrestler, but isn’t there yet.
* Devil Masami was once JWP’s #2, but by this point seemed ready to jump to GAEA as well. She in fact becomes it’s second-ever Champion, beating Chigusa for the AAAW World Title. However, Devil has massively slowed down over the past couple of years, going from someone who frequently had ****-***** matches to someone lucky to break ***. Age affects all of us.
* JWP’s other valued wrestlers are: Candy Okutsu, once in a solid “rising midcarder” zone with high-flying moves and distinctive offense, has retired in a match with her tearful best friend, Hikari- this guts the midcard. Cutie Suzuki, who is actively ready to retire- she’s still active on many shows but has stopped giving a crap ages ago. Command Bolshoi, a tiny girl who should be having better matches than she has been by this point in her career- I’ve heard she gets better later but she’s lucky to crack *** at this point. Tomoko Kuzumi is their most heralded rookie and is legitimately very good, if spotty and not that confident or accurate with her high-flying just yet- as Azumi Hyuga, she would eventually become the Ace. TomokoMiyaguchi, the future Ran Yu-Yu, also seems pretty good. Kanako Motoya is also solid.
LLPW IN 1997:
-This one has very little stuff on YouTube at the moment, and as the Interpromotional Era died down, it was like they were in their own little world. They and JWP were a distant #3 behind AJW & GAEA, but AJW’s bankruptcy would shake things up. Their big angle was Eagle Sawaii having an evil stable behind her and dominating things- she is the heel champion for nearly an entire year, holding the LLPW Title from Oct. 1996 to Nov. 1997, when former Ace Shinobu Kandori finally beats her.
* Their roster has some decent people on it, but not that many. Eagle is a frustrating wrestler as she’s a big monster who feels like she should be having **** monster bouts but instead just has *** ones. Yasha Kurenai is a lot of fun as a stick-wielding brawler, and has a great match with Hikari Fukuoka in a JWP/LLPW match for the JWP Title, but that’s it. RumiKazama is the LLPW President and tries to have good matches but just isn’t that good. Harley Saito is apparently Karula the giant chicken at this point but I have tragically/luckily never seen any of that. Mikiko Futagami, Yukari Osawa, Carol Midori, Michiko Nagashima and others… are all pretty forgettable generic types by this point.
* Shockingly LLPW would do better than JWP the next year.
FMW’s WOMEN’S DIVISION IN 1996:
-Hahahahaah ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh god joshi is dead here. I mean, Megumi Kudo was still around for a while, but Combat Toyoda retiring the previous May killed off the top of their card, and only dorks hung around after that aside from Kudo. Shark Tsuchiya made a game chance at being Dump Matsumoto, but she was merely the “Dollar Store” version and such a bad worker that all discussions of Shark are legally bound to start with an insult about her in-ring capabilities. Shark & Kudo traded the FMW Women’s Title a bit in 1997, but Kudo herself retires in April, and that puts a bullet in the head of FMW’s Women’s division for good.
Okay, to be fair, it continues on until 1998. But Kudo largely retires with the belts and the women’s division no longer even has a belt to trade around, so it’s Shark and some other girls messing about until FMW kills off the division next year. Kudo was once the #1 or #2 biggest women’s star in wrestling, so her retirement is a big, big deal, and the faltering of FMW’s women made the business a fair bit weaker. But that company had OTHER issues.
-This is the first “Big Year” for GAEA… as not only has the First Generation of rookies turned out spectacularly well as the promotion’s backbone, but they’ve got a pair of big stars from AJW on their roster full-time (Toshiyo Yamada and AKIRA HOKUTO), new kids with some promise are debuting, and the “OZ Academy” thing keeps ramping up, as Mayumi Ozaki invades from JWP and recruits GAEA kids, as further rookies join her, breaking Chigusa’s heart and leading to her pummeling them in one-sided matches while Ozaki herself sneaks out wins and survives to fight another day. GAEA also entered an arrangement with WCW in 1996 to provide them with women’s matches, so you see people like Meiko Satomura on Nitro. GAEA has emphasized submission wrestling more than the other companies, and has a lot of really tiny technical wrestlers on the roster. The kids are all still color-coded, and THANK GOD because otherwise it’s miserable to recap things without announcements, lol.
GAEA runs a great “Second Junior All-Star” show in July, consisting of nothing but Rookie vs. Rookie matches, with three ***1/2 matches between GAEA kids and those of other companies. This should be a REALLY good sign for the future of joshi, as nobody there has more than three years of experience- alas, joshi was in trouble regardless. Toshie Uematsu & AJW’s Yoshiko Tamura have the only great singles match of the show, and it really shows all-out effort being able to surpass pretty simple moves (Tamura’s submissions are actually very poorly applied, but are sold as dynamite so the crowd is still into the match).
* Meiko Satomura seems to have the most promise, but her overacting is getting a tad extreme, as she’s STILL screeching and yelling at everyone and way overdoing everything. She’d eventually learn to tone that down. This can lead to some great intense matches at least, and she’s one of the most reliable GAEA kids for ***+ matches.
* Sonoko Kato seems to have lost a step. I’d have said she had the best technique of the 1st Gen kids, but injuries have taken their toll already and she’s kind of just “filler” in a lot of matches. She does better in some others, though, and is almost as good as Meiko.
* Sugar Sato has improved greatly- I found her the weakest of the first “GAEA Rookie Class” at first, as her technique was particularly bad and she couldn’t go as hard as ANY of her contemporaries, but she’s pulled it out a bit as a snotty heel in a promotion that really needed one. With only invaders acting as proper heels, and her own partner Chikayo being a very blank-faced vanilla wrestler, it fell to Sugar to do some of that down-home cheating, and her efforts went pretty well. Her offense has filled out nicely, adding a Dragon Screw-to-Figure Four as a legit finisher with some drama, and a run-up flying back elbow. Her & Chikayo do a fireman’s toss/flying stomp to finish opponents, too. Sugar ends the year as WCW Women’s Cruiserweight Champion, beating Tamura and bringing the belt back to GAEA.
* Chikayo Nagashima is up there with Kato & Meiko as the “Best Rookies” of the First Class, but her lack of personality is becoming a bit of an issue, as she has great technique despite a pretty lanky appearance, but just kinda blankly does stuff, despite being a heel.
* Toshie Uematsu does a great job throughout the year, defending her WCW Women’s Cruiserweight Title (yes really- read below!) against other undersized rookies. She works her ass off here to justify it, probably because she’s otherwise outstripped by some of GAEA’s rookies now that she’s not quite as flippy as she was the year before (injuries have probably already slowed her down a tad).
* Maiko Matsumoto & Sakura Hirota are developing from the 1996 Class- Maiko is now a powerhouse-ish wrestler, using her higher weight to toss others around. Atomic drops of all things are becoming her go-to, while Sakura is now USING THE ASS, flinging herself ass-first into people’s faces and slapping her butt like a goof. She’s working more and more goofy comedy into her stuff, and is shockingly STILL DOING THIS in 2023 joshi, so she’s one of the few rookies still kicking today. But man she gets a LOT of focus in the second half of 1997 and it is not very much fun, as she is a clumsy, weak rookie and has no good offense yet.
* The other rookies: Makie Numao is between the 1st and 2nd Class I think, but isn’t on TV much and I mostly recognize her as “the one in kickpads”. Rina Ishii (wearing an orange two-piece) is just getting some focus, and is a short skinny girl with good technique. HiromiKato (black singlet) looks pretty normal, but is billed as a powerhouse given she’s regularly using a TORTURE RACK of all things.
* Akira Hokuto was once the biggest star in joshi, and when GAEA comes to WCW she becomes the inaugural Women’s Champion, but the belt is rarely defended and she retires Madusa in 1997. The belt is largely ignored and Akira is only half-serious in the ring at this point. She has one good match beating on a rookie Meiko, but otherwise is kinda clearly slumming it. Bad injuries have hampered her, in any case.
* AJW’s Toshiyo Yamada surprisingly joins partway through the year, and immediately becomes their 4th Veteran, on the “KAORU Tier” (ie. loses to top stars; crushes rookies). This actually gives her a bit of a jolt as a worker, as she has something to prove and tries really hard, reminding me of the time when she was one of the best workers around. She enters a feud with the jealous, defensive KAORU for the second part of 1997, still going as of year’s end.
* Semi-veteran Bomber Hikari retires in mid-January, removing a weird roadblock from GAEA Japan- they kinda needed a semi-pro wrestler in the middle ranks when they started, but now she was actively a hindrance: too strong to job to the rookies, but not good enough to justify having rookies lose to her. A “Veteran Who Does The First Big Job To Up & Comers” is a very important wrestling role, but she wasn’t right for the job.
JOSHI IN WCW:
* Yeah, no shit. Late December sees the WCW Women’s Title become a thing! But the division is pretty much just Madusa (fresh from the WWF, which she abandoned) & Malia Hosaka, plus GAEA Japan wrestlers. Meiko & Kato make up a lot of the WCW D-show women’s stuff, and Akira Hokuto becomes the dominant champion, dusting off opponents with a German Suplex in basic matches instead of all her elite stuff. Oddly, Akira never loses the belt properly, and by mid-year leaves the US and vacates the belt (she’s injured at this point). Devil Masami of all people is the final champion, as she wins the vacant belt while beating Chigusa for the AAAW Title in GAEA. WCW just sort of ignored the division after a point and didn’t feel like flying in a ton of Japanese women once a month.
JD’- The Surprising Contender:
-JD’ has their weird run continue. Lioness Asuka, sometimes a freelancer, has now been instituted as the company’s proper Ace and holds the TWF World Title for over a year. Jaguar Yokota, the promotion’s workhorse, ends up defeating her in October, but her reign is ridiculously short (81 days) and Lioness is the champ again quickly into 1998. But Asuka is actually the best women’s worker of the year aside from LCO, having a ton of great performances. She isn’t flashy or fast like a lot of her contemporaries, and in fact is using the “Joshi Communal Offense” as much as anything, but her timing, credibility and tactics during matches are top-tier. She and Jaguar have a ****1/4 match right at the end of the year dominated by Asuka’s cheating, but Jaguar pulls out a miracle win with a super rana off a table on the top rope- it’s fantastic stuff.
* The company develops into a “proper” promotion by this point, having spent a year building themselves up. The first TWF Tag Team Champions (Jaguar & Yoko Kosugi) are crowned in December, and a Junior Title is created mid-year- it soon becomes a trophy belt for The Bloody, who improves so rapidly she’s already a good worker in like her second year in the business.
* Bison Kimura was initially set up as a central JD’ wrestler, but is largely trotted out for a series of ***-ish “Dream Matches” with a variety of competitors and doesn’t set the world on fire. She is planning to retire, but suffers a bad arm break in July and that’s that- she never bothers to rehab & return; she just calls it quits and retires the next year.
* Other wrestlers aren’t showing me much just yet. ChikakoShiratori is set up as their potential new star, but it’s really only because of her looks- she suuuuuuuuuuucks in the ring and even though she’s working hard, she just doesn’t have it. YukiLee is given a “Try-Hard Rookie” push but stucks. Other wrestlers are Yoko Kosugi, Sayori Okino, and more, and they’re all just green kids at this point.
NEO LADIES & ARSION- THE NEW CONTENDERS:
* Yes, it’s time for more JAPANESE SPLINTER PROMOTION MAYHEM, as Aja Kong & Kyoko Inoue will both center new companies. Neo Ladies apparently has a very good first half-year or so- Korakuen sells a lot of tickets, the fans are into it, and the wrestlers are full-bore GOING FOR IT, knowing this is their chance. ARSION will feature a grapple-heavy style to attempt something new, and Aja will take a backseat to Mariko Yoshida as the top star. NEO largely ends up a vanity promotion for Kyoko and ARSION never really becomes popular for a variety of reasons (the style doesn’t go over great, and they focus on rookie Ayako Hamada and ignore her issues).
The Rosters (and I will be keeping this info so I don’t forget, lol):
Neo Ladies Roster: Kyoko Inoue, Las Cachorras Orientales, Chapparita ASARI, Yoshiko Tamura, Tanny Mouse, Yuka Shiina, Misae Genki, Saya Endo
ARSION Roster: Aja Kong, Mariko Yoshida, Rie Tamada, Yumi Fukawa, Michiko Omukai, Reggie Bennett, Jessie Bennett, Mikiko Futagami, Candy Okutso (then Ayako Hamada & Mika Akino)
AJW Roster: Yumiko Hotta, Manami Toyota, Kaoru Ito, Takako Inoue, Tomoko Watanabe, Kumiko Maekawa, Momoe Nakanishi, Nanae Takahashi, Miho Wakizawa, Miyuki Fujii, Nana Nakahara, Noriko Toyoda.
(kinda/sorta in the order of how I liked them… the ***** matches are anyone’s ballgame, though)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Tomoko Watanabe & Kaoru Ito (Steel Cage Match)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Aja Kong & Kyoko Inoue (Aug. 8th)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Tomoko Watanabe & Kumiko Maekawa (June 18th)
Aja Kong vs. Manami Toyota (Budokan Queens- Aug.)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Tomoko Watanabe & Kumiko Maekawa (Budokan Queens- Aug.)
Dynamite Kansai vs. Hikari Fukuoka (JWP Title- April)
Manami Toyota vs. Kaoru Ito (Grand Prix- Aug.)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Manami Toyota & Toshiyo Yamada (June 17th)
Manami Toyota & Mariko Yoshida vs. Yumiko Hotta & Kaoru Ito (June 18th)
Lioness Asuka vs. Jaguar Yokota (TWF Title- Oct. 22nd)
Kyoko Inoue vs. Aja Kong (Wrestling Queendom 1997)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Kumiko Maekawa & Momoe Nakanishi (Oct. 18th)
Tomoko Kuzumi vs. Tomoko Miyaguchi (Jr. Title- JWP Pure-Heart Festival)Super Heel Devil Masami vs. Mayumi Ozaki (JWP Pure-Heart Festival)
Megumi Kudo vs. Mayumi Ozaki (Barbed Wire, FMW Fighting Creation)
Tomoko Watanabe & Kumiko Maekawa vs. Takako Inoue & Mariko Yoshida (Wrestling Queendom 1997)
Las Cachorras Orientales vs. Kyoko Inoue & Manami Toyota (Aug.)
Manami Toyota & Miho Wakizawa vs. Guren-Tai (Michiko Nagashima & Saori Okino) (LLPW Live Battle ’97)
Dynamite Kansai, Cutie Suzuki & Harley Saito vs. Shinobu Kandori, Rumi Kazama & Mayumi Ozaki (LLPW Live Battle ’97)
-haha holy jesus, check out LCO- a fire gets lit under their asses as Joshi is choked for new Main Event acts and suddenly they form a partnership and have banger after banger after banger across the entire year. LOOK AT THIS STUFF- the four of the five top matches of the year are theirs, and they’re found at nearly all other levels as well. The famous bloodbath cage match against Ito/Tomoko is one of the best deathmatches of all time, and the Kyoko/Aja one is a phenomenal brawl that can be used to get others into the joshi style. Then you have their series with Tomoko & Kumiko- Kumiko’s still brand-new to top matches, but LCO can fit nearly anyone into their template, and her combination of vulnerability and credibility (with those lethal precision kicks) is a great opponent.
But make no mistake: in a time when most of the big stars of previous years are slowing down, getting injured, and putting in a lot less effort (Toyota, Hokuto, Hotta, Kyoko), it’s Mita & Shimoda who step up to the plate and reveal they’ve been holding this back all along.
Some of the former top wrestlers are still here, though- Aja & Manami end their famous series with another classic (the only non-LCO match in the top five), Kyoko still manages a couple great matches, and Manami isn’t done yet, with the Aja match, a tag bout against LCO and even bringing KAORU ITO to a ****1/4 match in August.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS:
* I noticed my reviews used to take about half a year to clear a year of real-time joshi, but I’ve been at frickin’ 1997 for a FULL YEAR now and I’m not sure how to reverse course on that, lol. Maybe just doing quickie reviews of some GAEA shows, as they’ve taken up the glut of the Spotlights. I want to keep doing these, and there’s a lot of new promotions’ work coming up, so those shows will definitely get full reviews, but we’ll see.
1998 is definitely a WEIRD year for joshi, though, as we see Neo & ARSION spring up and join an already-crowded field!
WWWA WORLD TITLE: Kyoko Inoue (Dec. ’96), VACANT (May ’97- Kyoko vacates after being unable to beat Kaoru Ito), Kyoko Inoue (June), Yumiko Hotta (Aug.)
ALL PACIFIC TITLE: Takako Inoue (Nov.), Kyoko Inoue (Jan. ’97), VACANT (May- Kyoko drops all her belts), Takako Inoue (June), VACANT (July), Tomoko Watanabe (Aug.)
AJW TITLE: Rie Tamada (Nov. ’96), Momoe Nakanishi (Dec. ’97)
IWA WOMEN’S TITLE: Takako Inoue (Dec. ’95), Kyoko Inoue (Jan. ’97), VACANT- the belt is dropped mid-year
AJW JUNIOR TITLE: Tomoko Miyaguchi (Sept. ’96), VACANT (Feb. ’97), Momoe Nakanishi (March), VACANT (Dec.- AJW drops the belt until 2002)
AJW SUPER LIGHTWEIGHT TITLE: Chapparita ASARI (May ’96), VACANT (July ’97)- ASARI leaves AJW.
WWWA WORLD TAG TEAM TITLES: Manami Toyota & Mima Shimoda (June ’96), Tomoko Watanabe & Kumiko Maekawa (Jan. ’97), Las Cachorras Orientales (July ’97)
JAPANESE TAG TEAM TITLES: Chikayo Nagashima & Sugar Sato (Sept. ’96), VACANT (Sept. ’97), Momoe Nakanishi & Nanae Takahashi (Nov.)
JWP OPENWEIGHT TITLE: Dynamite Kansai (Oct. ’95), Hikari Fukuoka (April ’97)
JWP JUNIOR TITLE: Tomoko Kuzumi (Aug. ’96), Tomoko Miyaguchi (Aug. ’97)
JWP TAG TEAM TITLES: Devil Masami & Hikari Fukuoka (Nov. ’96)
LLPW TITLE: Eagle Sawai (Nov. ’96), Shinobu Kandori (Oct. ’97)
SIX-WOMAN TITLES: Eagle Sawai, Michiko Nagashima & Shark Tsuchiya (Aug. ’96), Carol Midori, Mikiko Futagami & Yasha Kurenai (May ’97), Eagle Sawai, Lioness Asuka & Shark Tsuchiya (Aug.), Noriyo Tateno, Rumi Kazama & Yasha Kurenai (Dec.)
FMW & WWA WOMEN’S TITLE: Megumi Kudo (May ’96), Shark Tsuchiya (March ’97), Megumi Kudo (April), VACANT (June), Shark Tsuchiya (Sept.), VACANT- title dies as joshi stops being a thing there
TWF TITLE: Lioness Asuka (Sept. ’96), Jaguar Yokota (Oct. ’97)
TWF TAG TITLES: Jaguar Yokota & Yoko Kosugi (Dec. ’97)
JD’ JUNIOR TITLE: Megumi Yabushita (Sept. ’97), The Bloody (Oct.)
IWA JAPAN’S TITLES:
AWF WORLD WOMEN’S TITLE: Emi Motokawa (Aug. ’97)
WCW WORLD WOMEN’S TITLE: Akira Hokuto (Dec. ’96), VACANT (June ’97), Devil Masami (Sept.)
WCW WORLD WOMEN’S CRUISERWEIGHT TITLE: Toshie Uematsu (Feb. ’97), Yoshiko Tamura (July), Sugar Sato (Sept.)