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[Blog Post Preview] A Tribute to Kosuke Takeuchi, Gong, and Various Maniax

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I have revived my plan to write a piece on From Milo to Misawa about Kosuke Takeuchi and the legacy of Gong magazine, which will be published on May 3, the tenth anniversary of his death. In the meantime, I have decided to publish the first part of the article, which essentially covers the Monthly era of the magazine while also revealing Takeuchi's legacy as an archivist. (I've picked a few alternate photos to make this version a little unique.)

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EARLY YEARS

1518020845_rikidozanazumafujiortegacaricature.thumb.JPG.1a6fe632bf288cdf8adcac1047bedc4c.JPGLeft: A caricature of the first match Kosuke Takeuchi saw, published in the second-ever issue of Monthly Puroresu.

It was on a summer night in 1955, on a street television in the Taito ward, that Kosuke Takeuchi first saw pro wrestling. Retired yokozuna Azumafuji was set to debut for Japan Pro Wrestling at the Kuramae Kokugikan.. His match would see him brutalized to a disqualification victory against Jess Ortega, before Rikidozan ran into the ring and fought off the Mexican Giant with his chops. In a microcosm of how Rikidozan’s myth fed off of his supersession of native martial arts, Takeuchi didn’t care about Azumafuji after that, but Rikidozan’s image was seared into his mind.

Takeuchi remained a loyal viewer through JPW’s first decline, trading the small street set for the TV inside a local yakisoba restaurant. As the promotion began its rebound, he would attend his first show. Mr. Atomic, a masked wrestler concocted by sales manager Hiroshi Iwata as a response to tokusatsu sensation Gekko Kamen, got two shots at Rikidozan’s International Heavyweight title in the summer of 1959. When Takeuchi learned that JPW’s show at the Denen Coliseum would admit children for just 50 yen, he bought a map and navigated to the Ota ward venue.

By high school, Takeuchi regularly attended shows at the Riki Sports Palace in Shinjuku, and had a chance encounter with Professional Wrestling & Boxing editor-in-chief Yukio Koyonagi. Koyonagi got in touch a few months later. Before he had even completed school, Takeuchi was hired as a photographer in 1965.

He quickly grew weary, as PWB was a stale product closer in its coverage to a newspaper than a magazine. He decided to apply for a position at Toyonobori’s new promotion, Tokyo Pro Wrestling, and came to the offices of parent company Baseball Magazine (BBM) to turn in his resignation. Koyonagi wanted to know why. When Takeuchi admitted that he was dissatisfied with their product, Koyonagi asked if he thought he could make it better, and when Kosuke answered in the affirmative, he promoted him on the spot. He would also become EIC of sister magazine Monthly Bodybuilding. However, neither man was long for their parent company. After BBM struggled with bankruptcy in 1967, Koyonagi jumped ship to help form Nihon Sports Publications. He then scouted Takeuchi, who quit his post to head a new magazine.

EARLY YEARS OF GONG

Gong debuted in March 1968. Like its competitor, Gong also covered genuine combat sports, although sister magazine Monthly Gong, debuting in 1969, exclusively featured wrestling. Takeuchi’s passion for graphic design would shine in Gong‘s vibrant covers, and the magazine would also be the first to feature color photography within its pages.

I cannot speak articulately about early Gong‘s textual content with relation to its competitor. Dave Meltzer’s Takeuchi obituary sums it up as the Japanese equivalent of a Stanley Weston magazine, relatively embellished compared to the Norman Keitzer-esque coverage of PWB and Monthly Puroresu (to which the former rebranded in 1972). However, as Fumi Saito has pointed out, puroresu journalists were printing the proverbial legend from the start; Hiroshi Tazuhama’s pioneering coverage was responsible for such embellishments as Rikidozan’s bar fight with Harold Sakata (after which the two had supposedly bonded and Sakata had gotten Rikidozan booked on the Torii Oasis Shriners Club tour). Even the handful of late-70s Monthly Puroresu issues that I own, which I have debound and scanned for selected transcription, contain novelized “Turning Point” columns written from wrestlers’ perspectives, although this may reflect the influence of early Gong.

Here is what I do know, mainly sourced from the recollections of Kagehiro Osano in a 2016 interview with Dropkick magazine. Tokyo Sports reporter Yasuo Sakurai made many contributions, although Osano doubts the veracity of his overseas match reports (“[I think] he was writing from the photographs”). The magazine connected fans to wrestlers with features ranging from the “My Privacy” column to reader-submitted questions. Gong also featured content by Shigeo Kado, the Tokyo Sports reporter-turned-JPW Commission secretary general. While his interests may have given his material the whiff of the party line, Kado also had an unusually strong “sense of exposé” for his time. Osano particularly recalls Shishi to Ryu (“The Lion and the Dragon”), a serialized feature about Baba and Inoki’s rivalry which would have been “disillusioning” for a child to read. Takeuchi himself claimed that his desire to produce content about Rikidōzan, which had been suppressed by the BBM higher-ups, would finally be satiated with Gong. If my aforementioned copies of Monthly Puroresu are anything to go by, such retrospective content became commonplace.

When one speaks about Gong, though, there is one wrestler that is central to its legacy, and I am perfectly equipped to speak on this.

AKUMA KAMEN

59022590_2032233136885384_1117823792073146368_n.jpg.74fc50f40cf718695fd9c0b54e0ea991.jpg 

In one of his final interviews, Takeuchi recalled that he wanted to find “a hero” for Gong: a vibrant wrestler through which he could capitalize on his industry’s shift towards color. He would find his man virtually immediately. Takeuchi first learned about Mil Máscaras from Sakurai. Máscaras had spent five years in the business and had already started his Mexican film career when he made his US debut that spring. He quickly became a sensation in Los Angeles. Tokyo Sports foreign correspondent Sakae Yoshimoto sent Gong photos of Máscaras, and a legend was born. (Meltzer claims the photography of Dan Westbrook was used, which may well be true, but Tsutomu Shimizu states that Yoshimoto shot the first Máscaras photographs in Gong.)

Over the next three years, Máscaras would appear in Gong nearly 50 times. It wasn’t just that he was a vibrant subject for color photography, though. Even if Máscaras’ style was relatively grounded, it was downright exotic to a fanbase whose notion of a Mexican wrestler would have been Jess Ortega. Just as 1968 was the year that the IWE’s relationship with George de Relwyskow Jr. brought British wrestling to Japan, it was the year that Máscaras coverage gave glimpses into the rich world of lucha.

In 1970, Takeuchi’s work to showcase Máscaras paid off. The IWE, emboldened by their new connection to the AWA, held a poll to scout interest in wrestlers who had not yet worked in Japan. Máscaras came in second place, with less than fifty votes between him and winner Spiros Arion. After months of sabotage and counteroffers, Máscaras and Arion would work for JPW in March 1971, where Mil received a disproportionate amount of attention, to Arion’s resentment. During his time in Japan, he visited Gong‘s offices.

Tsutomu Shimizu had been captivated by Máscaras since his first Gong appearance. The 14-year-old Tokyo native would not be able to see Mil’s Japanese debut on February 19, in which he defeated Kantaro Hoshino in Korakuen Hall. One week later, though, JPW ran Korakuen again, and Shimizu saw Mil go over the Great Kojika in the semi-main. Máscaras would work two more tours for Japan Pro Wrestling until their closure in 1973. That year, as Shimizu formed the fan club Akuma Kamen (Devil’s Mask), Takeuchi persistently requested that Giant Baba book Máscaras for All Japan Pro Wrestling. Baba’s general antipathy towards lucha talent would hardly thaw overnight, but Máscaras debuted for AJPW in the 1973 Giant Series. On October 9, the same night that Tomomi Tsuruta would become a star, Máscaras began his first great rivalry in Japan against another masked wrestler with history in Los Angeles: the Destroyer. Máscaras’ Japanese popularity waned in the mid-1970s, but Shimizu continued to run his club as he enrolled at Wako University in 1975, eventually renaming it El Amigo. Even this early, Takeuchi would support him by giving him interview opportunities.

el-amigo-7-8-78.jpg.10eb10a8d7051bf0e258bd2022014576.jpg

Shimizu stands second from left as El Amigo is featured on the show Good Morning in July 1978. On his right is future Universal Lucha Libre announcer Tera Hanbay.

1977 would begin Máscaras’ golden age in Japan. AJPW television director Susumu Umegaki was inspired to use Jigsaw’s “Sky High” as Máscaras’ entrance music. This wasn’t the first time that puroresu had used entrance music; the IWE’s television director had done so for Billy Graham in 1974, and Umegaki himself had experimented with music for Jumbo Tsuruta as far back as 1975. However, “Sky High” was where the trend took off, with a tie-in single racing up the charts; before the year had ended, AJPW had enough entrance music to release a compilation album, The Great Fighting.

The success of Umegaki’s experiment culminated on August 20, 1977. In the Denen Coliseum, where Takeuchi had seen Mr. Atomic many years before, Gong‘s “hero” challenged Tsuruta for his NWA United National title. Kosuke did his part by deploying the members of clubs such as Shimizu’s as cheer squads. When Máscaras returned in 1978, alongside his younger brother Dos Caras, Takeuchi began work as a guest commentator for his matches.

However, Takeuchi was not a partisan supporter of All Japan, as he also had an excellent relationship with NJPW sales manager and strategist Hisashi Shinma. Just a month before his first appearance at the All Japan commentary booth, Takeuchi had provided his services for their chief competitor. NJPW had convinced the IWE’s Ryuma Go to leave and work for them as a freelancer, as Shinma wanted to capitalize on Tatsumi Fujinami’s popularity by creating a junior heavyweight version of the Inoki vs. Strong Kobayashi matches of 1974. The likes of El Amigo, Ashura Hara club Wild Child, and New Japan fan club The Flame Fighters, headed by Kagehiro Osano, were assigned to cheer each man.

TAKEUCHI TAPES

“He was smart, rich, and had all the latest electronics. He had a new VCR and a new stereo.”

Kagehiro Osano

A large part of Takeuchi’s appeal to young superfans is now possibly his greatest legacy, hidden in plain sight, as puroresu’s earliest archivist. An early adopter of the VCR, Takeuchi extensively taped the television programs of his day. Over the decades, a substantial amount of this footage would circulate into trader circles. As official efforts to recirculate archival footage are inevitably compromised by their nature as low-effort filler for satellite stations, or the occasional DVD set, the Takeuchi Tapes have become our only sources for many significant matches, from Tokyo Sports’ 1978 Match of the Year (Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Harley Race) to numerous title defenses.

Consider how, despite the fact that Nippon Television aired JPW material for over fifteen years, almost all of that which circulates today is descended from eighteen hours of material collected in 1972. Consider that the full year of AJPW which aired prior to Tsuruta’s debut has been mercilessly slashed, quite likely forever, to the contents of two episodes from December 1972 and April 1973. Consider that only three matches from Antonio Inoki and Seiji Sakaguchi’s original run as NJPW’s top tag team circulate today (and that one of those, the August 1973 match in LA against Pat Patterson and Johnny Powers, isn’t available outside of an episode of Sky-A Classics). Consider how much of the IWE’s TBS run only survives in 8mm fragments. For as unremarkable and even tedious to modern eyes as the Takeuchi Tapes may reveal 70s puroresu to have often been, a survey of all we lost before should suffice to appreciate them.

Furthermore, a claim that Takeuchi possessed footage of the untelevised 1985 Real World Tag League match between the teams of Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu and Giant Baba & Dory Funk Jr. indicates that Kosuke’s archive extended to audience recordings and implies that he may have been a hub for the exchange of such material. To explain why I believe this, I need to move along.

1477597159_maniaxscreeningflyers.jpg.ab4c1325958119870a068897da2035d4.jpgAs the decade neared its end, Takeuchi organized a new fan club: the Maniax. In the beginning, there were four official members: Shimizu, Kiyonori Shishikura, Jimmy Suzuki, and Yusuke “Wally” Yamaguchi. Suzuki has referred to the Maniax as a “reserve force” for Gong, as they contributed to the magazine long before any were officially hired. With the exception of Beantank (Kotetsu Yamamoto) founder Masahiko Takasugi, who would become an IWE trainee, none of the superfans from this generation would enter the ring themselves, but several entered journalism. The Maniax also made and screened 8mm film recordings, which Shimizu has admitted they could never get away with now. (At right are invitations to the 1978 and 1979 screenings, which were given to Tera Hanbay.) It’s a damn good thing they did, though, as Takeuchi would supply some of this footage to an IWE box set in the mid-2000s, when television tapes could not be found or did not exist. Whether or not any of the people involved would admit it, I think it’s plausible that Takeuchi may have had some role in the proliferation of early fancams.

TAKEUCHI ENDS THE PULLOUT WAR

In December 1980, Takeuchi left Nihon Sports Publications and his editor-in-chief position to become an editorial advisor to Gong instead. He would be replaced by Shotaro Funaki, who had overseen its combat sports coverage. These two had long been the only contracted employees of Gong‘s editorial department, but in this decade that would change.

As the first generation of Maniax embarked on overseas training, not unlike the wrestlers they covered, the last great story of the Monthly Gong era unfolded.

1840262858_monthlygong1-82.thumb.jpg.4ff254614da55667fc44c0c34c1454cd.jpg1981 was the year of the “pullout war”. NJPW had fired the first shot, swiping Abdullah the Butcher, Dick Murdoch, and Tiger Toguchi (who would revert to his Korean name of Kim Duk) to coincide with the formation of the International Wrestling Grand Prix. AJPW had retaliated by taking Tiger Jeet Singh and Umanosuke Ueda, and Baba managed to secure a top-secret meeting with Stan Hansen, who had been NJPW’s top gaikokujin since the previous year. Hansen would continue to work with NJPW for the rest of 1981 while delaying his decision to renew his long-term deal, to Shinma’s exasperation. As was revealed in one of puroresu’s all-time great angles on December 13—in which Hansen accompanied Bruiser Brody and Jimmy Snuka to the RWTL final against the Funks, tipping the scales their way in a pivotal bit of interference—Hansen had indeed switched sides.

What made the cover of Gong that you see on the right so controversial? It would have to be produced before the angle actually happened. At some point, Terry Funk had confided in Yamaguchi that Hansen was coming. This information, if it were true, would have to remain in Takeuchi’s proverbial chamber until the last possible moment. If he tipped his hand, NJPW would surely move heaven and earth to keep one of their biggest stars, and his magazine’s relationship with Baba may have been tarnished. So, he waited, and waited, and he would be rewarded with the photograph you see. It was shot in New Orleans by overseas reporter Kiyoshi Ibaraki, and it led Takeuchi to surmise that AJPW was planning a Brody-Hansen team. Still, though, it wasn’t time, so Takeuchi hid the film in a drawer.

Finally, on December 10, Takeuchi decided it was time. He asked both Brody and Hansen for comment. Brody said that he “couldn’t give any details yet”, but that he believed they would be in the same promotion in the next year, while Hansen denied it, dismissing it as “just what Frank wanted”. Two days later, though, Hansen would make a shocking appearance at AJPW’s Yokosuka show, where he asked to talk with Frank and was escorted backstage by Joe Higuchi.

Gong hit the shelves on the 17th. The timing was perfect: *too* perfect, some believed. Monthly Puroresu published an interview with Seiji Sakaguchi in their February 1982 issue, which came out on January 14. Sakaguchi remarked that “one part of the media had secretly maneuvered about Hansen’s withdrawal”, as it appeared that Takeuchi had been in on the transfer, having managed to take a photo of the two together. He immediately met with Sakaguchi and explained that he had held onto the photo for months, but Gong‘s competitor maintained that they must have been in on it.

In order to clear his name, Takeuchi had to do something big. He offered to mediate a secret summit meeting between Baba, Inoki and Shinma, and they took him up on it. Baba and Inoki each had a Tokyo hotel in which they held press conferences and clandestine meetings. Baba’s was the Akasaka Prince Hotel, while Inoki’s was the Keio Plaza Hotel. This time, though, they booked a room at the Imperial Hotel. The three men hashed out an informal agreement to end the pullout war, and naturally, Gong got the exclusive scoop.

It may be the greatest vindication of Takeuchi’s cooperative approach as a wrestling journalist. Alas, puroresu journalism would move towards a much different path.

695573871_b-isummit1982.jpg.4e1d625687729284c1be91050031a9a3.jpg

The 1982 summit meeting.

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