Sakuga is to Anime as Workrate is to Pro Wrestling

Listen to anime fans discuss the quality of a given title, and there’s a chance the term “sakuga” will pop up. Used to roughly describe the quality and difficulty of artistically creating the illusion of motion in animation, sakuga has gradually gained prominence among hardcore anime fans around the world, in no small part due to resources like Sakugabooru and just increasingly convenient access to anime. It can also be a contentious subject among anime fans, namely because its idolization can come sometimes across as either excessively niche or obnoxiously elitist. As many elements of art tend to be, sakuga is prone to passionate discussions about a very subjective thing.

I find it useful to frame surrounding fan discourses by comparing them to other areas of art and entertainment. With sakuga, the question of its “true” value is actually quite reminiscent of an ongoing debate in another area of entertainment: pro wrestling. There, the buzzword is “workrate”–defined roughly as “the quality and difficulty of creating the illusion of a wrestling match.” Sound familiar?

While there are many styles and schools of wrestling, the origin of the workrate debate stems from the difference in style between the larger and historically more widely viewed promotions, most notably WWE, and the smaller indie promotions. Because many of the indies are filled younger wrestlers inspired by veterans touted for their often spectacle-heavy styles, indie wrestling has a reputation for being filled with athletes who want to showcase their skill as many difficult-to-execute or dangerous/dangerous-looking actions as possible, e.g. a Shooting Star Press off of a ladder, to entertain a hardcore wrestling audience. In contrast, the more traditional wrestling organizations tend to value storytelling over technical execution, in part due to the desire to avoid or mitigate injuries, but also because simpler moves surrounded by a narrative can be understood by a wider audience.

Whether in anime or in pro wrestling, an attack can have more significance when it carries meaning through context. The anime Digimon Tamers features a scene where a demonic Digimon named Beelzemon performs a move called “Fist of the Beast King.” On its own, it just looks like a cool but generic technique. However, it’s also a move used by a Digimon named Leomon Beelzemon had previously cruelly slain, and Beelzemon’s own usage of it is a product of his remorse over the pain he created in Leomon’s partner.

Similarly, when wrestler Kenny Omega performed a Golden Star Powerbomb, a Bloody Sunday, a Styles Clash, and a One-Winged Angel on his opponent to win the G-1 Climax tournament, he’s recalling his history as a wrestler the history of the Bullet Club faction he led at the time. Both it and the Beelzemon scene are examples of visual storytelling. However, when the topic becomes “what’s more important, the technical performance or the story being told,” and one ends up choosing a side, the tension between the two becomes more evident.

The anime Neon Genesis Evangelion is somewhat infamous for using severe animation shortcuts in certain scenes, notably long elevator sequences that involve a single frame of animation left onscreen with some ambient noise. In a way, it almost can’t be called animation, but it’s surprisingly effective for conveying a sense of interpersonal tension or awkwardness among the characters involved. For storytelling purposes it works, but to a sakuga fan, this is simply what they’re not looking for. They take pleasure in the difficulty involved in visual storytelling. They’ll often watch an anime they weren’t invested in, simply because of the quality of the animation.

In wrestling, Hulk Hogan is one of the biggest names in history. For most of his career, he’s utilized a very simple style consisting of basic striking moves and holds, but his ability to capture the audience through those simple gestures is arguably second to none. To workrate fans, however, they’d choose a technical masterpiece with little buildup or context over a Hogan match, because wrestling to them is about seeing what is possible.

There’s a certain purity to wanting to see art or performance for the sake of it, without needing an underlying narrative, and often involves a much deeper dive into a subject—the domain of the dedicated fan. There’s also a sort of “insider” appeal derived from using industry terms like sakuga and workrate. The ability to appreciate these technical and creative aspects of their respective fields is something to be valued. And yet, the fact that this appreciation is ultimately about valuing the human skill involved is precisely what makes prioritizing such things over storytelling a potential issue. The people working meticulously animating and doing the craziest wrestling moves are often doing so at the risk of their health, and finding an ideal balance between the two is better for longevity. That balance is not necessarily the fault of the people involved, as workplace conditions and salary go a long way, but the question of whether it’s better to be a sprinter or marathon runner in life arises nevertheless.

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Kaze ni Nare: Why “Irony” Doesn’t Explain Suzuku Minoru’s Entrance

I’ve been hooked on a certain song lately, called “Kaze ni Nare” by Nakamura Ayumi. The song describes the endless path of someone who fights to achieve their dream, who aims to fly into the storm like a bird and become the wind (kaze ni nare). It’s both inspiring and moving, conveying the idea that the path of a fighter is a lonely one.

It’s also the entrance theme of Suzuki Minoru, a legitimately tough-as-nails pro wrestler who’s been described to me as the Akuma of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Fans of Japanese wrestling love his theme, but on occasion you’ll find people confused as to why such a hardened fighter would come out to such a sorrowful tune. One article, while praising the song overall, even writes that the song is meant to be “ironic,” its incongruity a tactic to disorient opponents.

But irony is the last thing “Kaze ni Nare” is meant to convey, and that’s because the idea of a badass warrior being accompanied by forlorn, emotionally wraught theme music is familiar territory in Japan. Beyond pro wrestling, one need only look at anime for examples.

On a list of greatest action series ever, Fist of the North Star is always in the running. Its hero, Kenshiro, defends the innocent by pummeling ruthless thugs to death by using a legendary martial art. Kenshiro also cries at the plight of victims, and it’s in fact his ability to feel true sadness that allows him to unlock his school’s ultimate technique. Theme songs for Fist of the North Star include “Ai o Torimodose” (about the power of love) and “Heart of Darkness (about a melancholy journey of no return). In a similar vein, the final battle in the Street Fighter II anime between Ken, Ryu, and M. Bison (or Vega, if you prefer) is set to Itoshisa to Setsunasa to Kokorotsuyosa to, a soulful ballad that’s also the best selling anime-related song ever.

Granted, there is a major difference between Kenshiro and Suzuki: the former is a hero among heroes, while the latter is often considered the ultimate villain in his world. He’s a strong fighter, but also willing to cheat. In Fist of the North Star terms, Suzuki is like a cross between Raoh and Jagi, with a bit of Souther thrown in. But “Kaze ni Nare” doesn’t really talk about honor or respect; it’s about ambition and dreams, and even scoundrels can have those. In it, you have the power to fight, but also the sense of powerlessness that comes with an aspiration which stretches beyond human grasp. It fits Suzuki Minoru, not in spite of his ruthlessness, but because of it.

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Tiger Mask W and the Lack of Friendship Redemption Arcs in Pro Wrestling

WARNING: Tiger Mask W spoilers

My decision to watch the anime Tiger Mask W came during a time that I’ve been watching more pro wrestling than I have in more than a decade. As I’ve re-acclimated myself to that world of holds, slams, betrayals, and glory, it only makes sense that a wrestling anime would hook me. The fact that it’s a sequel to a beloved classic that tries to capture the feel of the original but projected through the lens of today made that doubly possible. Watching Tiger Mask W and its story of revenge and redemption, however, made me extremely aware of the fact that real pro wrestling has plenty of the former but little of the latter.

One of the main plot points of Tiger Mask W is the rivalry between Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark, two friends seeking vengeance on a common foe yet who aren’t aware of each other’s true identity. Eventually, they make amends and they grow stronger for it. This sort of narrative is incredibly common in anime and manga—think Naruto and Sasuke. In comparison, pro wrestling has backstabbing and teams imploding galore, but I can only think of very few cases where the reforging of bonds once broken actually seems planned in advance.

For example, over the past year, numerous duos in the world of the WWE have come apart when one character turns traitor. Kevin Owens attacked Chris Jericho during a celebration of their friendship. Tommaso Ciampa assaulted Johnny Gargano, ending the tag team DIY. Goldust hit R-Truth from behind, breaking up their alliance. Big Cass booted Enzo Amore in the face with disdain. All were and are meant to lead to feuds between former allies, the aftertaste of betrayal making them that much more bitter. Wrestling seems to be very much about building up teams only to tear them down and start an intense battle between the two, but actually bringing them back together is never part of the plan, at least not at first.

There’s always the chance that wrestlers will make amends. Perhaps one day Enzo will be fighting against the odds, when Cass runs out and saves him. After all, face turns (switches from evil to good) are part and parcel with the industry. But they’re not woven into the narrative from the start so much as something that’s done once a rivalry has run its course. They’re treated as two separate stories: the betrayal that occurs, and then later (if they really need it) the redemption and reunion.

But I want my “anime as hell” stories about a hero trying over and over to rescue a former friend from the darkness. I want face turns to come from realizing the errors of one’s ways. I want more Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark narratives. I don’t want the restoration of friendship to be an afterthought, but something actually planned as part of a greater arc.

Miss X in Tiger Mask W is Her Own Woman

Based on first appearances, Miss X from Tiger Mask W comes across as a generic femme fatale whose primary purpose is to look hot as she antagonizes the heroic Tiger Mask. However, the more I watch Tiger Mask W, the more I find her character fascinating. While she’s clearly positioned to oppose Tiger Mask, what stands out to me most about Miss X is that she’s a businesswoman first, and a villain second.

Throughout the anime, there are times where Tiger Mask’s appearance means trouble for Miss X and Global Wrestling Monopoly, and if there’s any reason to have Tiger Mask involved, it would be to make him into an example. But instead of going that route, Miss X always thinks about the profits and the reputation of GWM, and even if her wrestlers come out looking a little worse she’ll welcome anything that increases the prosperity of GWM.

Miss X’s perspective and approach stand in stark contrast to that of her boss, Mister X, the main antagonist of the original Tiger Mask series. In that series and even in Tiger Mask W, Mister X is more the type to conquer others and force them into submission through his cadre of specially trained heel wrestlers.

In many ways, she reminds me of Agnes Joubert, the producer of Hero TV in Tiger & Bunny. Above all else, Agnes cares about the success of her TV show, and it gives her a unique position to view all of the various events that happen in that series.

As a final note, I mentally call Miss X “Stephanie McMahon.” I imagine I’m not the only one.

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Tonight was the Night: The End of VGCW, Video Game Championship Wrestling

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016 marked the final episode of Video Game Championship Wrestling, and the end of one of the most bizarrely enjoyable spectacles I’ve ever known.

VGCW was a federation that used the WWE video games’ “Create a Wrestler” feature to fill its ranks with video game characters, celebrity gamers, and even Vegeta and Nappa from Dragon Ball Z. Pitting not human opponents but rather (often incompetent) computer-controlled wrestlers against each other, VGCW stood out amidst a universe of “Let’s Plays” and eSports titles in ways few other phenomena could. VGCW was the flagship show for the VGCW Network, which also includes a women’s federation and a developmental one.

One of the more fascinating aspects of VGCW was the fanbase that surrounded it. Viewers in Twitch chat would cheer on their favorite wrestlers, despite knowing full well that their rabid typing would not actually affect the routines and patterns of the AIs. While story threads presented by the creators of VGCW provided the stakes for many matches, what has been really the heart and soul of this whole concept of video game AI wrestling is the ability for the fans to willingly give meaning to the actions of these virtual marionettes who represent out favorite heroes and villains.

While the same could be said of actual pro wrestling, the difference is that audience interaction there tells the wrestlers if they’re doing well and if they need to change anything to keep the audience’s attention in a predetermined match. In VGCW, match results are unknown even by the creators.

I remember seeing Little Mac redeem himself by knocking out Dracula and throwing him in a casket. I recall Phoenix Wright returning from captivity to vanquish his alternate-dimension evil doppelganger (affectionately known as Phoenix Wrong), an achievement celebrated by having Fall Out Boy’s “Like a Phoenix” play over the end credits (see above). I enjoyed seeing the Gameshark force the wrestlers to leave WWE 2K14 and enter the N64 game WWE No Mercy. Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, wrestled and defeated Jesus, teamed with Deus Ex 2 hero Adam Jensen, became an all-powerful villain, and died. Scorpion from Mortal Kombat is arguably the greatest champion of all time with his record six title defenses.

For the recent finale, the championship match featured Ganondorf, the only triple crown winner in VGCW history, against perennial underdog Zubaz—a rejected Street Fighter design popularized by the Super Best Friends YouTube channel who became a playable character in the bare-bones fighting game Divekick. On top of that, they actually commissioned former WWE announcer Justin Roberts to announce the match. Calling VGCW a wild ride would be an understatement.

My personal connection to VGCW lied not just in the excitement it brought, but also in that it helped me deal with tension in my life. When I first started watching VGCW, I was still living in the Netherlands, and due to the pressure of trying to finish my dissertation I could sense that my nerves were constantly frazzled. Watching anime and reading manga was fun, but it wasn’t relaxing because consuming titles caused my brain to keep firing on all cylinders. During this time, I found that what soothed the cacophony inside my head was episodes of VGCW. It was, in a certain sense, my version of “healing anime” such as Aria.

I have to give a shout-out to the defunct multiplayer spinoff called “NWTOH,” which first featured a bizarre entrance for obscure Final Fantasy VI character Banon. A shining example of what one might call “anti-cinematography” due to the non-sequitur nature of its transitions, Banon’s entrance can make me laugh so hard that I can literally feel the stress leaving my body every time I watch it:

Although the main VGCW show is gone, it leaves with successors and descendants. All of the more recent episodes are on YouTube, and a little digging around can uncover older ones as well. Women’s Video Game Championship Wrestling (WVGCW) is gearing up for its own finale. Developmental show Extreme Dudebro Wrestling (EDBW) still has some life left in it, and might just step out of the shadow of VGCW now. Belmont Wrestling Alliance (BWA), which will be live tonight, recently made its return, and it has perhaps the most eccentric and eclectic roster of all.

To Bazza, TOH, and everyone who worked to make me and the other VGCW fans sports entertained, thank you.

 

The Secret Best Character: Kevin from Tiger Mask W

Pictured Right: The Best Guy

Both anime and pro wrestling are larger-than-life fantasy worlds, so it’s inevitable that a wrestling-themed anime like Tiger Mask W would be populated with big, bombastic personalities… some even based on real-world wrestlers! Among these characters, there’s one that at first seems easily forgettable, but as the show has progressed reveals himself to be the best man around: Kevin Anderson.

Kevin is a wrestler for the dastardly Global Wrestling Monopoly, the largest wrestling federation in the world and front for the Tiger’s Den, a clandestine organization that trains evil wrestlers. He does not have any appellations, like “Hitman,” or “the Ace,” or “Bigfoot.” With generic tights and a generic look, Kevin’s just Kevin. At best, he’s the guy always next to the GWM’s hot new wrestler, Tiger the Dark.

But it’s in the background where Kevin shines. Through thick and thin, Kevin rises to the occasion, especially when helping out Tiger the Dark. He knows he’s not quite as strong a wrestler, especially compared to the top echelon of GWM big-shots, but he’s loyal to this friends and will lend a hand in times of need. Over and over again, Tiger Mask W makes it seem like Kevin is just going to fade away into irrelevance as the other characters grow in power and intensity, but Kevin’s actually never far behind. When others look out for themselves, Kevin has an eye for the bigger picture.

In the anime and manga Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, there’s a scene where the characters are playing a dating sim and trying to genuinely find the right partner for the protagonist. As they go through all the girls, they find in every single one of them a deal breaker that makes them not good enough for their precious player character. Suddenly, it dawns on them: it’s the best friend, a guy who’s always there to help out, lend an ear, and even give a shoulder. Kevin is Dating Sim Best Friend.

Kevin Anderson is a seemingly milquetoast character who defies his own design. In doing so, he might just secretly be the greatest supporting character around.

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Tiger Mask W and the Significance of Global Wrestling Monopoly

In Tiger Mask W, a young wrestler dons the mask of the legendary Tiger Mask in order to fight against the villainous wrestlers of the Tiger’s Den. Most frequently, this involves taking on a wrestling company that exists as the outward-facing image of the Tiger’s Den, a thinly veiled World Wrestling Entertainment parody called “Global Wrestling Monopoly,” or GWM for short. The GWM is actually a brand-new creation for Tiger Mask W, something I personally found curious given how much having the most evil force in wrestling also be the largest and most popular. Why didn’t something like the GWM exist in the original Tiger Mask?

Upon reading the original Tiger Mask manga, I realized something: it would have been impossible to reference anything like the WWE. Tiger Mask first began in 1969 and ended in 1971, a time when there was no such thing as an international wrestling organization on the scale of what would become World Wrestling Entertainment.

In 1969, the promotion that would eventually become the World Wrestling Federation and later World Wrestling Entertainment was still known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation. At the head was Vincent James McMahon, father of current owner Vincent Kennedy McMahon, who ran the WWWF as just one of many territorial wrestling promotions in the US; in the WWWF’s case, it covered the Northeast, especially the New York area. During this time, Bruno Sammartino, one of the greatest WWE champions of all time (if not the greatest), was in the middle of his historic nine-year reign as WWWF champion.

Tiger Mask vs. “Classy” Freddie Blassie

Tiger Mask came from a time long before what many people today think of as wrestling. This was the era before Wrestlemania took the WWF national with Hulkamania, before Ric Flair’s battles with Ricky Steamboat and Dusty Rhodes. Naturally, it’s long before the eras of The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and John Cena. In addition to the Tiger’s Den wrestlers, Tiger Mask encounters real-world wrestlers of the time like all-time Japanese greats Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba. He wrestles against big names such as “Classy” Freddie Blassie (who would go on to train Triple H) and Angelo Poffo (father of “Macho Man” Randy Savage).

This is why the strategy used by the Tiger’s Den makes more sense for the period Tiger Mask came from. Unlike in Tiger Mask W, where they’re presented as employees of Global Wrestling Monopoly, the villainous secret organization would train heel wrestlers and send them around the world to various countries and territories in order to traumatize local wrestlers and take their money. Of course, in the world of Tiger Mask and Tiger Mask W, wrestling is 100% legitimate, so there’s no such thing as pre-planned matches or notions like kayfabe.

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