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Q&A with Unagi Sayaka, on freedom in wrestling and going abroad

9 months ago

Q&A with Unagi Sayaka, on freedom in wrestling and going abroad

Interview: Thom Fain, translation by Nobby Hashizume
Introduction: James Carlin
Photography: Masahiro Kubota

Unagi Sayaka is an instantly recognizable character. She has strong vibrant colors matching her kabukimono style and a wide ranging set of moves that allowed her to capture singles and trios team gold during her time with Stardom.

As one third of the Artist of Stardom champions, Sayaka and her partners Mina Shirakawa and Tam Nakano successfully became the longest reigning trios champions in the company’s history since the title’s establishment in December 2012.

Whilst Cosmic Angels was going through turmoil, the Kabukimono made the decision to go freelance, and Shirakawa’s introduction of her new group Club Venus led to the end of her and Sayaka’s tag team, Pink Kabuki, and the end of the original trio of Cosmic Angels altogether as the now-freelance Unagi looked to travel the world.

Sayaka would start appearing in Japanese companies such Marvelous, Sendai Girls, ZERO-1 and JTO before the opportunity came to travel to the United States as part of West Coast Pro.

Just before she embarked on her exciting new journey to the United States, Unagi Sayaka spoke to Monthly Puroresu about what it’s like to be a freelancer after working for the biggest women’s wrestling organizations, and her ambitions for the future.

Monthly Puroresu:
About the decision to explore creative freedom – I know you told Mr. HAKU that about every four years, you go through a reinvention. Can you tell us what inspired you for this new chapter, and your freedom in wrestling?

Unagi Sayaka:
When I decided to strike out on my own, I had just gone through the Five Star Grand Prix in 2022. And I beat only two out of 12 wrestlers, and it was a pretty tough situation. I really didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped! That’s when I really tapped into my Kabukimono spirit, and thought about my future.

Monthly Puroresu:
I can see that, for sure.

Unagi Sayaka:
Now, I’m more of a free-spirited competitor! Studying last October’s results, I figured that I would have to go to that next level. And, you know, in order to do that, I would have to change my philosophy of competition, and make it truer to my spirit.

Monthly Puroresu:
And, we think about this concept of freedom. When you talked to Mr. Haku earlier this year, you said the USA is where you want to go and wrestle. I wanted to ask, what about America appeals to you – and if you’re going to show a new side of yourself to the fans in America?

Unagi Sayaka:
So the US scene, as far as the professional wrestling is concerned, it’s the top of the world!

Monthly Puroresu:
You seemed frustrated by losing matches in STARDOM, sort of in the shadows of the other Cosmic Angels. Do you think you can be more yourself – and compete at a higher level, with the freedom you have to go around the United States on the independent circuit?

Unagi Sayaka:
So competing as the Kabukimono – obviously, you know – I had some frustrations against the Cosmic Angels. There have been some unfortunate situations between myself and the Cosmic Angels. But, when it comes to the bottom line? I need to be me, and I want to prove to everyone what I bring to the world of joshi puroresu. And in order for me to do that I have to follow the path I chose to the fullest! And that means coming to the US and competing in the US scene, and showing everyone in the ring that I can be myself as the Kabukimono. And I want to show my fans around the world that this idea of coming to the US was the right choice, and the only way to prove that is to be myself and be the craziest version of myself as possible while in the US scene.

Monthly Puroresu:
You have a very unique presentation, very wild and expressive, like Hiromu Takahashi – very explosive. It’s very different from what we see in the United States. A few people from the joshi puroresu world have beat you to touring America… Miyu Yamashita, Maki Itoh, Yuka Sakazaki to name a few. What does Unagi have in this fiery persona that maybe these others do not? Do you think it’ll allow you to really capture the American pro wrestling audience?

Unagi Sayaka:
Those wrestlers are my seniors, they’ve wrestled longer than me, and obviously they’ve been touring the wrestling scene longer than me. And it doesn’t necessarily prohibit me from showing them respect to come over to America, and perform the best I can. I have this feeling, you know, I want to show the world how great my professional wrestling is – and that I am stronger than anybody else.

 

Monthly Puroresu:
Tōkon, fighting spirit – you want to show you are much, much stronger? But also, thinking of life on the road in America… You will have to entertain yourself a lot. Have you thought of ways you’re going to spend your free time as you tour? It’s a very large and foreign country.

Unagi Sayaka:
I want to eat as much as I can! I’ve heard so much about the places in America with different food. So anything sweet, anything hot, anything spicy. You know, the junk food! I would like to try different food along the way as I go through the big country of the U.S.

Monthly Puroresu:
Of course! Well… you’re obviously very fit, you worked a very tough schedule in STARDOM and in that promotion you have to be very athletic. How do you intend to remain so athletic if you eat American junk food working part-time?

Unagi Sayaka:
Well, that is the protein for me! I love the Japanese junk food, including ramen….So, I’m not worried about breaking my conditioning, or getting out of shape by eating American junk food.

Monthly Puroresu:
You mentioned you had some injuries in a recent interview with Mr. Haku – sternum, and maybe collarbone? I’m wondering if you feel you’re well past your injuries, and if anything is holding you back from being the fullest and best version of the Kabukimono.

Unagi Sayaka:
Yeah, yeah, I’m past all of that.

Monthly Puroresu:
And, I know you brought [your plush dinosaur] Stefan with you – and our fans that are going be reading the magazine would love to hear about your relationship with Stefan, and what he means to you.

Unagi Sayaka:
[Laughs] Stefan is very important, I always carry him along when I travel around for protection.

Monthly Puroresu:
Of course. And when you travel, do you have any music or something that really makes you feel fired up to keep going when you’re tired, or when you’ve suffered a loss in the ring?

Unagi Sayaka:
Sometimes I listen to Sengoku Pachinko CR Hana no Keiji [the official soundtrack of the Pachinko slot based on the Keiji manga, whose main character is a big influence on Unagi]. You know, just upbeat songs to get me pumped up. I also love kurukuru and Yokohama Ginbae [a rebellious Japanese rock band from the ’80s inspired by an American band, The Heartbreakers].

Monthly Puroresu:
You’re competing at Queen of the Indies this year at West Coast Pro in California, where Monthly Puroresu is currently based out of! Are you excited? And are there any competitors you’re looking forward to meeting in the ring coming up on the schedule? How are you preparing for your matches?

Unagi Sayaka:
I’m the type of competitor who would like to actually visually see the moves of my opponent and then decide how I’m going to fight. I’m looking forward to meeting quite a few of the Queen of the Indies competitors that I don’t even recognize… But, you know, it’ll be a feeling out process for me in the ring. And that’s something I’m really looking forward to. But to answer your question, 18-year-old Billie Starkz!

Monthly Puroresu:
I got to speak with Billie Starkz quite a while before doing color commentary for TJPW back in Los Angeles… Knowing her, I’m sure she can’t wait to meet someone like Unagi of the Cosmic Angels in the ring…

Unagi Sayaka:
Well, it’s already decided that I’m going to have a match with her. She’s only 18, and she’s got championship material. Billie Starkz is a very strong wrestler, so I’m excited about mixing it up with her.

Monthly Puroresu:
And that’s in San Francisco. Are there other cities that you’re excited to visit? Maybe New York, Miami, Los Angeles? And are you going to be able to do a little shopping and add to your style in between matches?

Unagi Sayaka:
I’m looking forward to visiting just about all the cities you mentioned, I want to go to them all. And, you know, I’d like to enjoy each and every city as well as eating the food! Of course, I have been to different places. New York, San Francisco, some major cities. But that was just visiting without actually wrestling! So I’m really looking forward to actually having a match as well as visiting the city. So you know just being myself, and enjoying it to the fullest.

Monthly Puroresu:
Bull Nakano wrestled in America in the 1990s and when we watched as kids it was, “Oh, wow!” She was so amazing… And so colorful, and vibrant, like Unagi Sayaka. And she was ahead of her time… Do you sense that now is really when Nakano’s, and joshi wrestling’s momentum, is ready to be capitalized on with the present American audience that before, maybe Americans weren’t ready for?

Unagi Sayaka:
I’m very much aware of those past heroes or [current] heroes, as well as the fans in the US But it is a new generation and I’m ready to actually re-paint the image of Japanese professional female wrestlers. So, please watch my wrestling when I come to your town, and I will show you!

Monthly Puroresu:
And speaking of modern Japanese pop culture, I know you like shonen manga… And, anime and shonen has become really popular in America. Keiji Muto said he thinks, and we at MP also think, that joshi puroresu can become just as popular in America as anime and manga. Do you sense that with the wrestling as well? And part two of this question, do you want to fight with any of your colleagues or bring friends over, to help create this movement of new Japanese women’s wrestling in America?

Unagi Sayaka:
[Laughs] So that would be fantastic if I could do that, if I could ignite that little fire. But I’m just looking at myself and I want to perform as best as I can for this tour. And you know, I’m not really looking at the American versus Japanese professional wrestling dynamic. That would be fantastic if I could help popularize it like anime, but right now I’m concentrating more on performing well and if I do that, it would help start that fire!

Monthly Puroresu:
Is there anything that your new fans might not know about Unagi Sayaka that you want to express, something that we should be watching out for?

Unagi Sayaka:
Hmm… Pretty much, what you see is what you get! You know, I’m a very honest straightforward kind of person [laughs]. So there’s not much of a secret… But of course, not all American fans are quite aware of who Unagi Sayaka is, you know? So I would like to make an impression on every professional wrestling fan in the US. You will all know who Unagi is! And then, the number of joshi wrestlers in the US is gonna grow – that’s my promise.

Monthly Puroresu:
Alright! So, you’ve left behind a secure position at Bushiroad and STARDOM to embark this new journey. Do you have any fears about very real things like making money, and how you’ll be able to take care of your health in a new country? Or do you have so much courage and self-confidence that those are not concerns?

Unagi Sayaka:
I mean, maybe the only concern I have is that I cannot speak English at all. And I might need a manager or translator to help because of that.

Monthly Puroresu:
What you’re now doing, you’re a trailblazer and doing the opposite of Prominence and these other groups that come into STARDOM for a bigger payday. Rather, you are leaving to become free and independent… Are you scared at all of losing your security, and those connections on that roster, and the camaraderie you’ve built over the past few years in STARDOM?

Unagi Sayaka:
I don’t have much concern at all! I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything behind or anything from joshi wrestling back home. I can always come back to the wrestling, and the people who I call friends… and the colleagues. I don’t see much difference between people who support wrestling in the United States and supporters for wrestling in Japan. So, leaving my friends and supporters in Japan, I’m coming to a new network of supporters and friends in the US! I don’t have much concern about my security, just the language barrier. But really, I’m feeling more excited about this excursion.

Monthly Puroresu:
You command a lot of adoration from fans, now that you’re striking it on your own, how can we support you? How can we buy your merchandise and what other ways can fans and our readers support you?

Unagi Sayaka:
I have an online merch shop that’s available in the US! And I’ve been designing my own t-shirt to become available in the US as well. You can support me and find merch by using the QR code on this page!

Monthly Puroresu:
Is there anything else you want to say to the fans before we close up here?

Unagi Sayaka:
I will be a superstar, so my value is going to skyrocket! So, better come early, before the tickets get very expensive!

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