Originally published at https://www.postwrestling.com/2021/12/30/carved-into-my-heart-the-grief-of-go-shiozaki/
Carved Into My Heart: The Grief of Go Shiozaki
It’s June 13th, 2009, and a crowd of 2,300 fans are roaring inside of Hiroshima’s Green Small Arena. Chants of “Misawa! Misawa! Misawa!” fill the space as the emerald-clad Mitsuharu Misawa is challenging for the GHC Tag Team Championships alongside Go Shiozaki against the team of Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith. Twenty-seven minutes into the planned forty-minute match and Misawa takes a fatal back suplex from Akitoshi Saito.
Referee Shuichi Nishinaga quickly stops the match and calls for doctors who rush the ring to no avail. Misawa had suffered a separation of the first and second cervical vertebrae and would be pronounced dead that night at 10:10PM JST at the young age of 46. The crowd from that evening never stopped chanting “Misawa!” in the hopes that their hero would arise once again. Throughout all of this, Misawa’s partner Go Shiozaki remained by his side.
The next day, the GHC Heavyweight Title is vacated by champion Jun Akiyama prompting a main event between Go Shiozaki and Takeshi Rikio for the vacant title. On the GRAPPL Spotlight podcast discussing the ten best matches of 2020, Alan4L elegizes the moment by saying, “He (Go) gets his first big title run because Misawa dies. Talk about a poisoned chalice.”
The long term plan for Go Shiozaki was always to rise through the ranks of NOAH and ultimately win the title, but Misawa’s death expedited the process to the detriment of Shiozaki’s career and his relationship with NOAH, its fans, and most importantly, himself. Thus, Shiozaki’s coronation isn’t the establishing and celebration of a new ace as it was planned to be, but rather the rushed ascension of a bastard king to the throne. These two days – the death and the title win – would forever link Go Shiozaki to Mitsuharu Misawa, carving the emerald spirit into his heart.
Now, much like the superheroes of modern times, many artists carry tragic origin stories within them as well. An incident or event that led them to where they are now in terms of style and storytelling. Events that influenced the way Van Gogh held his brush and Tao Lin with his pen. Essentially, this influence serves as the foundation for the metanarrative of the artist. Meaning that each new project, movement, and season in the artist’s career isn’t a singular event so much as the next chapter in their overarching lifelong story. Every artist quietly sewing their shortcomings, frustrations, and pain into each work; slowly composing this idea of themselves in an attempt of understanding and sculpting a definitive answer to the question of who they are.
Cultural theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa describes this genre of writing about one’s personal and collective history through fictive elements as autohistoria-teoría (self-history theory). Throughout the course of this essay, we will examine the autohistoria- teoría of Go Shiozaki through the course of his 2020 GHC Heavyweight Championship title reign in an effort to answer the question, “Who am I?”
Prelude: Kiyomiya (Rebirth)
On January 4th, 2020, Go Shiozaki found himself challenging once again for the GHC Heavyweight Championship title (which for the sake of brevity, we’ll be referring to this simply as the GHC title from here on out) against the flag bearer of the new generation, Kaito Kiyomiya. Shiozaki would debut a new blonde haircut and emerald ring gear positing the title match as a bridge between the previous generation of NOAH that never rightfully established its ace and the new generation which had quickly embraced Kiyomiya. If anything, it felt as though Shiozaki was tapping into who he used to be before Misawa’s death. This resurgence in the self is most evident in Shiozaki’s match ending moonsault – a nod to his youth and mentor, Kenta Kobashi.
In his post-match promo, Shiozaki would make a proclamation that would become the resounding phrase of hope and solidarity that carried NOAH through the early stages of the pandemic; a phrase so rooted in the spirit of NOAH that it felt as though the spirit of Misawa was speaking through Shiozaki. A simple phrase that would fundamentally plant the seeds to unlock the answer to the question, “Who am I?”
To which Shiozaki declared, “I am NOAH!”
Following his GHC title win, it felt as though Shiozaki was finally embracing his company role and ready to work through his trauma in the form of this championship run. The reign comprises a series of physically and emotionally brutal matches that embody the best elements in professional wrestling: storytelling, spirit, emotion, movement. Each new challenger taking on new meaning and deepening the context of Shiozaki’s mental health, trauma, and healing process. Now, while many rightfully refer to this series of defenses as Herculean labors and with figures such as Kazuyuki Fujita resembling monsters like the Nemean Lion and Cretan Bull, I’ve come to understand this title reign through a different lens: the five stages of grief.
Stage I: Kazuyuki Fujita (Denial)
On January 30th, 2020, legendary MMA fighter and pro wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita declared himself the first challenger for Shiozaki’s GHC title. In a series of violent prelude matches, Fujita would consistently disrespect and beat down Shiozaki to the point of tearing his ear drum and knocking his jaw out of line. The match would eventually be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic laying the groundwork for what is arguably one of the more unique and innovative professional wrestling matches.
Now, before jumping ahead, in Japanese culture, there is a concept known as ma that is heavily implemented in the works of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Ma can be understood as the time in-between the notes, the space that creates the music. “The people who make the movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster over it,” laments Miyazaki in an interview with Roger Ebert.
This proposed “absence” of action is typically misconstrued as silence, when in reality it amplifies the elements and sounds of our environment which creates new characters and stories within the space. This is best experienced in John Cage’s composition, 4’33”. A four-and-a-half-minute three-movement composition in which an instrument is never played, instead favoring the environment in which it is set.
When applying the theory of ma and analysis of John Cage’s work to Kazuyuki Fujita versus Go Shiozaki, we can note that there are four key performers: Fujita, Shiozaki, Korakuen Hall, and the NOAH ring mat. For those unfamiliar with the match — the bell rings, the match begins, and… “nothing” happens. Fujita and Shiozaki merely lock eyes and begin a stare down that will last for thirty-minutes. Throughout all of this, it is Fujita’s furrowed brow, Shiozaki’s profound resilience, the quiet beating of the ring mat, and the negative space in Korakuen Hall that carries the audience through this first act. It is this level of inaction that serves as the greatest form of action that ultimately echoes Alfred Hitchcock’s opinion that if your film doesn’t work without sound, then you don’t deserve it in the first place.
In this sense, the first act of Fujita versus Shiozaki has more in common with long form contemplative filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, and Lav Diaz (which I have previously analyzed in a video essay) than it does conventional professional wrestling. The intent of these filmmakers is to create spatial and temporal experiences that allow audiences to truly feel the duration and emotions of the characters and environments. Their argument being that only through long takes are audiences able to feel time and its subsequent truth, as opposed to movement which is the crux of accelerationist mainstream filmmaking (i.e., Fast and the Furious). The goal of professional wrestling is the same as any art: for the audience to be able to feel what is happening on-screen/in-ring. There are few matches that encapsulate this ability to feel endurance, struggle, and most importantly, stillness, than Fujita versus Shiozaki.
I want to reinforce this notion of stillness again as it’s the key element to understanding the first stage of grief and the emotional core of this match: denial. This preliminary stage of grief is what allows us to survive the loss and the overwhelming meaninglessness that follows. The numbness that seemingly permeates all existence, mutating the initial shock into a paralyzing form of denial. However, denial aids in pacing our feelings of grief, carrying with it an elegiac grace in which our self only allows in as much as we are able to handle at the time, eventually arriving at the acceptance of this new reality.
The first thirty minutes of Shiozaki versus Fujita is denial personified through dramatic inaction that says everything words fail to. It is through this slow, contemplative pacing that builds Shiozaki into a champion with unwavering determination and focus as he slowly comes into his new role, body, and spirit. Fujita eventually lunges at Shiozaki and the match breaks down (both sonically and physically), as the new champion acknowledges there is only one way to go no matter the struggle – and that is forward. In the end, Shiozaki implements a series of lariats to the slay the beast that is Fujita.
Stage II: Akitoshi Saito (Anger)
Following the match with Fujita, Shiozaki had to take time off due to appendicitis. On May 24th, 2020, Shiozaki announces his return to the ring only to be interrupted and challenged by Akitoshi Saito. The history between the two – both men having been in the ring during Misawa’s death – is perhaps the deepest and one of the more untouched in NOAH history with their only other singles match taking place during Shiozaki’s initial title win back in 2009. In a pre-match interview, Shiozaki would respond to Saito’s challenge by saying, “A challenge written from the soul. As the GHC Heavyweight champion, I accepted this heartfelt soul. With Akitoshi Saito this June, I think the significance of having the GHC Heavyweight title match is destiny. I want to show a title match between two people who have overcome everything.”
While Shiozaki readily accepts the challenge calling it, “A match that only we can do,” it is this emphasis on destiny and soul that serves as the resonant theme throughout the feud. Saito serves as the bridge to Shiozaki’s past and vice-versa. Both men are living reminders of the tragedy they collectively suffered. In this sense, the two aren’t combatants so much as mirrors to the unconscious shadow self they both wish to bury but must first admit exists.
In the 1980s, a psychotherapeutic approach to trauma known as IFS (internal family systems) was developed by Richard C. Schwartz that proposes the self is made up of various personalities with different goals and varying levels of maturity, pain, and wisdom. Along with the self, Schwartz posits there are three other parts that create the frame for one’s being: 1) Managers – “Parts with preemptive protective roles. They handle the way a person interacts with the external world to protect them from being hurt by others and try to prevent painful or traumatic feelings and experiences from flooding a person’s awareness;” 2) Exiles – “Parts that are in pain, shame, fear, or trauma, usually from childhood. Managers and firefighters try to exile these parts from consciousness, to prevent this pain from coming to the surface;” 3) Firefighters – “Parts that emerge when exiles break out and demand attention. These parts work to distract a person’s attention from the hurt or shame experienced by the exile by leading them to engage in impulsive behaviors.”
The reason I bring this up is because the match between Saito and Shiozaki feels like a violent and melancholic dance between all the parts. Shifting between exile, manager, and firefighter to regain a sense of self in the end. In his post-match promo, Shiozaki expressed the importance of confronting the past, “No, it shouldn’t be ignored or passed over. It is the same for Saito, and I think it was a match that confronted it head on, and I am glad that Saito and I were able to fight each other.”
At this point in the title reign, Shiozaki wholly embraces the concept of autohistoria-teoría as past trauma is reconciled with and laid to rest through the power of emotional storytelling blending the fictive and the real in an effort to uncover the truth. Again, it is this willingness to confront loss, feel anger, and fight for a new day that builds to the reconciliation between Saito and Shiozaki, healing their shared experience. The more that they allow anger to enter the arena, the more it begins to dissipate, revealing the deeper emotions and truths that lie underneath it all.
As the match begins, Saito enters the ring, pauses, looks up to the sky, and nods in a moment he would later contextualize as Misawa watching over him. During the match and for the first time in his title reign, Shiozaki adds Misawa’s Rolling Elbow to his arsenal once again creating a bridge between the past and present. This concept of existing in a space outside of time, as though the combatants were able to free themselves from the ways in which they had become glued to Misawa’s death, is beautifully expressed in Hisame’s breakdown of the fight, “The match between them was like an old school classic, and it worked for the best in a way there being no audience, it was like they were two people fighting in a different time in a match that was equally at home in NOAH’s modern era as it would have been in their Golden one.”
Following the match, Shiozaki grabs a microphone and quietly stares at Saito as he struggles on the ground. Shiozaki no longer sees himself in Saito, but the man he shared the ring with that fateful night. A fellow wrestler who was plagued by the same nightmares and anger that Shiozaki knew all too well. The mirror had finally been broken. Shiozaki hands the microphone to Saito who in turn thanks Shiozaki and states that thanks to this match, he would finally be able to move on with his life. Once again, Shiozaki proclaims, “I am NOAH!” and with this match it felt that he was inching ever closer to that truth. However, there is still much work to do.
Stage III: Naomichi Marufuji (Bargaining)
On July 18th, 2020, NOAH returned to Korakuen Hall for the first time in four months following empty arena shows. In the main event, Naomichi Marufuji pins Shiozaki with his new finisher, a vicious knee strike known as the True Tiger King. Following his win over Shiozaki, Marufuji grabbed the microphone and voiced his disapproval over Shiozaki’s recent claims “Hey! Shiozaki! I just want to say one thing: you’re a strong and reliable champion, and you’ve regained the trust you once lost. But, you got caught! You say ‘I AM NOAH?’, well listen carefully, ‘I AM REALLY NOAH!’ How about this? The next challenger is me!”
Much like Saito, the relationship between Marufuji and Shiozaki goes back years. The similarities between the two are staggering as both studied under Misawa, came from NOAH’s “Golden Age,” and were slated as the heir apparent. This was Shiozaki’s biggest test thus far as he was only 1-6 against Marufuji in singles competition over the past fourteen years. The feud would be promoted as The Symbol (Go Shiozaki) versus The Genius (Naomichi Marufuji), but most importantly, it was the spiritual successor and embodiment of the everlasting feud between their teachers, Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa.
At this point in Shiozaki’s reign, his body had begun to wither with his arm barely hanging on with the assistance of tattered bandages and frayed tape. Marufuji took advantage of this by hyper focusing his attacks on Shiozaki’s arms throughout the feud. Several times in the lead-up to the title match, Marufuji would create a division between Shiozaki and NOAH, often referring to himself, Takashi Sugiura, and Yoshinari Ogawa as, “the real NOAH,” which is largely reminiscent of the 2014 feud between Hiroshi Tanahashi and the returning Katsuyori Shibata. This contempt for Shiozaki felt like the result of Marufuji recognizing that his position in the company was slowly becoming unseated as Shiozaki rightfully asserted his claim to the throne in the Kingdom of the Global Honor Crown.
Following the anger expressed in his match with Saito, the theme for Shiozaki’s feud with Marufuji would become bargaining. Meaning the ways in which you will do anything to save the person you love. In the case of Marufuji, this person is the company, NOAH. He recognizes Shiozaki as the champion but fails to see him as the company’s leader. Thus, he will do anything he can to preserve the company he has given his body and life to. For Shiozaki, this loved person is a mixture of himself (which the title has become an extension of) and Misawa as the two are still wildly intertwined. This stage of bargaining is an endless maze of “if only” and “what if” statements that point towards the wish to return to the time before and restore your loved one.
Again, this restoration works in many forms: the prestige of the company, its triumphant leader and creator, and the need to regain the self. We convince ourselves that we can go back in time and right the wrongs and perhaps predict the tragedy before it occurs. However, all this does is lock us in the past as we try to negotiate our way out of pain. This is when the realization of healing as a non-linear journey comes fully into play as Shiozaki’s feud with Marufuji once again dips into the realms of anger and denial, while still remaining within the bargaining stage as though Shiozaki were stretched across time with the devil and god raging inside of him.
In the end, Shiozaki withstands the brutal strikes and vicious submissions of Marufuji to retain the GHC title. Following the match, Marufuji takes the championship belt and as Hisame beautifully writes, “…in a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation of NOAH, from one heir of NOAH to another, from one symbol of NOAH to the next, he handed it to Go Shiozaki.”
In this moment, Marufuji acknowledges that NOAH has the strength to continue on without him at the helm, that it has finally found a new leader in its champion. The wish to return to the time before is softly dispelled as both men recognize that throughout this shared fear of losing love, they have in turn fostered a far more powerful love and a new Golden Age.
Stage IV: Kenoh (Detour)
As previously stated, healing works in a non-linear fashion. For months it can feel as though the loss has been restored in different ways, only for it to rapidly crumble a week later. There are times when we are in a stage of grief without even recognizing it. Unconsciously riding the wave of bargaining without realizing you are within its clutch. In these moments distractions arise and tangents are pursued to distract from the healing process in an effort to convince ourselves – it’s over, we’ve already done it. However, sometimes these detours teach us things about ourselves we didn’t know.
For Shiozaki, this detour manifested after his win over Marufuji as GHC National Champion and Kongo leader, Kenoh, made his way to the ring to challenge Shiozaki. With little history between the two (in comparison to the others at least), the feud is promoted as a title-versus-title match to declare the one true champion of NOAH, profiting off the popular 2020 trend of double champions. Leading up to the match, Kenoh repeatedly states his desire to carry both the GHC National and Heavyweight titles whereas Shiozaki’s only wish is to defend his championship.
The match somehow ups the brutality factor from Shiozaki’s previous defenses as Kenoh’s onslaught of strikes (or as NOAH commentator Stewart Fulton would call it, “More kicks than a sneaker factory!”) is a systematic dismantling of Shiozaki’s defenses. However, every exchange by Kenoh was equally greeted by Shiozaki leading to a sixty-minute time limit draw. While the supposed purpose of the match was to solidify a double champion, the draw allowed for a far more impactful conclusion: Kenoh and Shiozaki survived each other, and while neither became double champion, they both managed to successfully defend their respective titles cementing each as the true champion of their division. The unique experience of a sixty-minute match is brilliantly summed up by POST Wrestling’s own Wai Ting in his recent review of Adam Page versus Bryan Danielson, “Anytime you get to see a performance that spans sixty-minutes in professional wrestling, I think it’s a very special feat. No matter what the booking ends up being.”
The way in which this detour serves the metanarrative of Shiozaki is that while it didn’t provide the tools for him to further confront his history, it allowed him to finally start living in the present. Meaning that, all of Shiozaki’s defenses thus far have played into specific moments and histories. For the first time, it felt as though Shiozaki was able to live in the moment. He had finally arrived in the NOAH he was helping rebirth. And what typically follows when someone’s attention heavily shifts to the present at the height of their success?
Stage V: Katsuhiko Nakajima (Depression)
AXIZ (ax·is): 1) in politics – “an agreement or alliance between two or more powers that forms a center for an eventual larger grouping of nations;” 2) in zoology – “the skull and backbone of a vertebrate animal;” 3) in geometry – “an imaginary line which divides something into equal or roughly equal halves, especially in the direction of its greatest length.”
On August 30th, 2020, Go Shiozaki’s longtime AXIZ tag team partner and second for each defense, Katsuhiko Nakajima, turns on him following their failed attempt to recapture the vacant GHC Tag Team titles. The betrayal quickly erased their long term bond and softly homoerotic relationship. In a defiant pursuit of what appears to be the GHC title (but feels more like a targeting of Shiozaki in general), Nakajima fights his way through the 2020 N-1 Victory tournament to become the number one contender.
The post-match promo between Shiozaki and Nakajima following his N-1 Victory tournament win felt reminiscent of the go-home promo between Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston in which the two slowly danced around each other’s bodies while brushing faces and declaring violent intentions. For the first time in his title reign, Shiozaki did not proclaim anything, but rather held the belt up as Nakajima’s words had pierced his soul, once again unraveling the trauma of Misawa that had been carved into it, leading Shiozaki to lament, ”Instead of saying I am Noah, isn’t there one answer in Osaka?”
As previously stated, what typically follows bargaining as one reassimilates into the present is depression. Meaning, we have returned to the moment that has eluded us for some time, but along with that comes the empty feelings the healing process has silently staved off. The grief mutates into something far deeper and penetrating than ever before. There is a withdraw from life prompting mental wandering, emotional paralysis, and immeasurable sadness. In a way, it feels like a personal betrayal on the part of the grieving process that leads us to pondering, “Is there any point to even continue?”
At this point in his title reign, Shiozaki has been betrayed on a profoundly personal level by Nakajima, a physical level by his body, and a spiritual and emotional level as a result of all the above. As a result, Nakajima spends the prelude targeting the arms like Marufuji as well as Shiozaki’s soul due to his staggering emotional vulnerability going so far as to call him a “rotted and tattered champion.”
In art theory, the concepts we engage with take on the form of ever changing cultural bodies. For instance, the zombie which initially served as a vessel for the artistic exploration of occupation, colonization, exploitation, and dehumanization through films such as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) ultimately leads to the body’s evolution post-Civil Rights in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) as mindless consumers under late-stage capitalism. Shiozaki’s condition is eerily similar: in January he is a beacon of hope and light for the new year yet by this time is a shell of himself physically, mentally, and emotionally. All of this posits Go Shiozaki as a cultural body for the rapid decline of the world in the year 2021 as the hurt simply rolls on (with the image of Fujita spitting hand sanitizer into Shiozaki’s face as the resounding metaphor).
In the end, Shiozaki is successful, but the audience has to wonder – at what cost? Nakajima may have lost the fight but was still left with a body more intact than Shiozaki’s. However, while Shiozaki’s arm is hanging on by a thread and his greatest relationship has been severed, he managed to confront it all head-on. He did not waiver, he did not retreat. Even in the darkest days of his title reign, Shiozaki invested in himself, in his healing, and in his pursuit of truth to overcome the odds and this depression. The year-end climax finally approaches as a light begins to shine through.
Stage VI: Takashi Sugiura (Acceptance)
After Shiozaki’s win over Nakajima, the final ghost of his past catches up to him in the form of Takashi Sugiura. Throughout his career, Go Shiozaki held the GHC title a total of three times before this current reign, with two of those previous reigns having been ended by Takashi Sugiura. It felt as though all the matches thus far had led Shiozaki here, so much so that he even remarked he had been waiting for Sugiura. In his departing words, Sugiura told Shiozaki, “’I am NOAH,’ you can say that after you have defeated me.”
While many had stated the same criticism as Sugiura, he said it with such conviction that it felt like the definitive and final claim against Shiozaki’s bid for the throne. The stage was set, and the final labor was clear: defeat Sugiura and become NOAH. What followed was not the typical striking match Sugiura and Shiozaki were known for, but rather the purest evocation of the Golden Era of NOAH. Alongside of Shiozaki and Sugiura were the spirts of all the GHC Heavyweight Champions that came before them, igniting the ring into a fiery battleground of palpable emotion and struggle as the men fought through their violent history.
Nearly an hour in, the match ends with a series of stiff forearm strikes and lariats in what is arguably the greatest finishing stretch of 2020. Sugiura is neutralized and Shiozaki collapses. The cycle has finished, the curse has been broken. There is finally an acceptance to it all. However, this acceptance is not to be confused as everything suddenly being all right or even fully healed. What this means is that there is finally a conscious acknowledgment that our loved one has been physically removed from this world. They are gone. This new reality is permanent and there is no changing it. Through every match, Shiozaki unconsciously pieced together, for himself, the realization that once you have moved so far into the present, there is no way to maintain life as it was. The world is forever changed, and the only way to survive is to adjust. It isn’t denying our feelings so much as it is listening to our current needs. There is movement, followed by change, which blooms into growth, and expands into evolution. We finally begin to live again, but not until we have given grief its fair share of time.
However, not every story has a happy ending. Shiozaki would lose the GHC title in his next defense to Keiji Mutoh at NOAH’s return to the Nippon Budokan for the first time in eight years. The night of this defeat served as Shiozaki’s greatest loss and success. Now, I say success because while Shiozaki lost the title, it was at the Nippon Budokan. A venue that NOAH had not been able to book since Kenta Kobashi’s retirement back in 2013, signaling a genuine resurgence in the prestige and success of Pro Wrestling NOAH.
If you make art for the purpose of money and it makes none, you have nothing. If you make art for the purpose of creating art and it makes no money, you still have art. This is all to say that even without the title, Go Shiozaki finally realized that he now carried something with him far, far greater: himself. The spirit finally filled the body once again and the souls of Misawa and Shiozaki, once tangled, now co-existed peacefully in a new era of NOAH.
This is where the underlying truth of Go Shiozaki’s historic title reign is revealed. That while his Gowan Lariat, Moonsault Press, and Go Flasher are devastating maneuvers that feel like superpowers, they are merely distractions to Shiozaki’s true feat: emotional vulnerability. Throughout media, most heroes realize their true power and purpose at times of deep emotional vulnerability. Think of Luke Skywalker at the end of A New Hope when he turns off his targeting systems, closes his eyes, and finally opens himself up to the concept of the force. No matter what, nothing is permanent. Even an undefeated champion at some point will drop the title due to age or retirement.
In this time of great sadness and collective trauma and regardless of what objects you may possess, no matter what your titles may be, by simply putting yourself out there, taking charge of your mental health, and opening yourself up to healing and the world around, you have finally given yourself the tools to answer the question, “Who am I?”
You are the hero of your own story that you so dearly idolize in others.
Follow Aniello De Angelis on Twitter: @aniellooooo