February 29, 1979/Showa 54
Over the course of the corona virus pandemic I took a step back from watching pro wrestling, both old and new, as my go-to promotions weren’t holding my interest and following the tragic passing of Hana Kimura I had lost most of my passion for the sport and totally stopped watching. I would join my friends in watching wrestling streams but more for the conversations and less so for the actual wrestling. New hobbies and jobs had taken up the time in my offline life and pro wrestling took a seat in the third row of my mind for the remainder of 2020 and it was looking like it would be more of the same for the beginning of 2021. One of the hobbies I adopted was getting back into reading and tackling the backlog of books that I had bought over the course of the last couple of years, in 2019 I had bought an academic book, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, in hopes of learning about the titular theater group and more about how popular culture in modern Japan develops and spreads; I came away from the book gaining the knowledge that I sought while also gaining much needed insight into how a phenomenon like Beauty Pair, and eventually the Crush Gals, were created and became so popular with teen girls and young women (shoujo) in Japan during the 1970s and 1980s. To truly understand how a singing tag team in joshi wrestling can become so popular and crossover into the mainstream one has to understand what was happening in wider popular culture in the same decade and how it leads AJW to create their first big act.
A simplified explanation of this is that in 1972 a shoujo manga, The Rose of Versailles, starts publication in Margaret magazine and becomes a national sensation over its year and a half run. In 1974 the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female revue theater company founded in 1913, staged a musical production of The Rose of Versailles that becomes a smash hit, over the next two years all 4 of Takarazuka Revue’s troupes stage multiple musicals based on the manga and take the shows on a national tour. The musicals were so popular that the now famous “Top Star” system was put in place with each actress that originally played Lady Oscar in her troupe’s performance becoming an inaugural top star. Starting in the 1920s the Takarazuka Revue’s founder, Ichizou Kobayashi, worked to encourage women to become active consumers and used his train company, Hankyu Corporation, and his growing theater group to attract families and women in the emerging middle and upper-middle classes to the Grand Theater in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture. Keep in mind that pro wrestling never exists in a bubble, it’s always informed and shaped by the culture it lives in, so a month before the Star troupe is set to begin its eventual 3-month run of The Rose of Versailles III, AJW create the first stars of the sport and the beginning of the company’s first boom period, Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda form the Beauty Pair and win the WWWA tag team titles.
An important thing to know in order to have greater context is how revue theaters operate in Japan; the revue boom of the early 1910s and 1920s marked the return of women to the stage since they were banned from kabuki performances back in 1629, the decision to become women-only was to make a never-before-seen novelty to attract an audience. In Japanese revue theater terminology, an actress that plays men’s roles is an “otokoyaku” and an actress that plays women’s roles is a “musumeyaku”. Something to note from the previous paragraph is that musicals, unlike normal plays, have songs that can be compiled into soundtracks that can then be sold and create additional revenue. For years Ichizou Kobayashi made an effort to have fans of his revue company travel on his trains to the Grand Theater that has multiple stores and cafes made to sell merchandise of the musicals and eventually of the stars themselves. His efforts would quickly be adopted by the Matsunaga Brothers and the AJW office when their newly created tag team record and release a single, “Kake meguru Seishun/かけめぐる青春”, in November of 1976 making the quick ascension of the Beauty Pair reaches even higher heights. Over the span of 4 years: a new manga starts and quickly becomes a pop culture sensation among female youth in Japan, a long established theater company creates a musical adaptation that becomes so popular they create 4 more plays based off this best-selling manga and experience their own massive boom period, and a relatively young joshi wrestling promotion that has a tv deal with a national broadcaster sees a massive opportunity to cash in on this “BeruBara Boom” and create their own version of Lady Oscar and Andre.
In a matter of months, the Beauty Pair are created, have an image made to cash in on a trend, a popular music single, and are quickly helping grow an audience of shoujo that are eager to find another set of women to cheer on much like Lady Oscar. One of the big attractions of the Takarazuka Revue and other Japanese revues is that traditionally male roles are performed by women (otokoyaku), adorning men’s fashion and adopting masculine behavior in contrast to the usually super feminine women (musumeyaku) that act in support of their otokoyaku counterparts. This dichotomy is implemented in AJW but to more as a surface-level visual due to athletics and muscular builds already making the female wrestlers non-traditional -and to some- unfeminine. The early adopted solution to help make sure the growing audience had a visual aid to know which wrestler of the tag team was meant to represent the otokoyaku and the musumeyaku was the gendered colors of red and blue on their wrestling gear. Red is gendered as a girls color while blue is a boys color, not all of Beauty Pair and other groups gear was split into red and blue but most teams had color-coded outfits in their rotation of outfits. The color-coding of gear would extend all the way into the 80s with the Crush Gals but wouldn’t live long once the Crush Gals start to wrestle more in singles matches as pop culture has since shifted to the next trends of the still growing bubble economy.
All of this table setting was to provide -in my eyes- the much needed context as to why Beauty Pair got so popular as fast as they did and why a retirement stipulation between Maki and Jackie was big enough for Budokan Hall. No expense seems to have been spared to giving this match a level of pageantry befitting the women who’re set to wrestle for, not only two singles titles, but for their career; each wrestler gets a custom entrance gate tall enough to reach the second floor balcony, adorned with a border of flashing lights, matching their respective ring corner, and their name written in giant white text. A card girl leads each entourage with a large sign of Maki and Jackie’s names, and it is quite literally an entourage leading Beauty Pair out to the ring as both wrestlers are being clawed at by fans and have a difficult time making it to the ring. The yelling immediately starts once the ring announcer starts the festivities and it doesn’t die down, you can see fan signs in different camera pans of the crowd and you also see groups of fans wearing matching jackets and head bands supporting Beauty Pair. My first time watching this match made me realize how little 70s joshi I have actually watched because I kept expecting spots common from the late 1980s and forward once more judoka enter the sport and vale tudo tournaments start to happen in Japan, but instead this match is some very solid chain wrestling and mat work featuring submissions and decent escapes. This isn’t anything close to a maestro match but you can’t point to any spot in the match and say that it was outright bad or that either woman made a mistake and didn’t know how to recover, both have good ability on the mat and nothing manages to drag the match down. Even when the literal pace of the match slows down the energy never drops and nothing ever felt like it was happening just to kill time, both wrestlers made it feel like they were fighting to win the match.
Mildred Burke, the woman who created the organization that created the WWWA championship titles, the World Women’s Wrestling Association, is in the crowd for the match to add another layer of prestige to the contest. Jackie is slightly stronger than Maki but she’s not able to take complete control of the match as Maki equally matches her in wrestling ability to make up for the small strength difference. The action reaches the top ropes only thrice, the first time is Maki climbing up for an armdrag, the next two times are when Maki and Jackie try for a flying body press but miss; both times the crowd get on their feet to see the wrestlers perform one of their signature moves as a tag team. The match comes to an abrupt end when Jackie, unable to turn Maki over into a boston crab as she’s holding onto her leg, folds Maki over into something close to an alligator clutch and gets the 3 count. On my first watch I felt disappointed that a good match with so much build up and palpable crowd excitement would end on something that felt a bit flat but the live audience doesn’t seem to care. It makes sense that a fight between Jackie and Maki would be an evenly split contest that could’ve ended in any way, but as a wrestling fan I wish something more fantastical could’ve brought an end to Beauty Pair instead of a plan b to a boston crab. After Jackie’s hand is raised the camera quickly starts panning the crowd to show all the girls crying that their idols now have to split up, before the announcer can officially declare Jackie as WWWA world champion streamers are flying into the ring, she is barely audible on the house mic during her post-match interview due to the fans being so loud. Maki’s interview can be heard but the longer it goes you can see that she’s starting to get emotional but keeps strong even when both members of Golden Pair, Nancy Kumi and Victoria Fujimi, are clearly heartbroken and cry into Maki’s shoulder while handing her flowers. Once the roster and staff hand Maki bouquets of flowers it’s time for the ten bell salute and the final gut punch is one last performance of “Kake meguru Seishun” with Jackie and Maki both teary-eyed. Our final scenes have Beauty Pair standing in the ring together as a farewell message from Maki scrolls across the screen and the large led sign displays a message, “Thank you, Beauty Pair. So long Beauty Pair”, in a very fitting ending to an incredible tag team.