How Incineroar in Smash Bros. Embodies Japanese Pro Wrestling

Incineroar is one of my favorite characters to play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s the first truly traditional grappler character in the franchise, and his entire moveset directly reflects the Pokémon’s pro wrestling background. However, what I think is really fascinating about Incineroar’s implementation in Smash is that the character draws most directly from an old-school Japanese professional wrestling aesthetic and history.

To start off, a major part of Incineroar’s Japan-inspired wrestling design is a part of its identity as a Pokémon. It clearly takes a lot of influence from the beloved fictional wrestling character turned actual flesh-and-blood wrestler Tiger Mask—both are cat-themed athletes who are ostensibly heels but have a soft spot for children. But if you take a look at the relative strength of Incineroar’s attacks, you’ll find that it’s based on Japan’s cultural understanding of pro wrestling.

Incineroar’s forward smash is an Enzuigiri, and it has immense damage and KO potential. To a viewer mainly familiar with American promotions, the Enzuigiri is mostly used as a transitional move to something stronger or a counter to an opponent’s offense. However, the technique has a greater legacy in Japan, where it is the finisher of Antonio Inoki, one of the three most famous Japanese wrestlers of all time. Inoki is a legend as both a champion and the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and was even used as the model for the character Fighter Hayabusa in the NES game Pro Wrestling, where the Enzuigiri is known as the “Back Brain Kick.”

If you look at what Incineroar can do off a grab, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Of the character’s four basic throws, the deadliest one is the German Suplex. Again, you have a move that, outside of Japan, is seen as kind of generic; maybe at most, people might associate it with Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar. But the German Suplex is also the defining hold of Karl Gotch, the man known as the “god of wrestling” in Japan. Gotch had an enormous influence on the Japanese pro wrestling style, and even today whenever a wrestler pulls off a German Suplex in Japan, it’s seen as a big deal that can potentially end a match right then and there.

Another powerful throw Incineroar uses is the Argentine Backbreaker. While this move is seen in the US as more impactful than the Enzuigiri or German Suplex thanks to wrestlers like Lex Luger and the man who originally popularized it, Antonino Rocca, its footprint is even more prevalent in Japan. Not only did Rocca wrestle in Japan later in his career and is possibly the namesake of Antonio Inoki, but the Argentine Backbreaker also gained notoriety in the pages of the manga Kinnikuman. There, the character Robin Mask (a wrestler dressed like an English knight) uses it as a finishing move, calling it the Tower Bridge. Moreover, it’s clear that at least Sakurai Masahiro (the director of the Smash Bros. franchise) knows Kinnikuman: he posted to Twitter an image of Smash characters mimicking the Muscle Docking technique from the series:

Moving on, Incineroar’s best attack is arguably its side special, the Alolan Whip. While the name itself is a parody of the Irish Whip, the more important part is the follow-up: a vicious Lariat. 

One of the most famous American wrestlers to ever entertain fans in Japan is Stan Hansen, whose Western Lariat became downright iconic everywhere he fought. On the Japanese Wikipedia page for “Lariat,” the history section literally begins with a mention of Hansen, and in current times, the Japanese wrestler Okada Kazuchika is famed for his “Rainmaker” Lariat. Incidentally, Incineroar also has another related move taken from the Pokémon games—Darkest Lariat—but that’s closer to Zangief from Street Fighter II’s Double Lariat.

Generally speaking, I find that pro wrestling has a lot more of a longstanding influence on Japanese pop culture than it does American pop culture, despite the fact that pro wrestling as we know it has its origins in the United States. Even today, manga and anime wholly unrelated to wrestling or hand-to-hand combat (like Laid-Back Camp) will throw in a few references, as if to assume a common understanding among readers. So while having a wrestling cat for a Pokémon is not altogether that unusual regardless of culture, I find the execution of such a concept in Smash Bros. Ultimate to be very reflective of that enduring legacy. The fact that Incineroar so embodies the values of Japanese pro wrestling makes it all the more fun to play, win or lose.

No Face!!: My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler

Attending the New York International Children’s Film Festival has been something of a tradition for myself, and many of my reviews over the years on this blog have come from it. Due to COVID-19, NYICFF 2021 is a virtual festival, with individual tickets and two all-access passes available at extremely reasonable prices. 

As someone who loves cartoons, my usual focus at NYICFF  is on animated features including but not limited to those from Japan. For whatever reason, there’s no anime this year, but we’ve got the next best thing: a live-action film about Japanese pro wrestling. My Dad is a Heel Wrestler stars actual New Japan Pro-Wrestling veteran megastar Tanahashi Hiroshi as a washed-up wrestler named Omura Takashi whose son Shota discovers that Takashi is a “bad guy” called Cockroach Mask. The film was previously temporarily available on NJPW’s own streaming service, but I had missed my chance to see it then, so I’m glad that NYICFF brought me this opportunity.

My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is based on a Japanese children’s picture book, and by amazing coincidence, I actually happened upon a copy while at Bookoff years ago before the film was announced. Both versions follow the same basic premise described above, but the difference between 32 pages of large text with illustrations and a feature-length movie inevitably means changes and additions. In this case, the film is fleshed out with a greater exploration of both Takashi and Shota’s feelings about Takashi’s role as Cockroach Mask. For Takashi, his passion for wrestling is juxtaposed with the knowledge that his heelish gimmick is the only way he can continue his career. Shota meanwhile has to reconcile his image of his father as a caring man with the scheming and cheating he sees in the ring. 

A larger cast of characters—Takashi’s wife Shiori, Shota’s classmates, Takashi’s fellow wrestlers, and a hardcore fangirl who lives and breathes pro wrestling—also help to establish a greater world. The fangirl, Michiko, speaks to the fact that Japanese wrestling has managed to pull in a serious female following in the past ten years (known affectionately as pujoshi), and her love of Cockroach Mask/Omura is a reflection of Tanahashi’s own popularity among the ladies.

The film does a great job of showing Shota’s complex emotions from his perspective as a small child, and how Takashi struggles with the desire to both be a dad his son can be proud of while doing what he can to extend his career in spite of chronic injuries. Tanahashi playing an older wrestler is naturally in his wheelhouse, so this role isn’t exactly challenging his acting range, but he pulls the character off quite convincingly. 

One of the main messages of the film, as stated by Michiko, is that pro wrestling is about more than winning and losing. Much like that one scene in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s about Shota realizing that just because Takashi is a bad guy “doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” Curiously, however, in the world of My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, the gimmicks are fake but the actual wrestling is real—a kind of semi-kayfabe where wins and losses are legitimate but the wrestlers’ personas themselves are primarily performance. The film uses a lot of other NJPW stars to fill out the ranks, including Okada Kazuchika as the world champion, and the feeling I get is that a film with so many actual wrestlers wants to maintain some semblance of the “realness” of pro wrestling even in a fully acknowledged fictional setting like a movie. Speaking of wrestlers, I was actually most impressed by the acting of Taguchi Ryusuke, who plays Cockroach Mask’s henchman Blue Bottle. Taguchi in recent years has been more of a comedy wrestler in NJPW, and his ability to be serious and silly is a great asset to this film.

While the film uses a lot of wrestling terminology, My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is a very accessible film that has a lot of interesting things to say about many different topics—from aging, to doing what it takes to keep a dream alive, to how theatricality is in itself a valuable quality that brings people excitement. From beginning to end, it feels like a production where everyone involved both respect the subject matter of pro wrestling and want to tell a heartfelt story to which anyone can relate.

Jyushin Thunder Liger: The Impossible Gimmick

January 6, 2020 marked the end of an era as beloved Japanese wrestler Jyushin Thunder Liger retired. His achievements are many, from innovating the Shooting Star Press (now seen in wrestling matches all over the world) to being perhaps the greatest junior heavyweight ever. One thing that stands out to me in his long career is how insane it is that he managed to embrace his ridiculous gimmick, his outward identity as a wrestler, and elevate it to the point of world-wide recognition.

Jyushin Thunder Liger’s name and look is taken from a manga and anime by Nagai Go, creator of Mazinger Z, Devilman, and Cutie Honey. This by itself isn’t unusual. After all, the wrestling manga character Tiger Mask became a real-life wrestler as well. But Jyushin Liger the fictional work isn’t about wrestling or even athletics—it’s about a boy who can summon and fuse with a “bio-armor” to fight evil. The anime isn’t even considered a memorable classic, and yet, Jyushin Thunder Liger somehow made it not just work, but took it over. Now, when you say the words “Jyushin Liger,” you’re probably more likely to get someone who knows the wrestler than the source material. His entrance theme is just the theme song to the Jyushin Liger anime (and makes zero sense in the context of pro wrestling), but rather than being considered hokey, it brings out raucous cheers.

Imagine if a 90s American wrestler was saddled with a Street Sharks gimmick—not even a big property like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—and still wrestled as a Street Shark thirty years later until his retirement brought literal tears to people’s faces. Picture this guy coming out to “They fight, they bite, chewin’ up evil with all their might!” to a standing ovation. That’s basically what Jyushin Thunder Liger accomplished. The closest real equivalent I can think of is the Undertaker, who has played some form of undead wrestling zombe lord (and briefly a American motorcycle rider in the early 2000s) for the majority of his career. Or maybe if RoboCop’s cameo in WCW saw him transition into a regular wrestler who consistently put on great matches.

So here’s to Jyushin Thunder Liger and his global legend. Now let’s see if any new wrestlers come out as Bang Dream! characters.