King Of Strong Style – 1980-2014 though is the first time I’ve delved into a book entirely focussing on the Japanese wrestling scene, and more specifically the life and career of New Japan Pro Wrestling prodigy Shinsuke Nakamura.
The span of the book is, by chance of when it was written, a slightly odd one as it ends just as international and comparatively mainstream recognition headed the way of Nakamura and NJPW, but in this it means a lot of what is covered is less familiar, certainly to an until recently more casual fan of Japanese wrestling like me.
The other thing that strikes is the style of the book.
Rather than being, as I expected, a straight autobiography, it takes the form of an extended interview between Nakamura and an unknown questioner.
I’m not sure if it’s because of this, but, throughout the content feels very much protectionist of both pro-wrestling generally and Nakamura and NJPW more specifically and doesn’t flow and explore Shinsuke himself, or those unique little side stories that exist in the world of wrestling, in quite the way I was expecting.
This gives it a very strange feeling as, while the early sections are clearly about The King Of Strong Style’s childhood and experience in amateur wrestling contests (most fascinatingly including early confrontations with his later professional opponents) appear to be as honest as one would expect, as it goes on this feeling changes, to varying degrees, to fit in with the so-called ‘kayfabe’ world of pro-wrestling, giving it all a rather imbalanced aspect that never seems to expose much about Nakamura’s life away from wrestling or how he fits into the wider world of it.
Where the book finds the most meat is in Nakamura’s descriptions of the troubles at a corporate level for NJPW as he is one of few who has gone from the ‘Inoki-era’ of the company to the current corporate owned version, and all the trials and tribulations that went with that.
While Nakamura was, at least according to legend, the last great student of NJPW founder Antonio Inoki and so still has a certain reverence for him, for the most part he doesn’t seem to hold back when discussing the troubles the company had through the 2000s as it changed hands several times and went from almost becoming an MMA promotion to the more ‘sports entertainment’/strong style hybrid product it now produces.
The talk of in-ring action seems to struggle to find the balance between reality and ‘kayfabe’ which makes large chunks rather hard to read and I suspect this isn’t helped by being translated from Japanese with a few idiosyncrasies that I needed to get my head around.
King Of Strong Style then contains some genuinely fascinating stuff for the completist but for a more casual fan, or someone looking for backstage tales and gossip of Nakamura’s run against the Bullet Club and leap to international fame, or even his personal relationships with the likes of contemporaries Hiroshi Tanahashi or Katsuyori Shibata, it is somewhat lacking.