Words From the World of Wrestling Monthly #12
… On Mitsuharu Misawa
June 18, 2009
I cannot let Mitsuharu Misawa’s sudden death pass without a response, and yet (like so many things) death?even the death of a person I never met?leaves me unable to respond adequately.
So I?m left with a problem: How might I respond to Misawa’s death?
(1) One might write a short history of Misawa’s life and wrestling career for those unfamiliar with his tremendous popularity in Japan as well as his tremendous talent (which, if one is honest, has dwindled over the past ten years). But I am not qualified to write such a response. I have never been to Japan; I have never seen Misawa wrestle live; I have only been watching his ringwork for the last five years or so. Although a wrestling columnist might often want to portray him- or herself as a wrestling ?expert,? I am no expert; I just don?t know enough; I just can?t remember enough to do Mitsuharu Misawa’s life and career a kind of narrative justice. I will leave the biography and the history to someone more qualified.
(2) One might also write up reviews of his greatest matches. However, for those of you unfamiliar with him, what good would it do you to read reviews for his series with Toshiaki Kawada in the 1990s? What good would it be for me to review his all-important victory over Jumbo Tsuruta nearly nineteen years ago? What could become of a review of his startlingly brutal encounters with Big Van Vader (which include release German suplexes that I?ll never watch quite the same way ever again)? What good would it do to review my favorite Misawa match?his title defense against Akira Taue in September of 1995? Hell, if I reviewed every single one of his ?epic? matches, I would have to write a series of columns that would take me into June of 2011.
No, a series of reviews would not qualify as an adequate response. Not yet anyway.
(3) One might even go the political route and claim?as I?m sure some will claim (as some have already claimed)?that young wrestlers need to take Mitsuharu Misawa’s death as an example of what can happen when a wrestler puts too many miles on his or her own body, when performers participate in a ‘style? that might make even the fans complicit in the cripplings or deaths that await us in the future (because they will come; they will happen). One might simply ?copy and paste? the moralistic warnings that proliferated throughout the Internet Wrestling Community after Chris Benoit’s death (although given the limit to Misawa’s popularity outside of Japan, I doubt his death will make quite as much noise). While I certainly understand those who have responded (and will continue to respond) with warnings or anger, I have no patience for this sort of thing just yet. At some point we all must either accept that professional wrestling is dangerous and that wrestlers do the best they can to create something beautiful for us?and for the thrill of performing (as Piper said to Jericho a couple months ago)?or we should reconsider what we applaud. But this direction just doesn?t feel right yet, not now. Not for me.
So given that none of these options suffice here and now, how do I respond? How do I continue? I find it impossible to respond, and yet I am compelled nevertheless to respond with a kind of justice to the most gifted of performance artists. Some passages from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (who I have been reading a great deal of lately) come to mind, particularly a passage from the Postscript to an essay entitled ?Dead Psychoanalysis: Analyze? (co-authored with Claire Parnet). While Deleuze certainly isn?t speaking of professional wrestling in the following quote, I hope most of you (or even some of you) find the following relevant: ?My ideal, when I write about an author [or, in the case of this column, when I write about a wrestler], would be to write nothing that could cause him sadness, or if he is dead, that might make him weep in his grave. Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar. Give back to an author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent.?
If I really want to respond to Misawa’s death, I feel I can best accomplish this by working out something along the lines of what Deleuze describes here, i.e. a sort of giving back not only to him, but to the readers of Wrestleview ?a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent.? I find it interesting that both Chris Jericho and Jim Ross made reference to Misawa’s excellent ?psychology? (my readers will recall that I wrote a column several months ago in which I promised to never use such a word ever again). What do they mean when they say this? I think it safe to say that they refer precisely to the art by which Misawa became and continued to be the ace of All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s and the way in which he allowed his ringwork (i.e. his performances in the ring and through his matches) to generate his image as the Man, as the Champion.
How did he do this?
While I praise wrestlers like John Cena and Samoa Joe for their ability to emote through facial expressions, Mitsuharu Misawa brought an impenetrable stoicism to his matches, a stoicism I initially misunderstood when I began watching his work. For as fiery as Kenta Kobashi or Toshiaki Kawada could be, Mitsuharu Misawa retained a level of composure that found expression through the viciousness of his forearm smashes. Very few wrestlers managed to break through that veneer of stoicism, but even when that veneer broke, when the match was over, when Misawa came away victorious, he reverted to that constructed stoicism, that self-constructed demeanor that he held as the face of Japanese wrestling.
The art of his stoicism cannot be emphasized enough. When he took a stiff shot to the face, he?d calmly kneel in the corner and hold his jaw, rock his head back and forth, and reapproach his opponent. When Kawada would kick him off the ring apron in tag matches (thus ignoring the ?legal? man in the ring), he would calmly climb back onto the apron and request a tag. He didn?t slide under the ropes and rush Kawada like most wrestlers might. He calmly accepted Kawada’s cheap shot as a challenge, a challenge that he was more than willing (more than that, that he HAD) to answer. I could go on and on, but I urge fans that track down Misawa’s matches to keep watching, to learn from what he and his opponent created together. And when you?ve learned from him and watch him grit his teeth, struggling for a Tiger Driver or a Tiger Suplex?or absorbing his opponent’s strikes in order to answer back with his forearms?even this little gesture will matter to you.
Enough cannot be said for his elbow smashes. It isn?t that his forearms looked any better than Indy Wrestler #371, yet the way Misawa built up this simple strike as his main offensive weapon mirrors the way Lawler built up his right punch?i.e., not only as a move that he could use at the beginning of the match, but as a move that he could use to fight back from a deficit as well as a move that he could use as a finish. With that said, a strike exchange with Misawa was no small matter, and every opponent knew that they would have to survive early strike exchanges with him in order to gain any sort of advantage. In a recent tag match from January of this year, both Nakamura and Gotoh (two top wrestlers from New Japan Pro Wrestling) fell at the feet of these elbow smashes, meaning that even young, quick wrestlers could not stand up to the strikes of an out-of-ring-shape middle-aged Misawa. The work that made this possible, that made this believable, that made this MATTER to the fans began nearly twenty years ago when Misawa was rocking the jaw of Jumbo Tsuruta and knocking out Stan ?Toughest Man Alive? Hansen.
But perhaps none of these points matter to you. Perhaps Mitsuharu Misawa’s name rings no bells. Perhaps a paragraph or two on his stoicism doesn?t move you. Perhaps a paragraph on elbow smashes leaves many of you shrugging, wondering how these paragraphs could possibly form a more appropriate response than an exhaustive history, than a clear answer to the question, ?Why should Misawa’s death matter to me??
But if Misawa’s death does not touch you, does not matter to you, I cannot provide a clear answer here. I only hope to spark your curiosity to track down his matches, to learn about a man who has probably had more influence than you think, and (finally) to learn from him the grandness that professional wrestling can reach.
One last comment: when Puroresu fans refer to the ?Four Corners of Heaven,? they refer to Toshiaki Kawada, Akira Taue, Kenta Kobashi, and Mitsuharu Misawa. All four of these guys had stellar matches (and tag matches) with each other, but I think it is safe (or at least very arguable) that the best match of Kawada’s career, of Taue’s career, of Kobashi’s career . . . these matches came against Misawa.
Until next month, my friends.