Antonio Inoki vs Masa Saito
Ganryujima Island Deathmatch
// cw: blood //
Big (in)famous match. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Purportedly the whole thing was over two hours long but as far as I’m aware the only footage released of the match came in the form of a heavily-edited hour-long home video release, which is what I’ve got here.
Interesting little tidbit here with the first shot of the video:
You’ll notice the text reads ‘62’ and not ‘87’ and that’s because they’re only counting the years of the Shōwa era of Japan. Note the 昭和 kanji there, referring to the name of the period. Beginning in 1926 CE and ending in 1989 CE, the Shōwa era was the era of Japanese history preceding the Heisei era, which ended only a few days ago as of this writing. I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve seen puroresu footage documented this way.
As for the match itself, I sort of like it. There’s a lot of good reasons not to, for sure, but in approaching the match on its own terms I found that there’s an appealing idea at the core, a potential that is occasionally achieved throughout this two hour runtime.
Like, think of it this way. You’ve got Masa Saito, a big bear of a man who can also go on the mat and is damn good at selling. You’ve got Antonio Inoki, the master of carny spectacle if there ever was one. You’ve got a hot feud that has been doing gangbusters at the box office. You’ve got a “jungle” island with lots of controversial thematic history. Throw ‘em all together and you’ve got the makings of a wild, unique match.
Instead what we get is a lot of this:
Two dudes laying in the grass for lengthy, lengthy stretches of time. You’ll probably notice two things right off the bat: the state of this footage and the state of this audio. TV Asahi was here to film this match for release the next day. For some reason their crews are dozens and dozens of meters away from the action, situated on the ground, on raised platforms, and in a roaming helicopter. Sometimes the effect of these shaky, long range shots is interesting, as it lends a voyeuristic or documentary feel to the footage. Far more often, though, it’s visually boring or actively obscuring information about what’s going on in the match currently. In that clip, for instance, it’s impossible to tell what sort of hold Saito has on and sometimes it’s hard to tell that he’s even the one applying a move. Making matters worse is the sound. Good wrestling is just as sonically pleasing as it is visually but here we get almost next to no audio of the action itself since it’s completely overwhelmed by the chopper hovering above. If the lethargic wrestling doesn’t put you to sleep the droning of those blades might do the trick.
Because of these issues, as well as the obvious lack of a crowd, this match is fairly heatless. Any number of empty arena matches have shown that you don’t need an audience to make for good wrestling and on some level the same is true for wrestling that is hard to see and/or hear. The difference between this match and any number of Carlos Colon brawls filmed on a potato is that Colon and co. are doing exciting, energetic things and these two guys aren’t. So much of this match feels like guys just killing time instead of trying to win, trying to maim or defeat the other, and that fact saps this match of anything approaching life. Hard to get invested in the outcome of a match when everyone’s actively avoiding one.
So what, then, do I like about this match? I guess you’d call it a sort of accidental artistry.
This match was scheduled to start at dawn and due to the presence of these bonfires it seems likely that they intended to wrestle into the night. In any case this is an ambitious thing, devoid of rules or traditional match structure. It’s more like ancient pankration or something even more primitive than your average 21st century wrestling match and I think there’s something appealing in that. These guys aren’t doing hyperchoreographed spots. They’re wrenching at each other’s limbs; they’re pushing each other into open flames; they’re punching each other square in the face. They’re just fighting until one of them can’t get up and that kinda rules.
By the end both men are staggering around, crazed and dazed, drenched in a mixture of sweat and blood.
That, more than the sort of high school-level acting you see a lot in wrestling these days, is what makes a match consequential to me. Looking at the two of them there, it appears as if they’ve gone through a war. Sadly, actually watching that supposed war isn’t all that gripping outside of a few scattered moments. Often it doesn’t seem like they’re trying to have a war at all. Often it just feels like a lazy stunt.
And hey, that’s exactly what this is. 1987 was a big year for New Japan. Despite how much money the return of Saito and Riki Choshu was bringing in at the gate, the company struggled in Japan’s competitive primetime television market. Footage of this ordeal was packed into a two-hour TV special along with Choshu’s first televised match in months, in a pretty obvious gamble to raise ratings. (It didn’t after all, which is what leads to New Japan bringing in Vader and losing their primetime slot, Sumo Hall, and the UWF guys by the beginning of ‘88.)
However I don’t think it being an obvious stunt negates this match of what quality it has. A lot of the best wrestling in the world is little more than stunts being pulled, angles being executed. To be fair a lot of the worst wrestling is like that too. What are Chris Jericho’s supposed five star New Japan matches other than lazier versions of this? Speaking to that point, I don’t think this is anything close to the worst match of all time either. To me, the worst matches actively offend sensibilities of taste and reason and this match is anything but active. This match is just boring, occasionally brushing up against the ambition that set it in motion in the first place. At worst I think that’s worth a cursory glance and a few yawns, not decades of unwarranted derision.