It’s no secret that Jungle Kyona is my favourite wrestler. Unfortunately, since I started writing about pro wrestling here at Wrestle Inn, she’s been out recovering from a series of major injuries. I had warned our editorial team that when she announced her return, I’d be dumping a thesis onto the site extolling the virtues of everybody’s favourite Jungle Princess. All the time I had one eye on the calendar, worked out a rough timeline of when she might return, and eagerly awaited seeing the next time she’d tear heads off with a thunderous lariat or drop fools with the Jungle Buster.
September 29th, I went to sleep wondering if that weekend’s show in her home city of Nagoya might be a convenient place to return, with the person who betrayed her – Konami – facing off against the person who last helped her, Mayu Iwatani.
September 30th, she announced that she would be leaving Stardom.
Well, I never was one to let semantics get in the way. If she wasn’t coming back to Stardom, then I’d write my thesis anyways. As a thank you and as a goodbye.
Though this isn’t a goodbye, not really. In her statement Kyona said she would return to a wrestling ring one day. She needed to move forward and grow as both a person and a wrestler.
But it is a goodbye to the Stardom that I first knew. If you’ve ever read any of my features here on the promotion you’ll know I think very highly of the product as it currently is – it’s stacked with talent and personality and is only continuing to grow. But it’s filled with very different faces to those that I first saw.
Jungle Kyona. Kagetsu. Io Shirai. Kairi Hojo. Kris Wolf. Hiromi Mimura. Yoko Bito…Hana Kimura.
Of the Stardom I first knew, only Mayu Iwatani and Momo Watanabe really remain as I first remember them. And while Mayu was who first brought me into Stardom, it was Jungle who made me fall in love with the promotion. It’s not just me either. She’s inspired a very passionate fanbase, who like me were drawn to both her skill inside the ring and her spirit outside of it. Wrestling might ultimately just be a big grand athletic theatrical play, but personalities like Jungle Kyona draw you in and become invested. People like her make you care.
It takes a special person to embody the kind of vibrant spirit Kyona carried with her. An infectious joy that radiated from her confident promos, and how that energy was transferred into the ring through the form of rampaging brutality. She threw forearms and lariats that reminded me of the Strong Style I associated with my then burgeoning interest in Japanese wrestling. She flung bodies around the ring and launched herself off the top rope with a wild ferocity that I wasn’t used to.
Everything about her was encapsulated by her shouting ‘JUNGLE JUNGLE’ at the end of her pre-match promos, as bewildered teammates would watch on, unsure if they should participate in the war cry. It was full of Enthusiasm and strength.
She would need both, because I’ll be damned if she wouldn’t get beaten down.
There’s a reason many fans (including myself) rush to call her Stardom’s answer to Tomohiro Ishii. A supremely talented in ring competitor who is seen as more of a gatekeeper to the title scene than a champion themselves. If you had to see how good a rookie was, you’d send them out there with Kyona. Needed to hide someone’s in-ring shortcomings? You’d give them Kyona. Wanted an exciting title match to make the champion look good? Well…
Like Tomohiro Ishii she wasn’t a stranger to title challenges, and you were guaranteed to get a fantastic match whenever she did challenge, but Jungle never could get over the hump and hold a singles title in the air. Tag titles sure, she won both the Artist of Stardom and the Goddess of Stardom Championships multiple times with multiple people. She just never could get it done one on one.
In a way it was part of her charm. It was almost like an unspoken agreement between Stardom and the fans. Jungle would get cycled into the title picture, and in return the fanbase would convince themselves that maybe this time will be different, that Kyona will win either the Red or White Belt and the world will suddenly become a utopia as that last piece of the puzzle was realised.
Of course, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In that respect, all members of the Jungle Kyona Prayer Circle were at least a little bit crazy.
It didn’t change anything though, because no matter how many times Kyona fell down, she’d always dust herself off and get back in there. As strong as Jungle was, she was a classic underdog that fans could get behind and cheer – like Sami Zayn before he became a conspiracy nut.
Much like Sami, there’s a clear change in her character over the years as well. Her indomitable spirit never left, but she would wear the signs of her betrayals and hurt. Of which there were many.
The most painful of those was also perhaps the most innocuous. It wasn’t done with malice, or a chair to the skull (looking at you Konami). It was done without even realising it.
During 2018 there was a shakeup of the established order, with Stardom running the first of two drafts. Three factions took part: Kagetsu’s Oedo Tai, Io Shirai’s Queen’s Quest, and Mayu Iwatani’s Stardom Army. They each went through, picking their teams. Big names like Hana Kimura and Momo Watanabe went early, as well as prospect picks like AZM and Starlight Kid in the first round. As the factions filled up, there was a notable absence. Oedo Tai and Queen’s Quest settled on their teams, and Mayu looked out at ringside at who was left. Mostly kids and rookies – but then there was Jungle Kyona. Seemingly forgotten about.
She wasn’t a main eventer, but being left on the board over the likes of rookie Natsumi or lowly Shiki Shibusawa was frankly insulting. Mayu tried to play peacemaker, “You can join us, more people means we’re stronger!”, but Kyona wasn’t having it. She felt Mayu was building a ‘visual’ team, and if they (Natsuko Tora and Kaori Yoneyama were also left undrafted) weren’t wanted, then Team Jungle would do their own thing. She was nobody’s consolation prize.
They’d go on to form J.A.N. – Jungle Assault Nation. The group was small, only adding rookies like Ruaka, Leo Onazaki and eventually Saya Iida to the original trio. As a result they never really had the depth to consistently fight the other three factions. Jungle Kyona stepped up to the plate as a leader and made notable strides during this time, but it was short lived. The following year a second draft would be run, and with Hana breaking out on her own there were too many leaders in Stardom.
After losing a leaders elimination match, J.A.N were forced to disband just a year after going out on their own. Hana Kimura wouldn’t make the same mistake Mayu did; Kyona was drafted first into the group that’d later name Tokyo Cyber Squad. They became a weird amalgamation of the rebellious energy of Hana’s old Oedo Tai, along with a ‘come as you are’ attitude that J.A.N celebrated – all tied together in a neon weave.
Tokyo Cyber Squad would go on to become a beloved faction, but the harsh lessons learned by Kyona over that year had changed her. She was a little less outgoing and exuberant, hardened by trying to carry a group of underdogs against the wolves, and the pain of essentially being forgotten by someone she thought of as a friend. Much of her ‘Jungle’ gimmick was shed – the music, the colours, the catchphrase – keeping just the name, and more importantly, the heart. No matter how much she went through, her heart remained.
The beaten down hero trying to push through the struggle is a classic and integral narrative in any form of storytelling. However you never want to see it become a real battle. Unfortunately for Kyona, that’s what happened.
Hana Kimura’s passing on May of 2020 is the biggest tragedy in Stardom’s history, and the effects rippled through the entire roster. Of everyone, it was Jungle Kyona who seemed to carry the most of it on her shoulders.
In the year that they teamed together as a part of Tokyo Cyber Squad, the two had grown very close – becoming like sisters. Kyona supported Hana as best she could as her mental health waned in the face of abuse, until it all became too much and she eventually lost her battle with depression. Facing that as a close friend would take a massive toll on anyone.
When Stardom returned to action after her death, Jungle needed a little more time to mourn. When she returned, she wore special gear in tribute. The following year at Hana’s Memorial show, it was Kyona who ran the ten bell salute.
It was a very real burden strapped to the back of a person whose character had always seemed to be fighting against the tide. Then on top of the mental burden, Kyona’s body broke down. A combination of long term injuries that were never given the chance to heal eventually led to her having to step away from the ring. Shoulder surgery, ACL surgery, and rehab on her other knee for her injured MCL. Three of her four limbs had given way. The signs had been there, heavily taped body parts become part of the scenery in Stardom at times, but none of the fans knew just what kind of ticking time bomb she was.
Still, she soldiered on for one last match. In her home town of Nagoya, one night after being betrayed by Konami and seeing the official dissolution of Tokyo Cyber Squad, she limped out with a massive knee brace. By all accounts she probably shouldn’t have been out there wrestling, and it certainly showed. In hindsight, it was worth it. As part of her goodbye letter she spoke of how happy she was that her final match with the company was in her home town, and alongside Mayu Iwatani.
It’s a shame we never got to see more of Kyona and Mayu interact. In the entire six years that they were both in Stardom together they faced off in singles action only once, in July of 2020, just mere months before she’d wrestle in Stardom for the last time. Two wrestlers who demonstrated Stardom’s strength, to keep them apart so long it felt like a big deal. And while it wasn’t always public, it would appear they were fairly close behind the scenes as well. They shared a kindred spirit, both having run away from home at a young age to escape difficult situations. Mayu ran straight to a wrestling ring, Kyona path first led her across the world to Africa to do volunteer work.
This may not be the end of Jungle Kyona the wrestler. In that same letter where she spoke of being happy to end her Stardom career alongside Mayu, she talks of making a return to wrestling ‘somewhere on the planet’. On a radio appearance in Nagoya, she spoke of wanting to run a self-produced show. As a fan I’d love to see her back in the ring, but she has already transitioned into life away from the ring. While out injured she had to do something – she had to move forward – and so started at an advertising agency in Tokyo.
Stardom too will keep going from strength to strength. They’ve survived bigger losses and have all the momentum in the world right now. Over the past year many new fans have flocked to Stardom to see what everyone is talking about, but those newcomers may not realise what they’ve missed out on.
Being a part of the Jungle Kyona Prayer Circle might have at times felt less like a rollercoaster ride and more like being stuck in line waiting to board said rollercoaster – but it was all totally worth it. There’s no wrestler I’d rather cheer for. I know it’s all an act, but sometimes wrestling feels incredibly real. Jungle Kyona was an example of that – a downtrodden warrior whose spirit kept her going when anyone else would have stayed down. Someone who smiled and whose passion seemed to infect those around her. A heart of champion if ever there was one.
Both Jungle Kyona the wrestler and Jungle Kyona the person has had to deal with a lot, but she’s always gotten back up and always pushed forward. Sometimes you need that inspiration in your own life. Sometimes you need her energy in your life, to let forth a battle cry facing insurmountable odds. Sometimes you need that Jungle power to keep yourself going.
Thank you Jungle Kyona for six great years in Stardom. Wherever you end up, I’ll be there cheering you on. The Jungle Kyona Prayer Circle will live on.