Wrestling Narratology: Japanese King’s Road, Suggestions for WWE Storytelling
In Japan, there’s this neat little thing called King’s Road. Haven’t heard of it? Well neither had I until a couple years ago, and even then the information was nebulous at best. I learned a few basic things: it’s Japanese. It is not the same thing as Japanese strong style. It’s a wrestling style as well as a booking structure for a feud and the matches therein. And it certainly isn’t something you’ll see in WWE, or so my informant tried to hammer into my head.
Since then, I delved a bit further into the subject and also made my own inferences. Wrestlers who practice King’s Road utilize a tiered set of moves. Two practitioners will begin a match with their weakest moves while building toward their strongest. The lead-up to the finish often consists of lots of nasty spots that may result in a challenge of “who can do the biggest moves until one guy can’t move anymore.” (In kayfabe, of course.) There are also a lot of wonderfully brutal head drops. Furthermore, King’s Road dictates how a series of matches develops throughout a whole rivalry. When the same two practitioners wrestle again, it’s expected that their match reflects their previous encounter. For instance, chain wrestling sequences used in the previous match might incorporate an additional counter. And whatever big spot that put away the loser last time might instead be used as a nearfall in their second encounter, heightening the drama for those fans who know that spot to have been the finish in the prior match.
As far as my own inferences, I’ve decided that while there’s certainly nothing exactly like King’s Road in WWE (so hopefully my now estranged informant won’t be affronted by what I’m about to say), some of its conventions are definitely seen on WWE TV. For instance, wrestlers do have tiered sets of moves. A standard match usually develops from lighter strikes and chain wrestling to signatures and finally to a finisher. Maybe also sub-finishers, but I’ll get to that later. Of course, a regular match usually lacks a brutal exchange of heavy grapples, but there have definitely been a lot of main event quality matches even this year (like Punk/Cena on RAW and Punk/Undertaker at WrestleMania) that incorporated such an exchange. And though not always explicitly, we do sometimes see allusions to previous matches during subsequent contests. Although I didn’t love the Punk/Rock matches, we saw this concept when during Punk/Rock II, The Rock failed to put away CM Punk after The People’s Elbow, even though he’d won the previous match with that very move – and I freaking hate that finish. Regardless, it was an example of showing how the wrestlers build off their previous encounter.
If I were to, in a word, sum up what all these examples lack in comparison to the Japanese models, I would say “refinement.” Although you can definitely see some of these concepts play out in WWE, whether they’re learned from Japanese puroresu or are longstanding conventions of pro wrestling not exclusive to Japan (and thus the Japanese instead adapted and refined them, not invented them or at least not all of them), I would say the WWE usually lacks refinement in these conventions. A lot of the WWE’s best matches that have used some of these concepts are exemplary, but when it comes to your standard match and your average WWE Superstar’s moveset, yeah, there’s definitely a lack of depth and long-term thinking.
Do I think WWE necessarily needs to practice the King’s Road style in whatever programs they choose to apply it? Nah. WWE’s a different demon with different production processes and different audiences. What they should do is improve booking and wrestling concepts that suit their resources and conventions. In the following sections, I’ll take a look at different contributions to WWE’s narratives and maybe how they could be improved. To what end? Remember that matches, storylines, the whole company – it’s all narrative. Defining program and match structures invariably affects the narrative engagement of those products, because through those definitions, through the theory, it’s easier to translate the conceptualizations into actuality – theory into practice. Refining these structures should affect the audience in ways that promote narrative engagement. Structures > emotions > engagement. Simple.
That’s just a phrase I made up, so you can call it whatever you want. Maybe nearfall signature would work too. Or dramatic nearfall signature. Whatever, I ‘unno. What I have in mind is signatures such as CM Punk’s roundhouse kick to the head and … well, Daniel Bryan’s roundhouse kick to the head. Think also of Undertaker’s Last Ride and Sheamus’ White Noise. What’s different about these signatures compared to other ones in their arsenals? I’ve seen them win sometimes off these signatures. Undertaker’s tenure as “The American Badass” notwithstanding, The Last Ride has primarily been used as a dramatic nearfall with which ‘Taker might occasionally pick up a television win. Same with Punk’s and Bryan’s roundhouse kicks and Sheamus’ White Noise. Especially Sheamus’ White Noise, since they really tried to get that over for a while. There’s also John Morrison’s Flying Chuck, Kofi Kingston’s rolling gutwrench driver/S.O.S./Ranhei, and loads of other stuff. In summary, WWE has a lot of guys with what you might call sub-finishers.
What’s the point of having a signature move you occasionally use for a finish on television? Elementary, my dear TJR Wrestlians. It conditions you (especially less refined fans, I say smoking from a bubble pipe) to, in a bigger match, expect that it could actually be the finish. That’s how we get some nearfalls. Obviously other nearfalls are made just on the spot, whether it’s a brutal move that looks painful enough for a finish (like CM Punk piledriving John Cena to all hell) or just a signature that’s a signature specifically because it looks good enough for a nearfall. However, these sub-finishers are especially dramatic. Since we’ve seen them used for a finish on TV, we flip out more when someone kicks out of it in a big match. It also can really help a match on TV that wasn’t especially hyped. When you start seeing them kick out of these big moves it might say, “Hey, this match could actually be a big deal. PPV-quality stuff going on over here, so maybe you should just stay put.” In terms of narrative engagement, it’s visceral. Something that delights us, but isn’t necessarily chewy unless woven into a story that digs its depth.
Considering I had so many examples to list off, maybe WWE already is doing this pretty well. However, it’s actually been a while since I’ve seen Daniel Bryan or CM Punk win off their roundhouse kicks. Same for Sheamus’ White Noise. Sometimes it feels like they might give them some easy wins with these sub-finishers to establish it short-term, but once the move’s running history has been diluted with too many nearfalls and not enough victories, more people get wise and stop thinking of it as a possible finish in big matches. It’s tough to counteract. Sometimes a wrestler’s ongoing program doesn’t call for any easy television wins. Also, why have Sheamus win off White Noise when the audience will pop like a dirigible for the Brogue Kick? There are some ways around this, like having Sheamus hit the Brogue post-match after winning with something else. Of course, that would become painfully routine if they did that often. WWE’s stories aren’t ever wholly driven by the story. Sometimes the external narrative sets restrictions on what sort of story the wrestling, the internal narrative can tell. It’s a give-take situation that requires a balance to be struck that’s probably relative to particular programs and guys. No rule of thumb here, I say to take the pressure off myself and move on.
Sub-finishers, dramatic nearfall signatures, headsmashy one-two-oh-so-closies – whatever you call them, it’s clear they’re a benefit both to the quality of a match and hell, maybe even keeping people invested in a match on TV that they might otherwise tune out of if it weren’t for the dramatic nearfalls popping off to say, “Hey, stay the frick in your seat.” While I can’t provide any empirical evidence to their advantages, I do believe it’s an avenue worth exploring for the WWE.
Strike a Balance
Sometimes a match’s external narrative, especially the immediate “angle” of a rivalry, might trivialize the wrestling going on. Often we see this as gimmick matches with elaborate set pieces. The problem with those set pieces is that they’re often campy, unbelievable or sometimes even borderline ambiguous as far as whether they satisfied the conditions for a finish – like John Cena AAing Ryback through the top of that ambulance. If I were Ryback, I’d sure be pissed for losing due to an unforeseeable circumstance that probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I’d blame the ambulance. Really, that whole finish embodies every criterion of a rank set piece.
Let’s just stop talking about that match.
A match should satisfy expectations of the external narrative, while still teasing out a few intricate pleasures for those who’ve followed the feud diligently. When you rely on set pieces, the rest of the match is reduced to padding. They move from Point A to Point B to Point C and so on. While set pieces can work well when done right, the rest of the match should be balanced by wrestling that’s entertaining and builds to those big spots. It should be no different than watching a television show or movie. We don’t just want to see wrestlers meander from big spot to big spot, we want to see the struggles in between. Of course, this sort of planning requires wrestlers and creative members who are attuned to the conventions of wrestling and its storytelling, which leads me to my next suggestion….
Hire Better Wrestlers and Creative Members
On the creative side, there are definitely matches and segments that can be booked along the way to the big blowoff match that allow more opportunities for the wrestler to build up his own narrative within the parameters of the external narrative. An example relating back to the first suggestion would be giving a wrestler an easy television win with a sub-finisher to layer in extra drama once he uses that move for a nearfall during the next big match with his rival. Then, of course, when it comes to planning the individual matches, they need to be sure their external narrative doesn’t interfere with the wrestlers’ business. A good creative member inserts moments or tones that’ll help satisfy the external narrative, but won’t position those set pieces in ways that make it frustrating to work between those lines. And those good creative members probably aren’t going to be former soap opera writers unless they actually appreciate wrestling for its own conventions.
It might be a tired argument, but WWE really does need better wrestlers. It’s not enough to be competent. Wrestlers need to have a keen eye for the trajectory of both themselves and their storylines. Their styles, their matches, their characters – they should build, progress, grow as an appreciable extension of themselves. This is easier to do when you have a more expansive toolset, meaning more talking points, a larger moveset, greater athleticism – in general, flexibility. There are dozens of wrestlers currently working in America who have experience with promotions like AJPW and Pro Wrestling Noah where they’re required to be more proactively and retroactively thinking in their approach to development. When you accomplish this sense of progression, there’s more tangible evidence of struggle, of growth, so that the fans are engaged not just in hot button phrases (like a lot of John Cena storylines not involving CM Punk), but also the progression of the talents and stories in ways that are conducive to what we’re actually watching – wrestling.
Wrestling’s all about story. It really doesn’t matter if we mean promos or holds. They’re both components. Japanese King’s Road isn’t just wrestling, it’s still story. They’re communicating a story through the essence of sport – through the wrestling. Do I believe WWE should give up the glitz and glam, retire its fireworks, quit coming up with dramatic hooks for storylines? Nah. Because even though the WWE’s lack of wrestling focus has produced a ton of duds, it’s also allowed us to explore story material a lot of more wrestling-oriented promotions wouldn’t touch. What’s needed is to strike a balance, to have employees – both wrestlers and creative members – who understand the conventions of their narratology, of their business (their business is storytelling), who understand that some external narratives are more compatible with the components of the internal narrative, with the wrestling than others.
Like I said a few weeks ago, that’s why it’s important we have this discussion. We need to reexamine the methodology of wrestling promotion, to understand it as something that can be crafted meticulously, that can simply be a craft, a production. So I’ve gotta ask, what do you, the TJR Wrestlians, think really makes a match’s story? What components, be it on the mic, in the ring or even in the production of the show, do you think nurtures a wrestling narrative? What can we learn from the narrative structures of other countries? Let me know in the comment section.
Thanks for reading. As always, I appreciate any and all criticisms. Until next week, check me out on Twitter, shoot me an angry email and take a gander at my fiction page.