In just a few weeks, New Japan will arrive in Long Beach, California to put on their first solo shows on US soil. If you’ve already hitched yourself to the NJPW bandwagon, this will be an epic emotional payoff. For those of you still on the fence, the fanfare of the California shows is the perfect time to get on board. With that in mind, it’s time for me to pull out another of my “WWE Fans’ Guide To New Japan” things.
This time, we’re talking about one of the key storytelling devices which separates NJPW from WWE: the factions.
If you’re looking for a Rosetta Stone that helps you understand New Japan, factions are the answer. Unless you’re a huge star or a well known veteran, being part of a faction is really the only way to keep your head above water in Japan. Three of the company’s four biggest stars are leaders of their respective factions, and the gang warfare between rival groups is often the basis for major storylines. It would be like if Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, John Cena and Kevin Owens all had their own gangs made up from the rest of the WWE roster.
Over the years there have been heaps of New Japan factions, but right now their are only five you need to worry your smarky little heads about. Let’s start off at the top:
Formed back in 2009 by Shinsuke Nakamura as a bunch of bad guys, Chaos have slowly become tweener babyfaces as the popularity of Strong Style has surged. In most storylines they’re portrayed as the good guys, but they can still occasionally be dicks in the ring. Leader and current IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada exemplifies this – he’s a hero, but he can be brash and cocky because he’s the Rainmaker.
Kazuchika Okada (Leader) – The current top champion and biggest star in New Japan, Okada is known as The Rainmaker – because his character is a nouveau riche playboy. He comes to the ring in a gold and red robe, customised dollar bills with his face on them raining over the crowd. Also, he might actually be the best wrestler on the planet these days, and he’s currently in the midst of an all time great year.
Will Ospreay – The crown prince of flippy shit has been part of Chaos since March 2016. In Japan his matches with fellow aerial aficionado Ricochet have made him a huge fan favourite for the Junior division. Expect him to be the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion sooner or later.
Tomohiro Ishii – Ishii has no neck. The video package on his ring entrance announces him as the Stone Pitbull, and I can’t think of a more perfect description. He’s a stocky, bald headed, stone faced rock monster who absorbs all punches. If he were a bad guy he would be terrifying. As a face he frequently scares the crap out of the more cowardly heels.
You’ve heard of Bullet Club. Don’t act like you don’t know what it is. At current count Bullet Club’s been a launching pad for four indie stars and their fat WWE contracts. Somewhere between an homage and a parody of 90s American wrestling (particularly NWO), Bullet Club represents the villainous foreigners in New Japan. They cheat. They laugh about it. They wear black and make finger guns with their hands. While their sheen has worn off a little for some longer term fans, their t-shirts are still a top seller in North America. Also, Bullet Club is for life.
Kenny Omega (Leader) – Old timers hate him for his antics, but I’m convinced that once the dust settles, we’ll look back on Omega as a trailblazer. Since usurping AJ Styles as leader of Bullet Club, his anime villain promos and his intense realisation of Strong Style has made him one of the most captivating wrestlers around. He’s a freakin’ rock star, and New Japan’s statside excursion would not be possible without him.
The Young Bucks – Jim Cornette’s favourite tag team have become key members of Bullet Club in the last year and a half. Forming the sub-group of The Elite alongside Omega, the Bucks are one of the most entertaining live acts around. Some dismiss them as spot monkeys, but you have to be masters of psychology and storytelling before you can break the unwritten rules as well as the Bucks do.
Cody – Why he’s not allowed to use his father’s name is beyond me, but I’m almost certain you know who Cody Rhodes is. Having transformed himself into the suit wearing American Nightmare at the end of 2016, Cody has become a dastardly villain. He also really, really, really hates the Revival.
Marty Scurll – Speaking of villains, Bullet Club’s latest hire has built his entire gimmick around the word. Scurll is an English wrestler who’s starting to hit it big with his pantomime-esque Villain persona. He cheats, mocks his opponent and knows exactly how to work the crowd. His plague doctor mask and umbrella are a nice touch too.
If you’ve only been watching New Japan for a little while you may get the impression Suzuki Gun are a new faction, but au contraire my friend. Suzuki Gun have been around since 2011, but spent much of the last two years taking part in an invasion angle over in Pro Wrestling Noah (another Japanese promotion). Their gimmick, as far as I can tell, is that they’re a bunch of weather-worn old freelancers who bully their way around whatever promotion they’re in. They’re like the old martial arts masters who like to use their skills to punish the up and comers.
Minoru Suzuki (Leader) – Suzuki is the only guy on this list i’d be legitimately scared to go near. He’s probably a nice guy outside kayfabe, but in the ring his move set and facial expressions give off such a controlled air of sadism it sometimes gives me chills. As a 48 year old former MMA fighter, Suzuki is a grizzled old bastard who laughs at pain and can inflict it with bone crunching precision. I fear him.
Taka Michinoku – Best know to WWE fans of a certain age as one of the guys who nearly castrated Val Venis, Taka Michinoku is far more serious nowadays. After 25 years in the business he’s won Junior Heavyweight gold all over the world, recently competing in New Japans Best of the Super Juniors tournament.
Taichi – Also known as the internet’s least favourite wrestler. Taichi comes to the ring sporting a kind of opera mask and a microphone, making a pretty poor attempt to lip sync to his music. Is it a pop star gimmick? Is it meant to be shit? Alas, these are questions for which I have no answer. All you need to know is that most fans think he’s a pretty boring wrestler. I’ll let you judge for yourselves.
Los Ingobernables de Japon
This is the coolest faction right now. Riding a counter culture wave against Japan’s workaholic salaryman tradition, Tetsuya Naito has transformed his career and become the voice of a generation. LIJ reject the authority of New Japan, calling out the company’s heroes and its management as spineless and corrupt. If the company won’t give them a shot at the main event, they won’t respect any of it. Ingobernables is Spanish for ungovernable, and that’s pretty much what these guys are.
Tetsuya Naito (Leader) – I’ve compared Naito to CM Punk loads of times, but there’s something deeper at work with his anti-authority character. It taps into the frustrations many young Japanese people have with the country’s rigid work culture and sluggish economy. His recent run with New Japan’s Intercontinental title culminated with him cracking the belt plate against the ring post. He really doesn’t give a shit, and in the words of Mugatu: “He’s so hot right now.”
Hiromu Takahashi – Nicknamed the Ticking Time Bomb, Takahashi joined LIJ late last year. Thing is, he’s a bona fide superstar already. Some wrestlers exude a natural charisma, but none do so with such specific weirdness as Takahashi. As a high flyer, his move set is also terrifying to watch sometimes – especially his sunset flip to the outside.
Evil – Yes, New Japan has a wrestler who is actually called Evil. Well, his real name is Takaaki Watanabe, but he does come to the ring in a cloak and a skull mask carrying a plastic scythe. Sometimes wrestling is weird.
The newest faction on this list, Taguchi Japan has only recently become more than a coalition of unaffiliated babyfaces. As best I can tell, the faction’s gimmick is centred around the peculiar antics of its leader Ryusuke Taguchi. Taguchi is something of an enigma to me, but he’s definitely at his best when he leans toward comedy. Which is odd, because Taguchi Japan has some serious talent under its umbrella.
Ryusuke Taguchi (Leader) – It’s my understanding Taguchi was once touted as the heir apparent of New Japan’s Junior division. While he’s held the Junior Heavyweight belt a couple of times, he never really became a star. Lately, though, his Funky Weapon gimmick seems to be working, even if I can’t wrap my head around it.
Ricochet – If Will Ospreay is the prince of flippy shit, Ricochet is its king. The human body shouldn’t be able to do that many flips in mid-air. Also famous under the guise of Prince Puma in Lucha Underground, Ricochet has almost certainly been on WWE’s radar for a little while.
KUSHIDA – Having recently defeated Hiromu Takahashi for the Junior Heavyweight title, KUSHIDA is the top junior in the company. He also really loves Back to the Future. In fact, he’s pretty heavy into time travel in general, but he especially likes his Marty McFly cosplay. Also, he’s really good at wrestling.