Golden Week had finally arrived in Japan! And with it, one of the biggest festivals that Fukuoka has to offer: the Hakata Dontaku Festival. A big parade in Kyushu’s biggest city, tons of food stalls, colorful costumes, as well as music and dance performances scattered across the city. Accompanied by warm weather and a nice breeze from the sea, it would be a perfect day to be outside and enjoy the festivities, right?
Well, not for this wrestling fan! I skipped the party on the streets and went to the Fukuoka Kokusai (International) Center to take in not one, but two nights of NJPW action. Oh yeah, baby, and it was glorious…well, Night 1 fell a little flat, but I’ll get to that.
I’ve been to the Kokusai Center three times for other events. The NJPW World Tag League 2017, Dragon Gate’s Final Gate 2017, and also the Kyushu Sumo Basho in November. The tickets for Dontaku were the most expensive out of all of them. I had floor seats for the Tag League and while it’s nice to be up close, you actually have the best view sitting on the balcony. The tickets for Wrestling Dontaku were ¥6,500 (around $60/€50) for each night and while the second night was more than worth it, it was a bit too expensive for Night 1 in my opinion.
Both nights were sold out, or at least very close to it, and especially at Night 2 you could feel the energy of the crowd. I will not do a match by match review, as I’d rather mention things and moments that really stuck out to me. I was able to watch Night 2 and also bits and pieces of Night 1 on NJPW World by now, so I have a good comparison to my live experience.
It was the Billy Gunn Conundrum all over again! I guess the crux of this event was really the last two matches. While Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi are very over and beloved by the fans, Hangman Page is not at all, and especially Cody was a big disappointment for me. I saw Cody in Korakuen Hall back in February for the Golden Lovers Reunion at Honor Rising, and I have to say that I was very much impressed by him then, and I agreed with the sentiment that he has improved greatly within the last year. But on Night 1 at Dontaku, he was just a black hole in terms of heat. Nobody really cared about his antics and it was evident that people had checked out emotionally, and I think it also translated on the broadcast.
The match that people were most interested in was actually the third from the top; Will Ospreay and Kazuchika Okada teamed up to take on Hiroshi Tanahashi and KUSHIDA. For me, that was the only match that really delivered and the reason that the crowd left the building feeling satisfied.
The main event was really killed by the repeated usage of foreign objects, such as tables and chairs, and I thought the structure of the match was not right to truly showcase Hangman Page, which would have been preferable here. All things considered, I would give Night 1 5/10 because the tag match was a lot of fun, but other than that it was a lackluster show.
Night 2 was a completely different story. Brimming with new stories and excitement, but let’s work our way up to the main event. While the matches before the last two were kept simple and quick, it was the angles that really made the show, up until the main events. Having Chris Jericho re-emerge in Fukuoka once again and brutalizing Naito was a sight to see – though if it would have taken him just two or three seconds longer to get the mask off, it could have turned into a Shockmaster situation real quick.
Jericho came for Naito to set up the co-main event at Dominion, and the pop he received was great.
Let’s get to our next highlight: Will Ospreay and KUSHIDA. I am not the biggest Ospreay fan because I am a firm supporter of the less-is-more aesthetic, meaning that too many flips, dives and choreographed actions actually takes me out of the match, as I would rather see a nice mat sequence with some athletic glimpses here and there.
That is also the reason I think that KUSHIDA is the perfect opponent for Ospreay. They have had better matches before, but it was the first time that I saw a live encounter between them, and it was awesome! I am always wowed by Ospreay’s physical charisma and the crisp execution of practically everything he does, but he should try to improve more on the mental/psychological aspect of pro wrestling. The constant screaming while selling was a tad annoying, but other than that, there is not much to argue about. Really entertaining encounter and Ospreay was able to best KUSHIDA once again.
The post-match angle actually saw the BONE SOLDIER return! Fortunately, it was not the former Captain New Japan but a debutant for the Junior Division: Taiji Ishimori! Ishimori was predominantly active for Pro Wrestling NOAH in the last decade, after getting his start as one of Ultimo Dragon’s trainees in Toryumon. Ishimori also made appearances for Impact Wrestling in the last months, and he is a very gifted performer. He is the perfect addition to the Junior Division because the Top 4 (Ospreay, KUSHIDA, Hiromu, and Scurll) have done their various match ups multiple times by now, so Ishimori brings some new spice into the mix.
The crowd was really hot for the Junior Heavyweight Title Match, but what happened next trumped this threefold. The classic and legendary feud with its probable final chapter. Kazuchika Okada trying to get the record for most title defenses by beating the man who set the record: Hiroshi Tanahashi. After the bell rang, a thunderous Tanahashi chant erupted and I knew that this was going to be just fantastic. Actually, rewatching this match on NJPW World, I have to say that the crowd was so much louder live. It was impressive in the broadcast, but live it was unreal. Real heat was generated in the Kokusai Center, the tension was palpable and the temperature rose by several degrees as the booming “Tanahashi” chants echoed around the room, shaking the seats.
A fantastic match and seeing it live, I even preferred it to the Wrestle Kingdom 9 main event (which I also saw live). The story was even more compelling to me, and Tanahashi is just a master of crowd control, as well as milking the right moves and moments. Seeing two masters of professional wrestling going at it in this more intimate venue was just breathtaking, and one of the coolest live wrestling experiences I’ve ever had.
After Okada was able to beat Tanahashi after one Rainmaker, Okada called out Kenny Omega to set up the fourth installment of their acclaimed match series. Okada suggested a no time limit match, but Kenny – not to be outdone – topped it off by adding 2/3 falls. Holy Moly! But more on that in a future preview about Dominion.