Noob Japan: Running Up That Hill

Picture this: You’ve been kicked out of your last job. You sign on to a new one, a totally different experience from what you knew before. You think to yourself: Okay, I can do this, no sweat! This is something new and maybe it’ll be just for me!

You suck at this job too, and no matter what, you struggle to improve. To make matters worse, there’s this perfect co-worker who outshines you in every way, and they’re very defensive of their spot at the top.  It’s like climbing up a flight of stairs, but they’ve been made slippery and there are no rails. Only you and the bumps and bruises you’re about to take when you fall.

Such is the tale of Maki Itoh and the hill she has to surpass in Miyu Yamashita, a match out of many in a long-running story for one woman’s desire to be seen in Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling. 

After all, it is a human thing to want to be seen.

What I Know
I’ve seen Maki Itoh before, even before her appearance in AEW’s Women’s Tournament, where she fought for the opportunity to challenge for the AEW Women’s Championship, but ultimately lost to Ryo Mizunami. Her musical stylings, dress style, wrestling style, and love for profanity makes her a goofy character on the surface, but what if that was peeled back in a story of nuance and determination?

How I learned about Itoh was through the many clips, pictures, and tweets sharing her excellent vocabulary, ever evolving in its variety of colorful words and phrases. It wasn’t until AEW’s aforementioned tournament that I was able to fully see what she could do. She was entertaining and growing. There are intangibles that she has that covers the aspects she doesn’t cover, and if she doesn’t cover it, she works on it until she’s adept in her craft. The failed pop idol will one day be a successful wrestler, even if she has to run up that hill.

I’ve only heard of Miyu Yamashita in smaller circles, gifs and clips When discussions of being a great wrestler would come about, her name was tossed around quite a bit. She’s the undisputed ace of TJPW and she is unstoppable. Many try to topple her, especially Maki Itoh, but to no avail. That is the extent of my knowledge of her.

Credit: TJPW

This is a quest of overcoming insurmountable odds, and it takes place January 4, 2021 in Korakuen Hall, Tokyo, Japan.

The Match
Yamashita initiates the match at the ringing of the bell with not a strike, but a handshake to Itoh. Itoh approaches and slaps Yamashita across the face. Her eyes obscured by hair, the ace’s rage boils over quickly, composing herself as she parts the hair from her eyes and returns to her corner. Not even a second passes, however, as Yamashita strikes with the speed and precision of an absolute professional. For the next few minutes of the match, Itoh is run ragged by the ace, and it is then she is assured she has stepped in the ring with death. 

No matter what Maki Itoh does, Yamashita is several steps ahead. Itoh is playing Chutes and Ladders while Yamashita is playing 3D Backgammon. The mere fact that Itoh was able to kick-out at the count of two speaks to how she wants to prove herself in this match.

Despite all of the consistent damage by Yamashita, Itoh is able to redirect the fate of the match in her favor, climbing onto Yamashita’s back like Yoda to Luke Skywalker in the Dagobah’s Swamps. She utilizes Yamashita’s own momentum against her as Itoh bends her opposition’s back over her knee to incapacitate her. 

From here, Itoh controls the match like a puppeteer controls a puppet. As both women scramble to their feet, Itoh fires off like a cannon, using her entire body as a living, breathing weapon. Victory over the insurmountable, no matter the odds, no matter the sacrifice at the expense of the mortal vessel.

Maki is cold and calculating, tauntingly so, as she stomps on the back of Miyu, until the ace regains enough composure to gain brief respite. All for naught, as Itoh ensnares Yamashita in the ropes and delivers a DDT. 

Bending Yamashita’s legs backwards in a gnarly hold, Itoh’s grasp is forced to break – sustaining the notes of violent song, but at some point the music will have to change and the next track will play. Itoh can’t afford to let Yamashita get back to her feet, so she charges like a rhinoceros twice, before Yamashita returns with blazing fury. All for a two-count. Itoh has so much fight in her, against someone who is established to be leagues above her.

In recovery, Itoh takes the moment of opportunity to soar, only for Yamashita to send her to an early crash. With an Attitude Adjustment, Yamashita is close to having this match won – if it weren’t for a dead little opossum, for yet another count of two.

What happens next is an instinctual reaction borne of desperation. A flurry of reversals, one after the other, until Itoh almost, almost lands a near-fall. Tantalizingly close, yet far enough out of grasp. Yamashita knows Itoh has everything to gain and is giving it her all. Itoh knows Yamashita can end the match at a moment’s notice if given enough time. They must strike now. But they don’t.

Yamashita is worn on the ground and Itoh has clambered onto a nearby turnbuckle. The ace approaches, ready to snatch her opponent off her perch, but the seated pop idol kicks and kicks before zooming off of the top for a swinging-DDT, wonderfully executed and to the delight of the clapping fans in attendance. 

Maki Itoh rolls her rival to the center of the ring, delivers a Flying Headbutt and holds her in a Boston Crab. Yamashita breaks it, dragging herself across the salmon-colored ring for another rope break. Displeased, Itoh drags her back to the center, but Yamashita isn’t going to let herself be victim to another submission. Headbutt after headbutt, she doesn’t stop until Itoh lets her go to grab and nurse her pounding noggin. And a smirk spreads upon her face.

Itoh uses her head now as defense and offense, until Yamashita is left with but no other option than to strike literally anywhere else. Sadistically, Maki Itoh invites this pain. Without words, her body language screams “Thank you, may I have another?” as she is soon whittled down, until an attempted reversal ends in a stalemate.

Neither woman allows themselves to be toppled, until at the very last second, Yamashita outsmarts Itoh during a rope-running sequence. A ricocheted roundhouse kick dazes and drops Itoh to the salmon-tinted mat.

At this point, Maki Itoh is done for and she knows it. She clambers to her feet, but crumples in a heap on the mat. Climbing up that hill once more, she has nothing left to offer, nothing left to give, save for a simple gesture. A defiant middle finger, to steal this moment from the embodiment of her failure tonight.

This sign of disrespect from Itoh is met with a resounding roundhouse back-kick from Yamashita, where no one can come back from.

Credit: TJPW

Yet Itoh struggles. And struggles. And struggles. All while Yamashita is poised for another attack as the referee counts to ten. She tastes the anticipation as though it were the nectar of the gods. She waits for a moment that never comes. Itoh never makes it back to her feet. The referee has reached the count of ten. Now, Yamashita can relax.

But Maki Itoh? She still has work to do. And that will come in time.

My Thoughts
It was great to see a side to Maki Itoh that wasn’t a goofy woman who would fall on her head, landing on her opponent. This wasn’t the same girl who headbutts the turnbuckles to let everyone know she’s kooky and she’s crazy. This wasn’t she who would cuss up a storm. This was a woman who wanted to prove she belonged.

There’s not much else to say about Miyu Yamashita, other than her being utterly fantastic. Insanely good. There’s a reason people hold her in high regard, and that’s because she’s one of the best wrestlers on the planet right now. In her story with Itoh, she’s mostly a static character, a constant in a world of variables. Why change what doesn’t need to be changed? But as the bard Bob Dylan once said, the times, they are a-changin’. Maybe that change will come soon for her.

But, back to the main character of the match, the Batman to Miyu’s Superman. Maki Itoh. From what I hear, she has been etching her name in stone and refining this craft of hers. Most people who throw themselves into what they love, they lose something. Sometimes it’s a part of yourself. Sometimes it’s people you hold dearly to your heart. Sometimes it’s the reason you started the thing you do that has gotten you to where you are. Maki Itoh, normally a loner, hasn’t lost any of that. 

In watching the matches between Maki Itoh and Miyu Yamashita, with this one being my favorite, my mind harkens back to a multi-year wrestling storyline from my youth – Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels and Undertaker vs Triple H. And I think this is better.

Hell, even in her losses, she gains. One day she will run up and over that hill and to the places beyond. She’ll see and do things beyond her wildest imaginations, the shackles she placed upon herself will break, and she will look at the horizon as the sun’s rays pour onto her face. 

She’ll probably give it the middle finger, too.