Cult of Kokeshi: The Popularity of Tomoaki Honma

Added by Senor LARIATO

There are quite a few misfits in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The bizarre ‘Funky Weapon’ Ryusuke Taguchi, the entirely inept Captain New Japan, the portly and mischievous ‘Sublime Master Thief’ Toru Yano. But while Tomoaki Honma is like none of these wrestlers, he is still a misfit in professional wrestling. A perennial underdog who has struggled to gain acceptance throughout his career, who the fans love to see fail almost as much as they want to see him succeed and who now finds himself as one of the most popular members of the New Japan roster, as unlikely as that may have once seemed. Tomoaki Honma’s training began in 1996 under the tutelage of the legendary Animal Hamaguchi. After failing to qualify for the New Japan Dojo, Hamaguchi secured Honma a place with Big Japan Pro-Wrestling and he made his professional début in May of 1997.

By the following year he was one of the promotion’s rising stars, aligning himself with ‘Mr. BJW’ Ryuichi Yamakawa & Shadow WX as the New Generation of Big Japan’s notoriously violent deathmatch wrestling scene. Eventually he turned his sights towards the BJW Deathmatch Heavyweight Title, which put him in direct competition with his former allies. The resulting matches were some of the most brutal and memorable during that era, but in spite of performances that left the fans in no doubt as to Honma’s star power, he still struggled to pull ahead of the pack. He was developing a reputation for his innovative usage of light-tubes in his matches and his body was showing the effects, but all the blood and scar tissue paid off when Honma finally captured the BJW Deathmatch title, defeating Ryuichi Yamakawa in the first-round of the 2000 BJW Grand Prix to become the new champion Deathmatch Heavyweight Champion.

Although he went on to hold the title for over a hundred days, the list of competitive opponents was dwindling. Yamakawa was suffering with long-standing back injuries, while Shadow WX actively managed to avoid any and all situations where he’d have to lose to Honma. But that changed in mid-2000 when American deathmatch promotion Combat Zone Wrestling invaded Big Japan and Honma became embroiled in a feud with the promotion’s owner and top star, ‘The UltraViolent Icon’ John Zandig. Their matches together were the epitome of deathmatch wrestling at its craziest and most reckless, but Honma was on the losing end of things more often than not and in July of 2000 Honma lost the title to Zandig. He recaptured the belt that November, but with injuries mounting and feeling a growing disatisfaction with deathmatches and his standing within Big Japan Pro-Wrestling, Honma abandoned the title, quit BJW and became a freelance westler.

After working for a variety on indies Honma wound up in All Japan Pro-Wrestling, serving as a second for Keiji Mutoh for much of his first year with the promotion. He formed the tag team Turmeric Storm with Kazushi Miyamoto, but it was to be short lived as they were forced to split up after failing to win a single match in a six-match trial series in 2004. Honma’s early years in AJPW were marked by an inability to win big matches and it became something of a running joke with the fans. That, combined with Honma’s deep, gravelly voice (due to crushed vocal chords from an errant lariat to the neck during the early years of his career), was the beginning of his underdog popularity with the audience, but it was ultimately his work ethic rooted in a desire to prove he was more than just a deathmatch wrestler that really cemented the strength of his character in the audience’s eyes.

Honma was sidelined in late 2005 with a serious neck injury and although he returned to action in March of 2006 he was soon released by AJPW, having failed to force his way out of the undercard. Following a brief stint in ZERO-1 and other indie promotions, Honma signed a contract with New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2007 after impressing Togi Makabe on an NJPW LOCK UP student show. He joined Makabe’s Great Bash Heel stable and, although singles success was hard for him to come by, being Makabe’s preferred tag team partner afforded Honma better spots on the card and more exposure to the Japanese wrestling audience. When Toru Yano betrayed Makabe and left G.B.H. to help form CHAOS with Makabe’s arch-enemy, Shinsuke Nakamua, Honma repaid Makabe’s faith in him by sticking behind the G.B.H. leader, although after Yano’s departure (taking six other wrestlers with him) the stable consisted of just two members.

While a diving headbutt had been a staple of Honma’s move-set since his BJW days, it was around this time that he began adopting the mannerisms of Kokeshi figurines at the insistence of Makabe. Kokeshi literally translates to ‘limbless wooden doll’ and the large headed figurines with smiling faces are given as tokens of friendship. Makabe apparently overhead a child in the audience say Honma looked like a Kokeshi and from there the move was born and has since become the most popular aspect of Honma’s act. It has added meaning for him, as Kokeshi dolls are often associated with the Yamagata prefecture he calls home, but the Kokeshi hasn’t really helped Honma to greater success and often sees him land flat on his face (in last year’s G1, for instance, he hit just 17 out of an attempted 38 Kokeshi variants, losing all 10 of his tournament matches in the process). That does nothing to diminish the crowd’s love of chanting for the Kokeshi, however, nor their hope as they collectively try to will Honma on to greater success.

The crowd’s growing appreciation of Honma has led to greater opportunities for him as he competed in the G1 Tag League with Makabe on five occasions, as well as earning his first New Japan title shot when he challenged Masato Tanaka for the IWGP Intercontinental title in a fantastic match from late 2011. He’s since gone on to challenge for the NEVER Openweight Title three times, as well as competing in the 2013 G1 Climax Tournament as a stand-in for the injured Kota Ibushi. This year, however, he’s earned a place in the G1 proper and will compete with nineteen other wrestlers for the chance to main event at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in the Tokyo Dome on January 4th, 2016. The likelihood of Honma winning the tournament and going to Wrestle Kingdom is admittedly rather slim, but that won’t stop his Honmaniacs cheering for him over the promotion’s biggest stars, chanting wildly for the Kokeshi and anticipating the moment when the move hits, Honma rolls his opponent up for the 1-2-3 and finally he gets his moment to shine.

Honma’s popularity is obviously down to a number of factors. He’s a charismatic, skilful wrestler who can effortlessly entertain the crowd, be it with his crushed vocal chords (which have earned him a number of TV appearances in the past year), his unwavering insistence on using a move that fails more often than it succeeds or his deceptive in-ring ability that sees him equally at home in a fast-paced sprint as it does in a strongstyle slugfest. The biggest factor, however, is that we all love an underdog story. There’s nothing better than seeing the overlooked and unlikely rise up and succeed against the odds, it speaks to all of us on a personal level to some degree and that’s what Honma does so well. He captures the underdog spirit, as a wrestler with all the tools who doesn’t necessarily always make the right choices, but tries his hardest to seek his redemption, his one big win that will prove, once and for all, that Tomoaki Honma is more than a deathmatch wrestler.

You can follow Honma’s progress in this year’s G1 Climax by signing up to NJPW World; for just ¥999 a month (£5.20/€7.20/$8.08). The tournament begins on July 20th and runs until August 16th and all nineteen events will be streamed on NJPW World.

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