I finally watched 大日本プロレス リア王 (BJW’s King Lear)! This show happened on August 7, 2008, so it is quite old at this point, but I really enjoyed it! As I think I already mentioned, BJW did a series of Shakespeare deathmatch shows from 2008-2011 (there were three: King Lear, Romeo vs Juliet, and then two showings of Macbeth). These shows are not available anywhere online, as far as I have been able to find, so I bought the DVDs secondhand and had them shipped from Japan!
I’ve been trying to translate as much stuff as I can find about these shows so that I can share them with my friends and also hopefully get more info about them out there so that Shakespeare enthusiasts can know that they exist!
King Lear is the one I have the least info for (the Romeo vs Juliet DVD came with what appears to be the original program for the show folded up inside, and Macbeth has a guidebook, which I had a friend buy secondhand for me and just got in the mail!), but the back of the DVD has a lot of good stuff on it, so I translated it with the help of a friend who was also super interested in these shows, and who helped me buy them.
I’ll include the original Japanese, and then my translation under it so that you can choose which to read haha.
The introduction on the back of the DVD:
The stage was called a ring, and it was bounded by ropes.
Before the show, sentiments like: “What on earth is this?” “A play performed by wrestlers would be like a boring school play anyway…” “There’s no way professional wrestlers could do something like Shakespeare…” and various other assumptions floated around “Big Japan’s King Lear.”
However, when I saw the venue that day, I realized that these concerns were utterly uncalled for. The Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse was not the usual venue for a Big Japan Pro Wrestling match, but it was the perfect abode for King Lear—it was Lear’s Palace.
Then King Lear entered the ring with his royal attendants, accompanied by a violinist! And then came the wrestlers portraying Lear’s family, with King Lear at the helm!!
The atmosphere was entirely that of a Shakespeare play dressed up as professional wrestling. Cordelia’s exile was the story. Before the eyes of the king unfolded the contest.
And betrayal, friends turned to enemies, exile, treason, despair… countless tragedies which descended upon us avalanche-style… Each and every one of them was perfectly expressed in the “pro wrestling” that is conveyed in the bodies of the wrestlers.
As the wrestlers physically expressed the drama, so too did the actors bring the challenge to the wrestlers to stake their pride as expressive artists within the boundaries of the so-called squared circle.
It was neither theater nor pro wrestling, but everything that happens in the ring is pro wrestling, and everything expressed by human beings using their bodies and minds is art.
Because of pro wrestlers, this project is not a blasphemy against art, but maybe a formal challenge. For the first time in the long history of Japanese professional wrestling, Shakespeare was expressed. This was the first time in the 400 years of history since the show was first performed that it was fought with real blood and sweat flowing, and Shakespeare must have gazed down from above the clouds and seen the passionate tale presented by these daring men.
Without a doubt, these men have carved their names and left a deep impression in the history of pro wrestling and theater, as well as in the hearts of the audience.
It was fun translating the list of tragedies: 裏切り、仲間割れ、追放、反逆、絶望と・・ I was like, “Hey, I just learned 仲間割れ from the Wrestle Universe chat!” Overall, I did better than I thought translating this, or at least my friend had relatively minor fixes, haha. I made a few errors when transcribing the text from the DVD, but I think I caught them all when translating it.
Something that was kind of funny to me was that there were a lot of words here that were taught to me as: “this can be written in kanji as [ ], but you’ll always see it in kana.” Well, they were in kanji here! Including our old friend, 又. I thought maybe it was done to save space (they didn’t exactly have a lot of real estate on the back of the DVD), but one of my friends suggested that maybe they used more kanji to sound more ~Shakespearean~. That is also a possibility!
I found that whole thing really fascinating because, well, I’m obviously obsessed with pro wrestling, but I’ve also loved Shakespeare for a long, long time, so I sort of have one foot in each world here. It’s unfortunately wholly unsurprising to me that this show received the reaction that it did when it was first announced, because I think that gets at the high/low culture dichotomy, and the fact that most people place Shakespeare on one side of that, and pro wrestling on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. I have actually sort of done a lot of research on that, too, haha, because I focused a lot on fan studies in undergrad and in graduate school, and the high/low culture issue came up a lot!
In any case, this is the kind of show that is made for an audience of me (my inability to watch deathmatches notwithstanding…), so I was very excited about it! I would love to see more of this kind of thing in wrestling! It’s honestly similar in many ways to Hiragana Muscle, though Muscle is a comedy and this is a tragedy.
Also, the card for all of these shows is incredible! I love the match names!
Here is the card as it was printed on the back of the DVD:
序章 バイオリン 松田麻由美
第2幕 ドランカープリンスタッグマッチ 30分ー本勝負
ゴネリル谷口 オールバニ弁慶 with オズワルド勘九郎
第3幕 200ポンドマッスルハードコアタッグマッチ 30分ー本勝負
コング桑田 ✕ 八代進一・谷山知宏組 ✕ 黒天使 ✕ ボクデス・スカンク組
エドマンド佐々木 エドガー葛西 黒天使
コーデリア伊東 フランス帝王 ケント井上
My translation (I added the actual names of the performers in italics)
Prologue: Violin Mayumi Matsuda
Act 1: A Greeting from the Great King Lear
Act 2: Drunkard Prince Tag Match (30 minutes, one fall)
BACCHUS Miyamoto APHRODITA Shinobu
GONERIL Taniguchi ALBANY Benkei with OSWALD Kankuro
(Yuko Miyamoto & Shinobu VS Yuichi Taniguchi & Daikokubo Benkei with Kankuro Hoshino)
Act 3: 200lb. Muscle Hardcore Tag Match (30 minutes, one fall)
MARS Sekimoto HADES Kuroda
REGAN WX CORNWALL Kobayashi
(Daisuke Sekimoto & Tetsuhiro Kuroda VS Shadow WX & Abdullah Kobayashi)
Act 4: Madness
Act 5: Mourning Battle Royal
Kong Kuwata (storyteller) ✕ Shunichi Yashiro・Tomohiro Taniyama ✕ BLACK ANGEL ✕ Bokudesu (pastor)・SKUNK (guitar)
(Kong Kuwata ✕ Shunichi Yashiro ・Tomohiro Taniyama ✕ “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa ✕ Masahiro Kohama ・ Tatsuo Sunaga)
Rose & Light Tube Altar Deathmatch (no time limit, one fall)
EDMUND Sasaki EDGAR Kasai BLACK ANGEL
CORDELIA Ito FRANCE Teioh KENT Inoue
(Yoshihito Sasaki & Jun Kasai & “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa VS Ryuji Ito & Men’s Teioh & Katsumasa Inoue)
Most of the wrestlers were pretty easy to find via google if I just typed in the kanji and added 大日本プロレス, but a few of the non-wrestlers gave me more trouble, haha. ボクデス in particular was a headache to find (what a name, lol)! My friend had to do the google sleuthing for that one, but he did manage to find him (he’s a performance artist, as it turns out). And スカンク was helpfully listed on the back of the DVD as “ギター”. That was beyond my investigative skills, too, but my friend somehow managed to figure out who it was.
I also had a bit of trouble with the katakana names of some of the characters who aren’t actual characters in King Lear. I’m pretty sure they’re meant to be Greek/Roman gods? Sort of? It’s complicated! I was confused when initially translating the names, but when I actually watched the show, I think it clicked why they chose to go with that.
This is the third adaption of King Lear that I’ve seen/read. The first was a regular performance of the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the second was the novel A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Both were very good! I’ve also read the play twice. It’s honestly not my favorite Shakespeare play, but I did get pretty heavily influenced by the eye-gouging scene in the OSF production and wrote something similar into a D&D game I was running at the time, haha, and then my mom and her siblings had a King-Lear-esque falling out over their inheritance after my grandmother died, so I ended up becoming pretty well-acquainted with the story whether I liked it or not…
But, well, here are some of my impressions after watching BJW King Lear:
I wasn’t able to understand terribly much of the dialogue, haha, but I got the basic gist of the story, thanks to my King Lear knowledge. It appeared to be King Lear told through a wrestling setting instead, so I don’t think it’s really full of direct Shakespeare quotes or anything (I caught plenty of wrestling words, at least, haha), but I dunno. I did notice I caught a lot more of the dialogue when going back through the show afterward to get screencaps. There is (Japanese) commentary for the matches, which helps convey some of the story beats. That in itself was an interesting stylistic choice.
The matches themselves are actually pretty enjoyable just as matches, I think. They fit into an overall story, but the wrestlers work them like they’re regular matches, so even if you don’t fully get what’s going on, you can still enjoy the narrative of the matches individually. Only one of the matches was a true deathmatch, and that was the main event: the Rose & Light Tube Altar Deathmatch. I was able to watch more of it than I thought I would, haha, because the vibes were simply off the charts.
Here are some screenshots of the show, plus some more specific comments:
Great Kojika played the “Great” King Lear! I’m not normally a BJW watcher, so I had no idea who he was until I looked him up, but apparently he co-founded the promotion and is the oldest Japanese wrestler as well as the one with the longest career, and is also the oldest active wrestler in the world (at age 80!). Legitimately extremely fitting for this role, actually!
I really liked the way he wore the two belts around his neck like this. This is from the scene where Cordelia gets exiled.
From the Drunkard Prince tag match.
Regan and Cornwall had a bit of a 仲間割れ during their match. Not a good way to impress the king!
I hadn’t seen much of “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa’s work before this (I’d only seen him in the last BJW X DDT crossover show, I think), but he left a pretty strong impression on me in this! His character work as (I’m assuming?) the Fool character was pretty great!
The music in this show also ruled. I loved the violin at the beginning, and the guitar they had going on during the battle royal act was fun! They also had this incredible altar setup, with bunches of roses and light tubes on the apron…
Tajiri was also here for some reason? I don’t remember seeing his name on the back of the DVD, haha.
Jun Kasai was fantastic in this! Honestly, all the wrestlers were great! I have no idea why he decided to kiss Numazawa’s character here, but, well, they decided to do that! I guess it’s a bit of a preview for the main event of Romeo vs Juliet, which is the next show…
The altar turned out to be made of light tubes, which is extremely pro wrestling, and of course someone crashed through it. I didn’t even realize what it was made out of until partially through this match. There were some other pretty incredible light tube/barbed wire/rose weapons, which of course broke spectacularly.
At one point, they scattered roses all over the ring and did a rolling cradle on top of the roses and the broken glass from the light tubes… I could only watch scattered pieces of this last match, but boy did it have a lot of striking imagery…
All in all, I loved it! I’m very excited for Romeo vs Juliet next, whenever that is able to happen! (It depends on when there are lulls in the TJPW translation workload, haha). I already got started translating the program, and I hope to get most of it done before watching the show so that my friends and I have as much context as possible.
With King Lear, I’m considering trying to translate shupro’s recap for it, since it goes more in depth about the plot (I didn’t look at the recap before watching because I didn’t want to spoil it), and then maybe making a huge blog post with everything I have translated for the show so that English-speaking fans (of wrestling and/or of Shakespeare) can know that it exists. Because I think it’s an incredibly cool work of art that really transcends genre boundaries in both directions.
I’d also love to properly gif it at some point, though who knows when I’ll get around to that, haha. Not that there’s really any particular rush, though…
Someday, when my listening comprehension is better, I’ll definitely rewatch all of these shows to get the full experience.