A Tale of Tam: Searching for Family Inside the Ring

Tam Nakano might just be the most interesting woman in wrestling. She’s a former idol with martial arts experience and a license in pyrotechnics, who before joining Stardom, spent time being mentored by deathmatch legend Atsushi Onita in FMW – and yes, she participated in deathmatches too. This bizarre mis-mash of skills and experiences alone could win her the title, but that would be ignoring the years long story that she has been cultivating since joining Stardom in 2017. A story that manages to be both theatrical and yet also down to earth.

One thing you will notice about Stardom (though it is by no means exclusive to them) is that most wrestlers tend to cycle in and out of story relevancy. If you aren’t a focal point in the three or four active feuds that are being built up, you are just kind of there. Considering most stories develop around challenging for a title, if you aren’t a champion or an immediate challenger, you’re probably just supporting someone who is.

Tam Nakano has proven to be the exception to this rule. Since joining Stardom, she’s constantly managed to find herself in a story of some sort, and has managed to do so without a particularly impressive championship record. In her three and a half years with the company, Tam has held the Artists of Stardom Championship three times and won the Tag League once. Yet despite a relatively small amount of time surrounding championships, Tam has always found something to latch on to and keep herself relevant. Throughout those three years there has been a strong narrative undercurrent that has made Tam Nakano by far the most engaging character in Stardom. If you take a step back, and follow the years worth of development, the Tale of Tam is a truly compelling one.

From the moment she stepped foot in Stardom, Tam Nakano drew the interest of the resident lovable heels: Oedo Tai. With no friends or prior connections in the company, Tam could have been lonely in Stardom, but Oedo Tai quickly made her feel wanted, including her in their shenanigans even before Tam joined. The tipping point for her was being ringside for the match between stablemates Kagetsu and Hana Kimura. They fought hard but they clearly cared for each other. Oedo Tai may be rule breakers and scoundrels, but more importantly, they’re family. Tam asked if she could join, they rushed to hug her and together they took part in their first dance together.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Tam’s run with Oedo Tai from an in ring perspective is forgettable. She was injured for most of it; working from the sidelines as a manager. It didn’t matter though, because as a group they clicked, and to this day fans still look back fondly on this iteration of Oedo Tai. Of the group, Hana often showed the most affection towards her, and the two quickly hit it off. She felt loved and cared for. They were her family.

Family don’t always get along though. Dissension started to grow when leader Kagetsu brought Natsu Sumire in without consulting the others first. Tam Nakano wouldn’t realise this at the time, but this is an action she would witness throughout her career. Tam and Hana grew closer in their disdain for Natsu, but they settled their differences and remained strong. It was just in time for the family to be torn apart, and it would be all because of one bad decision by Kagetsu. During her battles with Queen’s Quest leader Io Shirai, she proposed an elimination gauntlet match where the last person to be eliminated would be forced to leave their group.

Tam drew that last spot in a random draw, and despite her best efforts she would eventually fall to Momo Watanabe. Oedo Tai had lost and Tam was out, cast into the Stardom wilderness once again with nobody to care for her. Or at least that’s what she thought. Both Io Shirai and Mayu Iwatani extended an offer towards her to join their groups. She was clearly still reeling from the loss and couldn’t commit so Mayu made the choice on her behalf, essentially kidnapping the crestfallen Tam as she dragged her backstage.

It was shocking at first, but seeing how desperate Mayu was to team up with Tam played on her desire to be loved. In promos Mayu would talk about wanting to protect her and look after her. Which was important, because even though the split with Oedo Tai had been on good terms, now Tam was outside the group and she was an enemy. An increasingly unhinged Hana Kimura had developed a taste for assaulting Tam, and the feud with her former family became so volatile that things had to be settled with an exploding bat match, where she called back on her deathmatch past to get her big statement win.

The problem is that for as close as Tam felt to Mayu, she didn’t always receive that same affection back. For starters, it wasn’t Mayu who fought alongside her in the exploding bat match, it was Io Shirai. Then when Saki Kashima returned to the company, Mayu had a new favourite, and together they won tag team gold. This would be the one lull in Tam’s career story-wise, though she would win the trios title with the duo. But even the absence of a story helped to develop her character. She might have wanted more, but as long as Mayu was happy Tam was happy. She was content to stand back a bit for her friend. It wasn’t until the return of another former Stardom wrestler, Arisa Hoshiki, that Tam began to really feel like she was being replaced.

Arisa Hoshiki was a part of the first generation of Stardom trainees alongside Mayu Iwatani. They debuted against each other and would eventually team together. There was a special bond between them. When Arisa announced her return, she did so wanting to join back up with her old friend in STARS. Tam made her displeasure very clear, with a definitive no when she was asked if Arisa was welcome in the group.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

It didn’t matter to Mayu though. She brought Arisa into the team and quickly expected everybody to just get along. This started a long running love-hate relationship between Tam and Arisa, and due to the nature of Stardom’s shows, they were often paired together in multi-woman tag matches. Tam would take every opportunity to publicly express her disdain for Arisa, be it by ignoring high fives, shaking her off the ropes, or even using her as a weapon and bodyslaming her onto their opponents.

Tam would eventually challenge Arisa for her Wonder of Stardom title, coming up short, but in the process winning the award for the company’s match of the year. After that fight, her hatred for Arisa slowly began to morph more into reluctant respect. As Dream Shine they won the Tag League and although they failed to win the tag titles, their bond continued to grow. Tam promised Arisa she would be the one to take the Wonder of Stardom title from her, and Arisa welcomed that rematch.

Things were not meant to be though. Before they could clash again Arisa’s poor health forced her into an early retirement. Tam Nakano made it her duty to win the title just as she had promised when Arisa was still champion, but she could never claim it from the new champion Giulia. Although it had been a complicated relationship, they had become like sisters, and again Tam was left feeling lonely.

Arisa’s retirement came not long after Saki Kashima had betrayed Mayu, choosing to side with Tam’s old group Oedo Tai. Tam was there fighting Saki for her friend, and it was hard to ignore the fact that the two people Mayu had replaced her with were now gone. Yet still Tam was left behind, this time so Mayu could rekindle her MK Sisters tag team with Starlight Kid. STARS wasn’t quite the loving family to Tam that Oedo Tai had been. Though maybe it could be.

Tam started to look outside of Stardom, and welcomed Mina Shirakawa into the group. However she didn’t discuss this with the rest of the faction. It wouldn’t be until a friendly tag match against Mayu and Kid where Mina would be officially accepted, proving herself to the leader of STARS. Tam wasn’t done playing recruiter though, and brought in Unagi Sayaka not long after. After experiencing first hand what surprise additions to a faction can do with Natsu Sumire and Arisa Hoshiki, Tam had repeated the mistakes of history with Mina and Unagi.

It would be one step too far in Mayu’s eyes, and an emotionally charged civil war would break out in the STARS faction that eventually lead to the trio (known as Cosmic Angels) splitting away. Tam Nakano now had a new family; one she had handpicked herself. Despite their differences, she never understated how important Mayu was for her. She wouldn’t be the wrestler she is now without her guidance and leadership.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

What Mayu couldn’t give her though was the love and care first promised to Tam. She had already felt pushed aside with Saki and Arisa’s arrivals, yet she never left Mayu’s side. When the chance arose for Tam to bring her friends in, suddenly it wasn’t acceptable. And the STARS family firmly backed their leader. Starlight Kid in particular became rather hostile towards Tam, showing a fire we had yet to see from her. Even if Tam wanted to, she was no longer welcome with her old family.

If you follow Tam’s career from her debut in Stardom to now, you’ll notice a couple of things. Firstly, the massive strides she’s made in the ring. She went from passable to one of the better wrestlers on an already strong roster. Perhaps more importantly though, you’ll notice her strength of character. Her actions and words line up with the path she’s walked, and each moment has logically progressed to the next. It feels more like a novel than a wrestling production.

It doesn’t hurt that Tam is the best character actress on the roster, and arguably has been for years. Watching her slumped over in the ring, crying at the realisation that she can no longer be with her Oedo Tai family is heartbreaking. When she’s in the ring with Giulia it’s easy to believe that she genuinely despises her. This recent drama with Mayu has been yet another example of her ability to sell more than just a wrestling move.

At the centre of Tam Nakano’s entire journey has been about finding a place to call home. She had it in Oedo Tai. That was a loving family to her, and they encouraged her natural creativity. When she introduced a panda puppet named P-Chan as their producer, they ran with it. And then one bad decision took that family away. Ever since, she has been trying to replace Kagetsu and Oedo Tai with Mayu Iwatani and STARS, and now with a group she could lead.

Tam looked up to Mayu and idolised her. However while she was able to grow as both a wrestler and a person under the Stardom Icon, Mayu didn’t truly fulfil what she needed. She always felt like something of a third wheel as new friends were brought in, and in Tam’s desperation to be best friends with her, she was blinded to the budding friendship with Arisa. By the time she realised what she had, Arisa too was ripped away from her.

The character of Tam Nakano is better defined than any other wrestler on the roster: she’s a caring friend who expects a lot from those she is close to; bratty and childish when challenged, but while Tam started off as a bit meek and unsure of herself, she’s become a strong and confident fighter willing to stand up to anyone. She wants to be a champion, but even her obsession with the Wonder of Stardom championship is built more on Arisa Hoshiki than it is her own career ambitions. Deep down, Tam Nakano just wants a family who loves and respects her for who she is.

It doesn’t matter if she’s in the main event or part of a directionless midcard tag match, Tam Nakano is always working hard to make sure that her character is growing and building upon itself. Her story isn’t over. She is set for a one-on-one match with her former best friend and mentor, Mayu Iwatani on the 24th, and she still needs to fulfil her promise to Arisa Hoshiki and claim the Wonder of Stardom Championship. That’s the beauty of wrestling: a performer’s story is always growing. Tam Nakano’s just happens to be one of the more compelling out there.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom