“My blood is a miracle that, from my veins,
crosses the air
from my heart to yours.”
Megumi Kudo’s matches were exhibitions of the macabre, powered by images of barbed wire and gashes across her brow. You may forget the wrestling moves, the ebb and flow of a match, but good luck trying to shake the memory of Kudo’s face caked in blood.
Similarly, Frida Kahlo’s paintings draw much of their power from unsettling and indelible images. An open chest cavity. Arrows piercing flesh. Kahlo’s body stabbed with masonry nails.
16-year-old Kudo was an unassuming rookie. She showed promise in terms of mat wrestling but didn’t yet have a star’s presence. She tagged alongside Noriyo (aka Combat) Toyoda, competed against the other young AJW Dojo trainees, and collided with a young Aja Kong. But fame didn’t follow. Kudo left the promotion in 1988 and taught kindergarten for the next two years, as noted on FMW World.
Considering the embarrassment of riches that was AJW’s roster, with names like Bull Nakano, Yumiko Hotta, Manami Toyota, and Lioness Asuka at the time, it’s not surprising she didn’t make a mark there.
It wasn’t until Kudo joined the Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling promotion in 1990 that she began to find her voice as a wrestler. This was Atsushi Onita’s creation, a carnival of the grotesque, a land where barbed wire surrounding the ring, bloodshed and sharp implements were commonplace. This is where Kudo became Kudo, where she drew us in as a never-say-die warrior.
Kahlo’s journey as an artist began some 10,000-plus kilometers from FMW territory.
The daughter of a photographer, the Coyocan, Mexico native suffered from polio as a young girl. It left her with a limp and her right leg shorter than her left. FridaKahlo.org notes that her father encouraged her to play sports to help her recovery: “She played soccer, went swimming, and even did wrestle, which is very unusual at that time for a girl.”
While she was a student at Mexico City’s National Preparatory School in 1922, a disastrous bus accident left Kahlo in unimaginable pain. Recovering from a fractured pelvis and spine, bedridden in a body cast, she turned to painting as a diversion.
She had technical and creative skill early on. Like Kudo, though, her full potential didn’t come until her work veered toward a darker direction.
For Kudo, it was a move to FMW and all its grim trappings, that elevated her. For Kahlo, it was a shift to surrealism, a style that allowed her to express herself in a vividly personal way, that helped her make her name.
One of Kudo’s early displays of her transformation came against Combat Toyoda, a sneering, mohawked powerhouse who would become one of Kudo’s greatest rivals. In 1990, the two former tag partners met in a Street Fight at FMW’s Summer Spectacular show in the Shiodome.
This was not the meek, babyfaced Kudo that we had seen in AJW. This was a fearless bastard who leaped out of the ring before the bell even rang. She hurled Toyoda through the crowd, straight up kicking her ass. The action is heavy on chair shots and closed fists. There’s a wildness to the match, a primal electricity, that is driving force of much of Kudo’s resume.
One of the most memorable moments comes when Toyoda ties a leather belt tight around Kudo’s neck and drags her across the canvas. Kudo’s reaction, her body shaking, flailing, desperate, is uncomfortably real. Her pain, however much of it is performed and however much is legit, resonates on the screen. And all of us sadistic creeps watch on in horror and wonderment.
It feels as invasive to watch Kudo suffer there as it does to see a bloody, naked Kahlo on a hospital bed in her painting Henry Ford Hospital.
Red cords protrude from her body, holding a floating fetus, snail, and pelvic bone close to her. It’s an obvious metaphor for Kahlo’s miscarriage, a striking use of her pain as the foundation for her art.
Kudo didn’t bear as personal a wound as Kahlo, but her chosen medium is one built around suffering. All wrestlers experience pain as part of the storytelling process, but the hardcore, high-risk style that Kudo employed relies on a more visceral version.
You see that clear as day in her match against Mayumi Ozaki in April of ’97.
In a ring with barbed wire for ropes, both women stand ready for a dogfight, decked out in denim and kneepads. Seconds into this thing and Ozaki and Kudo push each other toward the edge where a mess of coils of barbed wire await them. At first, the drama they create comes from anticipation. The fighters teeter toward that steel briar pit. We wait for someone to fall, to hurt, to writhe, to bleed. We are not left disappointed as Kudo
Ozaki flings Kudo into the barbed wire boards. She chokes our fearless hero with chains, drags her like a deer corpse, hurls her into the front row.
Kudo has to peel her flesh from the barbs, but soon leaps right back in to dive on Ozaki.
It’s clear Kudo will do just about anything in a wrestling match to create a spectacle, to leave the taste of drama in our mouths. The result is a classic bout that is equal parts troubling and exciting.
Kahlo, similarly, made art that startled, that made one uncomfortable from its gruesomeness.
The Broken Column is a most apt example of that. In 1944, after she had undergone spinal surgery, Kahlo painted a surreal self portrait that was among her darkest works.
In it, she stands in front of a green, hilly field that looks to have been torn by some great monster’s claw. Kahlo herself faces the viewer stoic and cold despite her ripped open torso. A metal column stretches along the inside of her body, an awkward makeshift backbone. Nails pierce her arms, her breasts, her face.
It doesn’t take a detective to piece together that this about pain, a clear symbol of the difficulty of recovering from surgery, her oft-broken body.
Kahlo, like Kudo, didn’t go for subtlety. Her agony in all its rawness howls from the canvas.
That’s how Kudo’s wrestling style felt, as well. You need not look for subtext. Blood, sliced skin, the dust from explosions said everything she wanted to say with her matches.
Just over 10 days after her match with Ozaki, Kudo pushed the boundaries of self-chosen torture even further when she went up against Shark Tsuchiya.
Shark was an imposing bruiser with Road Warrior-esque face paint. She sported green hair and a nasty scowl.
In their match, explosions spark at Kudo’s back. She suffers a sickle slicing across her forehead. With blood covering her face, she fights on. Piledrivers, a steel chair across the head, Shark spitting fire into her face, none of it is enough to keep Kudo down. Every desperate lift of her shoulder off the mat shows off Kudo’s heart. More explosions follow and Kudo collapses onto the Shark for a victory via attrition.
This kind of insanity was commonplace for Kudo. In 1997, she wrestled three barbed wire matches in a month and a half. Her FMW run is littered with these kinds of bouts, and it’s no surprise that these were the ones she’s most remembered for.
Kudo thrived in that world of torment. She looked most at home there, bloodied and wailing.
Kahlo never took a sickle slice across the brow for her art, but her imagery often walked a similar path.
In her painting The Wounded Deer (El Venado Herido), she depicts herself as a deer with a human head bounding through a forest. A flurry of arrows digs into her body. Blood drips from each entry wound.
It is as loud and in-your-face as a Kudo match. Kahlo is clearly telling us about some inner anguish. Perhaps the arrows are a reference to all the physical pain she endured after the bus accident or the emotional hurt she went through during her tumultuous relationship with her husband Diego Rivera. Either way, Kahlo bears this messy, uncomfortable emotion freely, for all of us to see and interpret.
It is raw and vivid, with a moroseness at its core. You can describe Kudo’s work that very way, too.
The two women clearly had a lot different about them, from nationality to chosen art medium, but they shared the ability to communicate through pain, to make us squirm and stare at it.
Kahlo once said, “Everything can have beauty, even the worst horror.” I’m reminded of that idea when watching Kudo’s career back. The wrestler settled into darkness, into blood and guts, and each time out, the result was some memorable, moving match that has just as much beauty as many a painting hanging on a museum wall.