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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 25-31, PART TWO [THE FALL OF TARZAN YAMAMOTO]

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(2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 25-31, PART TWO

(THE FALL OF TARZAN YAMAMOTO)

A 1995 episode of TV Tokyo docuseries Navigator profiles Tarzan Yamamoto.

However mixed the response had been to Takashi “Tarzan” Yamamoto’s promo segment with Shinya Hashimoto at the end of the Bridge of Dreams show, his public profile had not diminished. His appearances ranged from a weekly column of horse-racing predictions to his weekly radio show, and even a variety show appearance. While the character itself was not based on Yamamoto, the fact that the protagonist of Fuji TV drama Itsuka Mata Aeru (played by Masaharu Fukuyama) was a magazine editor reflected Tarzan’s influence in popular culture…especially since Fuji’s production staff had visited Weekly Pro’s office for research.

On February 9, 1996, Weekly Pro received a notice from WAR. Signed by director Masatomo Takei, the letter stated that it would freeze coverage from the publication. It read that the boycott was not so much against the publication as it was against its EIC, Yamamoto. “There are so many reasons for our decision that it is difficult to specify, but I can say that we decided to do this in order to create a stir in the development of WAR and the wrestling world.” WAR had initially inherited SWS’s Weekly Pro ban, but had lifted it in January 1993. The next two years saw friendly relations between promotion and publication, with Tarzan even getting an interview with Tenryu. However, the relationship had deteriorated as talks concerning WAR’s participation in the Bridge of Dreams show broke down, something which I have already covered. Until this point, though, the reporter on the WAR beat continued to produce match reports and attend press conferences without issue.

On March 16, another letter came in. 

NJPW had followed WAR’s lead.

As Ichinose recalls, this had been rumored for a week. A few days earlier, a fan wrote in asking if Weekly Pro was going to be banned. As this fan had learned, New Japan had sent contracts to local promoters to secure their loyalty. In these contracts, they stated they would soon boycott the publication, and asked the promoters to keep in line with them even if they had personal connections to Yamamoto and the staff. Furthermore, an unnamed member of NJPW’s front office had called the office in December to let them know that NJPW, UWFi, and WAR were planning to join forces in a three-pronged boycott.

While the letter bore NJPW president Seiji Sakaguchi’s name, Yamamoto was convinced that its true author was Riki Choshu, who is quoted as having once publicly stated that “Yamamoto should not be in this world.” 

Tarzan would strike back in a series of issues. In one, he claimed that the conflict between him and Choshu stemmed from Choshu’s disdain for mixed martial arts. Yamamoto expressed disappointment that Choshu had banned NJPW talent from pursuing the sport on the side, as it flew against the Inokian ideals of yore. (Note that, if comments Ichinose made a little earlier in the book are to be believed, Yamamoto had also played a role in building up the mystique of the UWFi. If so, he was not only complicit in shoot-style’s successful working of the Japanese fanbase, but like his editorial predecessor Hideo Sugiyama with the original UWF, he was a knowing component of it.) Choshu had fiercely opposed Weekly Pro’s discussion of K-1 in a September issue, but now, the magazine had no choice but to also cover MMA. On the April 9 issue’s cover, Tarzan asked Inoki what he thought of NJPW’s refusal to grant interviews, while the issue itself contained an interview with K-1’s Kazuyoshi Ishii.

It was the April 16 issue, though, where Tarzan really bared his fangs. In an editorial, he wrote that for all the supposed depth of New Japan’s roster, it had declined into character-based wrestling. The likes of Chono and Tenzan worked “obvious” matches, and even Choshu’s work had declined. Furthermore, younger talent such as Satoshi Kojima had done nothing *but* character wrestling. The thrust of Yamamoto’s critique was that, once a character had been established, a wrestler did not have to concern himself with the content of his matches. This was the difference between New Japan and All Japan. While AJPW had to win provincial audiences over with substantial matches, NJPW was content to provide nothing more than character-based “local entertainment”. The headline of this piece read that New Japan was thus “cutting corners” in their provincial shows.

As Weekly Pro’s NJPW reporter, Masayuki Sato, has claimed, the roster was not united behind Choshu’s opposition to Yamamoto at first…even if Chono had grilled Sato for working for “Yamamoto Weekly” in March. But Tarzan’s response to the letter had cost him any sympathizers he may have had in that locker room. Ichinose believes that his magazine’s response might not have been so caustic had deputy editor Kiyonori Shishikura, who I have previously cited as a tempering influence on the publication, not been hospitalized at the time.

Anyway, Ichinose was actually confident that Weekly Pro would triumph. While they had been on a slight downward trend, they were still selling over 200,000 issues a week. Neither the AJPW/JPW boycott of 1986 nor the SWS ban had sunk the magazine, so they thought they could weather the storm. NJPW was a little worried too. World Pro Wrestling commentator Katsuhiko Kanazawa, who was hired through Weekly Gong, is quoted recalling that Katsuji Nagashima, NJPW director and right-hand man to Choshu, had asked him to keep him posted on Weekly Pro’s circulation figures. Kanazawa recalls that Gong were worrying about their own sales at the time, and while EIC Kagehiro Osano resolved to cover New Japan fairly without special treatment from Nagashima, Kanazawa was inspired to produce a studio special with Keiji Mutoh and Kensuke Sasaki, being interviewed in character as the Great Muta and Power Warrior. That issue sold very well, and in the coming months, Gong would finally surge ahead of Weekly Pro. Meanwhile, Koji Kitao’s Takeki Dojo banned Weekly Pro in early April. Finally, UWFi gave a notice of its own in late April, having been savvy enough to hold off on banning them just long enough for Weekly Pro to run their ads for the April 29 Tokyo Dome show.

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Above: the author of this very book oversaw the bold, text-based special issue covering NJPW Battle Formation on April 29, 1996.

For the only time in his career, Ichinose would be in charge of a full issue of Weekly Pro: the special issue covering that very event. Having no photographic access to the show, Ichinose conceived a bold, fully text-based issue. His fellow reporters and freelance affiliates all signed on, with each covering one match on the card. The Great Muta/Power Warrior match even saw writers Ken Suzuki and Kazuhiro Kojima write pieces from the perspectives of each character. Yamamoto did not attend the show, but wrote about his own thoughts as he sat outside the Tokyo Dome that night. Shishikura had not fully recovered, but he came through to proofread the issue.

As Ichinose puts it, the Battle Formation special issue was the last hurrah of the Yamamoto era. It sold over 50,000 copies, which was considered a success to some extent. But it hardly damaged New Japan.

While Weekly Pro managed to keep their sales about 100,000, the blow was severe. Yamamoto admitted defeat, as the June 11 issue featured an apology for the April 16 editorial on its front page. With the July 23 issue, Tarzan resigned. After this, Yamamoto phased out of his role as a creative consultant for Baba, although their relations were still good.

The bans were all lifted, and New Japan was quick enough to allow them access in time to cover the G1 Climax. Weekly Pro’s sales would recover enough to take their place above Gong, but they would never sell over 200,000 copies of an issue again.

As this is the last time Yamamoto figures into this story, I think he deserves a few words. Ichinose appears to have remained friendly with him over the years, and clearly maintains a respect for his maverick nature. But not everything Ichinose reveals is flattering. 

The magazine had hired female writers before, but the Yamamoto era featured an all-male staff. Women were not even hired for freelance work, with many applications rejected because Tarzan thought that “it would upset the magnetic field”. (I would make a Susan Anway-era Magnetic Fields joke had she not recently passed.) Ichinose recalls that, for a period, he dated a woman who he had met on the 1991 Misawa cruise, but took great care not to reveal this or “his flirtatious side” in general to his boss. 

The boys club era of Weekly Pro had certainly overstayed its welcome by 1996, and this information seems to contextualize an incident Ichinose mentioned earlier in the book, in which he caught heat for encouraging Cuty Suzuki and Mayumi Ozaki to remove their bras and cup their breasts in their hands for a Saipan photoshoot in 1993. Ichinose recalls that the women, who had already done gravure work at this point, raised no objection to his request. But it still feels like a call better made by a female photographer, and one totally understands why JWP may have reacted as they did, especially if they have context on Weekly Pro’s all-male makeup.

Yamamoto even used his power once to take a job opportunity from Ichinose. Ichinose was hired to do commentary work for WOWOW’s JWP program, but when he wrote in Weekly Pro that these commitments would not allow him to personally cover every event in the 1993 RWTL, Tarzan forced him to quit. Ichinose’s dad had bought a WOWOW subscription just to hear his son, and it was so quickly snuffed out.

But whatever one thinks of him, Tarzan himself was one of Heisei puroresu’s most interesting characters. For better or worse, he should be better known among Western fans.

 

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