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Storytelling in STARDOM: Beyond the Belts

12 months ago

Storytelling in STARDOM: Beyond the Belts

A look at how STARDOM’s struggles in developing and completing stories where there isn’t a title on the line

By: Trent Breward

There’s no doubt that STARDOM has done a lot of things right since being acquired by Bushiroad in 2019, and the proof is in the product’s meteoric rise. They now comfortably sit as one of the biggest promotions in Japan, and have become the standard bearer for what women’s wrestling can be.

This has been accomplished off of the backs of their talent. Bonafide superstars like Syuri and Mayu Iwatani have led the charge while young up and comers such as Starlight Kid and AZM grow into the roles that will propel the promotion to even greater heights. They do a fantastic job in giving fans a reason to invest in their characters and put on top tier matches. For all of their recent success however, there are still areas in which STARDOM could continue to grow.

Fans will be quick to point to their growing but still limited English support, and an outdated streaming service when compared to their competitors. There are not new complaints, but if you look a little deeper, there’s a gap in their shows that, if filled, would provide their stars with even more avenues to win over the audience. That is their ability to tell stories away from their many championships.

Before diving in it is important to recognise that wrestling narratives typically play out differently in Japan compared to their big western counterparts. You don’t get dedicated promo segments on weekly televised programming because Japanese wrestling is built around live touring rather than live television. STARDOM for example tell their stories through four means: Press conferences, post match promos, social media posts by talent, and within the matches themselves.

As a result the expectations for stories have to be different. What it doesn’t mean is that we should expect less. STARDOM have already proven themselves capable of telling great stories. A large part of this is thanks to the careful cultivation and presentation of their characters. Following the years-long journey of wrestlers like Tam Nakano and Starlight Kid is a rewarding experience as they build upon their own personal narratives.

Characters are not the problem. Rivalries are not the problem. Big Championship matches are not the problem.

Where STARDOM have missed opportunities however is in filling their shows with story. When a pay per view rolls around, events are typically split in two. High profile title matches that generally have some story behind them, and undercard matches that essentially serve to get all their talent on the card. Meanwhile their weekly touring shows are a mish-mash of throw together matches and a couple of tag matches to build towards those title matches.

Very rarely do STARDOM use their shows to actively tell short form narratives that don’t feature a title, instead relying on the wrestlers to add meaning by alluding to old rivalries and general character beats. This means that if a wrestler isn’t booked to challenge for a championship, they aren’t building towards anything. Their ability to grow their character becomes restricted.

To compound the issue, when STARDOM have looked to develop these non-title stories – typically centered around the factions – they often struggle to produce a fulfilling conclusion. To understand these problems it is best to look at some examples.

CASE STUDY: Momo Watanabe’s betrayal of Queen’s Quest.

One of the biggest examples over the past year was Momo Watanabe turning on Queen’s Quest and aligning with the villainous Oedo Tai. For something that started off with heartbreaking betrayal, it ended with barely a whimper.

In the moments after she lifted the steel chair and obliterated it across the skull of her long time tag partner AZM, it felt like the world was ending for the usually stoic Queen’s Quest members. Shock and disbelief was etched across their faces as they watched their former leader and friend mocking them. 2021 came to a close with this story feeling like it would be the biggest thing in STARDOM over the next few months.

It started off strong too, with a feisty match between Momo and AZM at Korakuen Hall on January 8. It was exactly what you would expect an emotional grudge match to look like between two former friends, and it ended when Momo Watanabe knocked her former tag partner out and shelved her for weeks.

Momo Watanabe & AZM (MOMOAZ) months before Watanabe joined Oedo-Tai. c/o @taigaPhoto_pw

The new Momo Watanabe was free to tap into the violent and arrogant aspects of her character, adding more depth to someone who had struggled to stand out beyond her in ring acumen. Now she could unleash that in a big grudge match with the former World of Stardom Champion Utami Hayashishita, who had stepped up to gain revenge for AZM. This highly anticipated singles match was booked for the January 29 PPV and felt like a big deal. Then it all started to fall apart.

AZM returned and wanted in on the match, joining Utami while Starlight Kid stood alongside Momo. The high profile singles matches changed to a tag match booked second on the card and didn’t exceed ten minutes. In the post match promos, Momo was disappointed by what she saw, and seemed uninterested now Utami was no longer the champion (having lost the title a little over a week after Momo’s betrayal).

This could have been the precursor to the rivalry taking on new life, but instead the two factions met in tag matches for a couple of months before the blow off was booked in a middle of the road show at Takadanobaba. That final showdown stuttered to a draw, and then the two groups just went their separate ways. Weeks later AZM and Starlight Kid ended their High-Speed Championship match with a show of respect, putting an end to any hostilities despite the unfinished business with Momo Watanabe.

The feud never regained the heat after its hot start. The betrayal could have opened the door for character growth on both sides, however by the end of it everyone missed out. AZM and Utami didn’t get revenge or even the chance to show renewed fire in the face of Momo questioning their heart, and Momo seemed to lose interest in her initial goal of destroying Queen’s Quest, taking some of the edge away from her character.

It is not the first time we’ve seen a big faction war fizzle out despite a strong start and deeply personal story. A year prior it was Tam Nakano leaving the STARS faction. The early drama from this breakup was among the best storytelling STARDOM have presented. Filled with long term story beats and logical and emotional character motivations lifted the stock of everyone involved in the story. It was compelling and proof championships were not needed, personal battles were enough.

It felt like the story was on a collision course for a big blow off, but ultimately the feud died down after Mayu Iwatani and Tam Nakano wrestled to a draw on a weekend show with no real build towards the match. There was no resolution presented and no climax to the story.

In both of these examples the door was essentially left ajar, allowing for the story beats that unfolded to be alluded to in future rivalries, such as when Mayu and Tam wrestled for the Wonder of Stardom Title later that year. However a definitive and conclusion end to these stories could still be brought up in those future rivalries. Momo Watanabe and Utami Hayashishita would still be rivals if their earlier story had reached a satisfying and conclusive finish due to their history together.

The proof of that can be found in Tam Nakano vs Giulia. Two fierce rivals who feuded for nearly a year through 2020 and 2021 before ultimately reaching an epic climax in the main event of STARDOM’s Nippon Budokan show in March. Tam Nakano finally earned her vindication against someone she hated with unrivaled passion, and held aloft the Wonder of Stardom Championship. The two remained apart for essentially the rest of the year, but then their rivalry would reignite later on as the members of their factions defected across the line.

The rivalry is still as strong as ever despite a definitive end to that chapter in their careers. Both wrestlers benefited in the aftermath – Giulia was humbled and grew her character as she rebuilt herself, while Tam Nakano was emboldened by overcoming such an obstacle.

Tam Nakano and Giulia face-off. c/o Masahiro Kubota

The key difference between this feud and the others previously mentioned is that there was a championship at the center of it all. Tam’s entire story was fuelled by her believing it was her destiny to win the Wonder of Stardom Championship; Giulia just so happened to be getting in her way.

Low Stakes Are Still Stakes

Every month the PPV cycle will lead to a short story between champion and challenger, and occasionally these balloon out to longer arcs like with Tam and Giulia, or Syuri and Utami Hayashishita for the Red Belt. The examples mentioned earlier could have produced grudge matches that could fill a similar place on the card, but there is value in building stories with lower stakes as well.

STARDOM seems to offer a certain amount of freedom to its talent when not involved in the main event picture, and it has led to a lot of fun moments that could have developed into something more. Early in 2022 Maika became the target of Koguma, a light hearted wrestler who likes to perform her signature ‘bear dance’ in the ring. It’s a small comedy segment that lets opponents play off of it by either joining in, trying to fight the temptation or turning the idea on its head.

Maika refused on the day, but then posted a picture on social media in the early hours of the morning of her in the bushes dressed in a bear costume. The next show she wore that costume to the ring. It was a hilarious moment that received a lot of engagement from the fan community, but there was no big picture here behind a bit of entertainment from two wrestlers with no direction on the current tour.

These moments are fun, but there is also potential to develop it into a short but satisfying feud built around their interactions. Something like this doesn’t need to conclude on a big stage like the more personal stories mentioned previously, but these short form low stakes stories could easily add value to a smaller show by developing the interactions in the leadup to a singles match to settle the score. Unfortunately it just became a fond memory for fans and a brief insight into the minds of some of the talent. There’s still value, but a lot of missed potential.
There is hope on the horizon. The recent STARDOM in Showcase events have shown a greater willingness to develop these short form stories away from the main shows, with the matches typically made and developed through backstage skits for social media.

It’s not the perfect solution, but it does open the door for future interactions like Maika and Koguma to lead to something. Even if the wackier ideas are reserved for these Showcase events, there is no reason why they cannot use what they learn from these side shows and develop similar stories for their main shows.

There is real value to be found in stories developing outside of the title picture. Unagi Sayaka grew exponentially as a result of her seven match trial series, taking a new character for audiences and presenting them with a reason to care. If she had to wait for a title match, she may never have gotten a chance to truly get herself over. Likewise Starlight Kid being able to conclude the story of her departure from STARS with agency was so important to her next step into becoming a big star that would have been lost if her story had petered out like when Momo Watanabe defected.

These moments are integral in the development of the STARDOM roster’s strength, and its successes also highlights where it could improve. They already have a diverse roster of compelling characters that can wrestle great matches. By providing them with more avenues to develop their stories and give fans a reason to invest in their continual journey, everyone involved will benefit.

Right now there is a reliance on stories needing a championship to fight for. Stories outside of that picture have a tendency to either fade away or never happen at all. The strides STARDOM have made are undeniable, but there is always room to grow. A stronger focus on these narratives would only serve to make the promotion even bigger and better than it already is.

Written by:

After a regular receiving my Bachelor's degree from the University of Tasmania – yes, it's a real place – I went on to hone my writing craft before falling in love with STARDOM. As luck would have it, Thom and I started chatting about Joshi in early 2021, and I've been responsible for spearheading STARDOM content at Monthly Puroresu ever since. My work includes shortform, feature length profiles, op-eds, and Q&As.