Shine Bright Tonight: On the Early Greatness of Yuki Arai

Credit: TJPW

It isn’t fair how good Yuki Arai is already.

When a giraffe first tries to walk, its gangly limbs buckle underneath it. When a student first plays the violin, the sound is ugly and grating, as if the instrument is wailing before death. When most normal humans start wrestling, it’s a struggle.

You have to time your movements in sync with your opponent. You have to learn how to endure the steady pain, the cruel rigidness of the mat, the abuse of the ropes. You have to learn how to fill moments in a match with action, anticipation, or animation. Your body language must project suffering and fury.

It’s not surprising it takes new wrestlers so long to put it all together.

There’s a reason it’s commonly understood that wrestlers don’t hit their peak until their early 30s. It takes time to master all these moving parts. It takes time to stop thinking about the moves so your heart and spirit can do the talking. That is unless you are Yuki Arai.

Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling’s super rookie isn’t waiting until she’s 30 or even until she’s passed the 50-match mark. She’s skipping right to the looking like a bona fide star part of her career.

You saw that back in March when Arai challenged Maki Itoh for the International Princess Championship at the Grand Princess event. This was just the 33rd match of her career and just her eighth one-on-one bout (if you don’t count the DDT Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship stuff).

The storytelling these two pulled off that night in Ryogoku Kokugikan belied Yuki’s lack of experience.

You could tell at times that Arai’s game still needs some polish, but all the intangibles were there. Her star presence gleamed opposite one of TJPW’s biggest names. Her facial expressions, whether she was gritting her teeth determined not to tap out or semi-conscious after taking Itoh’s best shots, elevated the action.

Maki Itoh punishes Yuki Arai with her Ito Special submission. (Credit: TJPW)

Emotion surged through much of her offense. She was convincingly angry as she fired back against Itoh in a flurry of forearms capped off with a boot to the chin. She clamped on a picture-perfect Sharpshooter. All the while, she looked worthy of this big spot, worthy of this immediate push TJPW has given her.

Arai had a whole gaggle of doubters when she debuted for the promotion last spring. After all, she was an outsider, a pop singer. Arai has performed for the bubbly, sugary pop idol group SKE48 since 2013.

She had dipped her toes in wrestling previously with DDT and its Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship gimmick in 2018, but now she was fully stepping into a world not her own.

Sure, she was getting trained up by company ace Miyu Yamashita, but could we take her seriously?

You could reasonably expect Yuki to just bring a dash of name power, a photogenic face, and a fun personality to the mix. This is a company with a lot of workers who lean more on their characters than their ring work. Maybe she’d fit right in with the comedy wrestlers and goofy gimmicks.

But it was clear early on that Arai was suited for more than that.

She wrestled in mostly tag matches to begin with, 14 out of her first 17 matches to be exact. This was surely done to ease her in. But as she worked on getting comfortable with all the ins and outs of ring work, it was clear quite quickly that she had the “it” factor part of the package down.

Arai stood out.

In six-woman tags, in matches with main eventers like Shoko Nakajima, or legends like Aja Kong, she stood out. That wasn’t because of her wrestling so much, but because she felt like a big deal.

You can’t teach that essential ingredient in any dojo or gym. Some folks just walk into a room and make you take notice. Arai is one of them.

Jade Cargill had star quality early on. Ronda Rousey did too. And now here was Arai, in her Sailor Moon-esque blue and white skirt, with her toothpaste commercial-worthy smile, bringing that same magnetism to TJPW.

Last December, Arai took on TJPW end boss Miyu Yamashita at the Nagoya Castle show.

Promo image for Miyu Yamashita vs. Yuki Arai (Credit: TJPW)

It was the biggest match of her career to date, a singles clash with the company’s finest. It was a chance to show off her progress, to make it undeniable that she belonged in the spotlight.  

Yamashita did most of the heavy lifting offensively, but Arai added plenty with her heart and fighting spirit.

She played the outmatched underdog masterfully. Arai got her ass kicked and made you care about it. Yamashita kicked her with no semblance of mercy; Arai pushed on, gutsy, driven, resilient.

The newcomer was brilliant as the stubborn, tough, outmatched fighter bravely taking on all the cruelty Yamashita had to offer.

On Ramblings About Wrestling, Stuart Iverson wrote of Arai’s performance, “TJPW have something special on their hands, and this match ruled.”

A few months later at TJPW Positive Chain, Arai was shining again when given the stage. This time she faced rising star Suzume, the lanky, dropkicking speedster with bee-inspired gear.

The Max Heart Tournament final on that same show was a better match from a technical/star rating standpoint, but this clash is the kind that sticks with you emotionally. In it, Arai showcased her uncanny understanding of wrestling storytelling.

Her facial expressions were top-notch. At one point, she cranked a sleeper on Suzume and a sly, malicious look slipped over her face.

A simple, well-executed story played out in just over 11 minutes. Suzume’s desperation and limb work wasn’t enough to take down Arai, the taller, more powerful of the two.

Again, we saw the grittiness Arai keeps under that pop singer perkiness. Again, we saw a wrestler, while working with a thin in-ring playbook, reach the audience in emphatic fashion.

DDT president Sanshiro Takagi, in an interview with Oricon News (translated by the unofficial DDT English fansite), said that Arai was quickly getting the hang of things in the ring in part due to her idol training and ballet experience.

It goes beyond that, though. Yes, she’s camera ready and has a good sense of rhythm, but more importantly, she “gets” pro wrestling. This may sound sacrilegious, but Arai is getting it much in the way Kurt Angle did early in his WWE run.

The difference with Angle is that he came from a sports background. Amateur wrestling to pro-wrestling is still a major transition, but not as divergent a path as going from singing and dancing in a girl group to kicking folks in the face.

Arai has a lot more of the physical side of the sport to learn. The hardest part of the business, the intangibles, the presence and specialness that WWE is so desperately looking for with its Performance Center recruits, however, that’s where Arai is killing it.

The crazy thing is, she’s making it look easy.

Perhaps she’s made a Faustian deal with the devil. Her mortal soul in exchange for wrestling excellence. Or maybe TJPW has found itself a bona fide building block.

Miyu is great. Best in the world level great. But TJPW needs other names to put on the marquee down the road. It needs new headliners and more options for the champion and top contender spots.

Arai already looks to be a prime candidate to be just that.