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KinchStalker

2006 Kosuke Takeuchi interview

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This interview is from the now inactive official Japanese site for the film Rikidōzan, a 2004 Korean-Japanese co-production. I am guessing that it was conducted in early 2006. Ever since completing my Broken Crown series in December, I had been preparing a longform article about Takeuchi and the history and impact of Gong magazine. I have decided to shelve that piece, which I had planned to publish on the tenth anniversary of Takeuchi's death in May, because I am not confident that I could do the subject justice without direct interviews with ex-Gong journalists. I simply do not have the clout, the money, or the fluency to make that happen. I may cannibalize what I had written for content here, as I want my work in this forum to encompass puro journalism history. This interview was among the resources I had used.

Kosuke Takeuchi was the founder of Monthly Gong, the predecessor to Weekly Gong, and a well-known commentator for All Japan Pro Wrestling Live. He is also one of the most knowledgeable people in Japan about Rikidōzan. His encounter with Rikidōzan eventually led him to build a career as a professional wrestling reporter which has spanned more than 40 years. We asked Mr. Takeuchi to talk about his memories of Rikidōzan, his own relationship with professional wrestling, and the appeal of the movie "Rikidōzan" as seen through the eyes of a professional wrestler.

--First of all, please tell us about your first encounter with Rikidōzan.

The first time I saw Rikidōzan was on a street TV broadcast, and it was the first match when Ortega came to Japan in 1955. It was the debut match of the yokozuna Azumafuji, who had switched from sumo to pro wrestling. However, the yokozuna could not compete at all, and his performance was poor. Then Rikidōzan came out and challenged the huge Ortega with a karate chop, which had a tremendous impact. I thought, "Wow, Rikidōzan is strong!” After that, I didn't care about Azumafuji anymore; it was just the image of Rikidōzan that had been burned into my mind.

The first time I actually saw a match was in 1959. It was a match between Rikidōzan and a masked wrestler named Mr. Atomic. I had happened to see a flyer that said elementary and junior high school students could see the match for 50 yen, so I looked up a map and went to the Denen Coliseum.1

--Was he very popular among elementary and junior high school students in those days?

In our days, sumo wrestlers Tochinishiki and Wakanohana were in their prime, and they were popular at school. But the moment pro wrestling came in, the children's tastes changed. They used to wrestle in a circle in the schoolyard, but now they are all playing wrestling.

So, every Friday, we would go to the street TV to watch the matches. To tell you the truth, though, the screen was too small to see! So I would go to a nearby yakisoba shop that had a TV set, buy a ticket for noodles in the evening, and go watch the match when it started at 8pm. Eventually, though, I was the only one eating and watching the TV at the restaurant. When it was a big tournament, everyone was interested, but when it became a regular TV program, the venue was small, no big players came, and it was not popular.2 I felt that I was a little behind the times, but I still went to see the matches.

--What kind of impression did you have of Rikidōzan?

He did wrestling that was easy to understand, even for children. There was a foreign wrestler who was just bad, and at first he was beaten thoroughly. Then, at the last moment, he would explode with anger and defeat them with a karate chop. It's just like Gekko Kamen and other heroes. The way the monsters (laughs) come one after another is just like Rikidōzan’s monster slaying. That's why it's no wonder it's so popular with children.

However, now that I think about it more calmly, I realize that Rikidōzan was very good at some things. At some point, the TV broadcast started to end when he was in a pinch. The match would not end completely. This caused me a lot of frustration, and even as a child, I felt the need to buy a newspaper to find out the results. It was right around the time when evening sports papers came out, and the front and third pages always had articles about wrestling. At that time, the regular morning sports paper cost 10 yen, but the evening sports paper cost 5 yen, so you could read a lot of articles on wrestling for half the price. Still, for a child, even 5 yen was a waste. That's why I sometimes picked up the evening paper the next morning.

--What is Rikidōzan’s most famous fight for you?

In my memory, the only one I can remember seeing is the match with Destroyer. It was 1963, the year of Rikidōzan’s death. By that time, I had become more discerning about wrestling, but even so, Destroyer was nothing short of amazing. The match he had with Destroyer in May of that year was the best! I don't think there is a better match than that.

At that time, all masked wrestlers had black masks, but Destroyer was the only one with a white mask. This made him look very creepy. Also, the Destroyer had taken the belt from Fred Blassie in the U.S. the year before, so I thought he was stronger than Blassie. He was stronger than Blassie, and he used a technique I've never seen before, called the figure four hold. There were so many mysterious elements that I was excited even before I arrived.

On the day of the match, we were seated in the middle of the first floor. This was the first time we saw the "figure four" technique in action. It's not a rare technique now, but at that time, both [the Destroyer and Rikidōzan’s] legs went numb when he applied the technique, and the referee made them take off their ring shoes because we couldn't break free on our own. When you think about it, though, there was no need for that! It's not like taking off the ring shoes was going to solve the problem. But at the time, I thought that was a great idea (laughs).

--I wouldn't have thought of it now (laughs). I'd like to ask you a little bit about yourself, Mr. Takeuchi. After working as the editor-in-chief of Pro Wrestling & Boxing, you were involved in the launch of Monthly Gong.

There was a facility called the Riki Sports Palace that Rikidōzan had built in Shibuya, and every Friday they would hold a TV match there. It was rather inexpensive - I think it was 300 yen at the time - so I went there as long as I could afford it. One day, I happened to buy a copy of Pro Wrestling & Boxing at a store and was reading it on a bench when someone asked me if the magazine was interesting. I said something about it being interesting or boring, and [Yukio Koyonagi] pulled out his business card and said, "Actually, I'm the editor-in-chief." (laughs). We parted ways at that time, but a few months later, he contacted me and said, "We have a vacancy, are you interested in coming?" (laughs) People around me said, "You don't have any experience, so all you can do is fetch tea," but I decided to go because I liked the job. That was my start. I started working in the middle of high school, so I was 18 years old.

After working there for about a year, I decided I wanted to make my own magazine (laughs). I know it sounds cheeky, but I was getting frustrated with the way things were going. Just around that time, Tokyo Pro Wrestling had launched, so I decided to quit making magazines and apply for a job there, as they said they were hiring because they didn't have anyone yet (laughs). So I thought I had made my decision and turned in my resignation to the company, but then [Koyonagi] asked me what I was unhappy about. I told him, "The way the magazine is made now is not very interesting." He asked me if I could make it better, to which I replied, "I'd like to make it better.” He answered, "Then I'll make you editor-in-chief." Oh, that's a different story then (laughs), so I was made editor-in-chief at the tender age of 19.

--That's an amazing story (laughs).

(laughs) But I was still young and inexperienced in many ways. Then, when I was thinking about what to do next, Baseball Magazine, the company that published Pro Wrestling & Boxing, filed for bankruptcy. And the top people at the time [including Koyonagi] went independent and started Nihon Sports Publishing Co. When they decided to create a new magazine, they decided that wrestling was the one magazine that had no competition, so they asked me to join them again. That's how I ended up working on the first issue of Monthly Gong.

--What did you find unsatisfactory about the way the magazine was produced?

I was not able to cover the topic of Rikidōzan. Rikidōzan was the reason why I fell in love with professional wrestling. That's why I wanted to write about Rikidōzan, but he was already dead and there was nothing new to talk about, so they wouldn't cover him, and I was really frustrated. So as soon as I started Gong, I started doing a lot of special features on Rikidōzan (laughs). At that time, it had been about four or five years since Rikidōzan’s death, and the response was still good. There was a demand for it. At that time, I decided to collect all kinds of Rikidōzan photos and materials, and this is what I did most enthusiastically. Because Gong was first published in 1968, there was no material on Rikidōzan. In the end, I had to gather materials from existing newspapers and magazines, but I wanted to have a complete history of Rikidōzan, so I collected everything I could. Whenever I met someone related to Rikidōzan, if I found a good photo, I would ask them to give me one. Thanks to this, I think I accomplished my goal fairly well. I'm proud to say that I have the most photos in Japan.

--In fact, now that you have come into contact with Rikidōzan through your work, you have come to understand a side of him that you did not know when you were a child.

In the end, it's not so much about Rikidōzan, but about Mitsuhiro Momota, isn't it?

He was not the hero we knew. He was a human being, with a very strong ego. But even after knowing that, I can forgive Rikidōzan. I feel that is more like him than the well-behaved Rikidōzan, and I was not disappointed. The greatness and charm of his fights far outweighs that.

It is true that Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, and others have all gone on to create their own eras, but it is impossible to surpass Rikidōzan. First of all, Rikidōzan’s background was too different from theirs, and I don't know how such an ideal wrestler could have existed in that era in terms of body shape and mood. I also have the impression that he suddenly disappeared from the scene as a superstar. And since he met such a tragic end, he's more of a legend than a superstar.

--This is a little off the topic of Rikidōzan, but speaking of Gong, you covered Mil Mascaras quite a bit, didn't you? I heard that you yourself are quite a fan.

Yes! (laughs). At that time, I wanted a hero for the magazine. For example, there was a movie magazine called Roadshow that sold like hotcakes after Burning Dragon became a hit, which featured Bruce Lee. Magazines were just starting to shift from black and white to color, and I was looking for a new hero to match this trend. It wasn't Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, or even Rikidōzan anymore.

It was then that I noticed that there was a guy in Los Angeles who changed his mask every game. Since there is usually only one type of mask, the fact that he changed his mask every match brought to mind the image of a seven-colored mask or a man with seven faces. Now I had to gather materials for Mascaras (laughs). There were almost no such materials in Japan, so I went around to all the news agencies, looked at all the negatives, and bought up all the pictures that had Mascaras in them. I also asked the local photographers to send me just the Mascaras photos for the time being. I felt like I had to go all the way (laughs). In the end, thanks to my three years of following Mascaras, when he first came to Japan, there was already a boom.

--You also did commentary for All Japan Pro Wrestling and other matches, didn't you?

That's because, when Mascaras came to Japan, the producer of the show asked me to be the commentator for Mascaras. There were already two professional commentators, so I was sent to Mascaras' match.3 In that sense, I can say that I've benefited from everything I've done up to that point (laughs).

By the way, speaking of Mascaras, there was that theme song, "Sky High" by Jigsaw, wasn't there? The director [Susumu Umegaki] happened to select it as the background music for the trailer of the TV show: "Mascaras will be appearing next week." It certainly fit the image of the show, and the response was great, so they decided to play it at the venue when he came. This was a time when even the WWF (now WWE) did not have theme songs. So they played it once during Mascaras' entrance, and it exploded (laughs). That started the "Sky High" boom.4

--That's an anecdote that gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of history (laughs). Back to the topic at hand, what are your impressions of the movie Rikidōzan?

Before seeing the movie, I didn't have high expectations, to tell you the truth. I thought it would be impossible for a Korean star to play Rikidōzan, and I didn't think the actors could play Rikidōzan. I also thought that it would be just a superhero story, or that it would end up being a pretty story. However, when I actually saw the movie, I felt that it was so different from what I had expected. I thought it was amazing that they were able to capture the essence of Rikidōzan so well.

First of all, the actors are all wonderful. They were all in the right place at the right time. Especially Seol Gyeong-gu, who played Rikidōzan, I felt that he was the only one who could do it. He had to perform all the movements in the ring, and from our point of view, there was no unnaturalness in the matches. I can only say that it was amazing that they were able to clear this most difficult part. Also, there was no waste in the selection of episodes, and even though Rikidōzan was the subject of the film, the good times and good scenes were covered properly. The historical research was also very well done. It made me wonder what kind of knowledgeable person wrote the screenplay. It is true that there are some aspects of the story that people who like Rikidōzan may not accept, and I think there are pros and cons. But on the other hand, I want people to know that this was also Rikidōzan. I want people to see this film because it's a film for this day and age. I want people to feel the character of the hero Rikidōzan, or rather, his “hungry” spirit, which the people of today do not have.

--Thank you very much. By the way, I heard that you are currently preparing a book about Rikidōzan.

I'm working on a book about Rikidōzan and the alleged fight against Masahiko Kimura. The main title of the book will be "Which one was betrayed?” After all, the most scandalous and mysterious of all Rikidōzan’s matches is the Rikidōzan-Kimura match, which took place at the Kuramae Kokugikan on December 22, 1954. Rikidōzan won the match, but even now, 51 years later, there are still many things we don't know. It was a match that all the reporters and writers who had covered pro wrestling were interested in, but could not come to a conclusion about. That's why I really wanted to try my hand at it and come to my own conclusions about what this match was all about, what happened in the end, and who betrayed who. I started researching about three years ago, and I'm about halfway through writing it now. I have all the materials, so I'm taking my time and not rushing.5

--I am looking forward to its completion. Thank you very much for your time today.

FOOTNOTES

1. Mr. Atomic was a gimmick created for Clyde Steeves by sales manager Hiroshi Iwata. The previous year, Gekko Kamen had started the tokusatsu television program, and Iwata wanted to create a villain who tapped into that niche.

2. Takeuchi is referring to Puroresu Fight Man Hour, the JWA’s first attempt at a weekly television program. This program was taped at the Japan Pro Wrestling Center/Rikidōzan Dojo, rarely featured foreign talent, and often saw Rikidōzan work as a commentator or referee instead of wrestle. It would be terminated in March 1958, as Rikidōzan fled the country to evade investigation into his use of black market money to hire American wrestlers.

3. Takeuchi was made a special commentator for Mascaras starting in 1978.

4. So intertwined was Mascaras with Takeuchi that “Sky High” would be played at his funeral.

5. Takeuchi would never finish the book. In the fall of 2006, he suffered a massive stroke during his morning commute which would leave him bedridden and unable to speak until his 2012 death. Toshinari Masuda would publish the 700-page bestseller Why Didn’t Masahiko Kimura Kill Rikidōzan? in 2011, but that book was a biography of Kimura.

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Indeed he was.

I really ought to give that piece another chance. My decision to shelve it was primarily based on my inability to explain the differences between Gong and its competitors on a textual level, beyond just the "they were the Stanley Weston to Monthly Puroresu's Norman Keitzer" in Meltzer's obit. Furthermore, I felt that I needed to talk to actual puroresu journalists before I wrote my impression that Yoshihiro Inoue/Weekly Fight's influence didn't just seep into Weekly Pro (the "print wrestling" that was associated with the Tarzan era started with Inoue, and Tarzan acknowledges that). but Weekly Gong as well. (Katsuhiko Kanezawa was ex-Weekly Fight just like Tarzan, and Kanezawa apparently editorialized a fair bit himself during his editor-in-chief tenure, for instance in response to the 1/4/99 Hashimoto/Ogawa match.)

But even if I can't do justice to the totality of the subject...I have to write *something*. Takeuchi is too important to be so obscure in the West.

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