You can meet some interesting people at a gym, such as the professional wrestler Masato Tanaka. You’d be surprised, though, he’s a really soft-spoken man.
Whether or not you want to classify professional wrestling as a sport or entertainment or fake or real, there is no doubt in my mind that those who choose this career path fill three roles for the audience: performer, athlete, and stunt man. Why those three roles? Consider a professional wrestling corporation, be it World Wrestling Entertainment, Total Nonstop Wrestling, or any of the smaller companies that dot the world, and the entertainment value of their matches. They’re fun to watch because the wrestlers not only boast a great deal of charisma, but also preform amazing feats of strength, stamina, and high-flying action, at least on the men’s side of the competition in American professional wrestling. That’s not to say female professional wrestlers don’t have their moments to shine—Miss Elizabeth did a wonderful job in promoting WrestleMania V by playing victim to Macho Man Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan’s feud—but it seems as though the charm of the women is based on their sex appeal rather than their athleticism. It’s patently clear, though, any female wrestler could break me in half like the ridged man I am. Of course, if we look at smaller professional wrestling organizations, I’m sure we’ll find female wrestlers who take center stage and showcase their athletic talent there as well.
I don’t want to speak in broad terms here, but Japan also has a very robust professional wrestling industry. Perhaps not as popular as it was in the 1970s, but it’s still large enough to draw crowds and legions of dedicated fans. Yet, thanks to the many appearances on Japanese television by Hisako Sakaki, better known by her ring name Akira Hokuto, female professional wrestlers have garnered a certain amount of popularity in Japan. They may not be on the same level as their male counterparts, but they do have enough appeal to make people curious about the sport. In the anime and manga industries, authors and directors even use female professional wrestling as a backdrop to their stories. Wanna Be the Strongest in the World and Kinnikuman Lady may be two of the better-known manga series that delve into female professional wrestling. However, both seem to have an air of radical fictionalization—which is ironic considering they’re works of fiction—and a certain amount of sex appeal. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but I feel so much more can be done with such a fascinating concept other than showing off female bodies and the characters’ feuds and exaggerated matches. Unsurprisingly, with a little sleuthing I was able to stumble across a lesser-known series about women’s professional wrestling. This was Takako Shimura’s Love Buzz (ラヴ•バズ). While I wouldn’t call the series a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, it was interesting to see the drama of the protagonist play out over the course of three volumes. Added on top of this, the minimal art style the author employed added a great deal to the ambiance of the series. However, what made it fascinating in its own right was how it truly was a slice-of-life series. It wasn’t that the series was comical in nature, as so many slice-of-life manga and anime are, but instead we received short snippets about the characters’ lives.
Sometimes the most engrossing stories aren’t the ones that have a grandiose plot or take us on an adventure to the furthest reaches of our imaginations, but those that deal with the everyday lives and problems of benign characters. As readers, this gives us much more to latch on to as we can relate to the issues the characters are facing in their lives. For example, examine the manga or anime series Genshiken. It called into question how otaku, or anime, manga, and fans of other subsets of popular culture, especially Japanese otaku, navigate the college experience. While I can’t claim you will have or had a similar experience as the characters, there was a sense we could empathize with the situations the characters were placed in. This empathy can be inspired by any myriad of works, though obviously in different a manner, but Love Buzz created an attachment to its characters by presenting us with the trials and tribulations of the protagonist in ways that may be familiar to some readers.
Creating empathy for the characters actually was invoked in two different ways in the series, and this added to the nature of the narrative. Both approaches were seen in the opening pages of the series: the difficulties of a working single mother and the idea of second chances. The latter was a far more complex issue to deal with in regards to the series as a whole, but it also set a poignant tone for the overall narrative. This idea of second chances was based on the fact the protagonist, Kaoru Fuji, was returning to professional wrestling after a five-year hiatus. In a certain sense that alone is a second chance, however, it was the circumstances of her return that made the issue interesting: she disappeared before a match five years prior to the events of the series. Although the reasons why she ran away from the profession were vague, we gleaned bits of it throughout the course of the series. Yes, some of it had to do with her daughter, Erika, but it stemmed more so in how weak willed she was. It wasn’t that she wasn’t able to stand up to the physical punishment of professional wrestling. Instead, she found it hard to take the pressure of living up to the expectations of her fans, trainers, and friends.
The final volume of Love Buzz illustrated this rather well as we saw two instances of Kaoru and her tag-team partner, Yuri Machiya, face their mentors in the ring. The fascinating aspects about these matches were the different approaches to the storytelling that were utilized. Looking at the first specifically, what should have been a satisfying resolution to Kaoru and Yuri’s conflict turned into a moment where the weight of Kaoru’s decision five years prior to the match came crashing down on her. It was summed up nicely with Yuri stating she held grudges and just because they released their pent up anger at each other and made up afterwards, it didn’t mean Yuri forgave Kaoru for abandoning her years earlier. This defies many of the conventions of popular writing and added a level of depth to the characters as well as dramatic tension we could relate to. Think of it in these terms: there is most likely someone in your life that, no matter how much he or she apologizes or tries to make amends, you still can’t forgive him or her. Sure, we may offer them a second chance, but the scar runs deep from whatever that person did. The second match continued with this theme, but had less to do with vindication and more to do with Kaoru coming to terms with the decisions she had made in the past.
It could be said this was the happy ending we wanted, but then again, it’s a complicated issue to tackle. Yes, Kaoru finally understood why Yuri was upset with her and why those around her were willing to put up with her antics, but it’s not as though they truly forgave her. She certainly paid her dues for the mistakes she made throughout the series, but we must ask if there was a fundamental change in her character. To a degree yes, but more so in her attitude about her work life and less so in her overall personality. I believe this was where Kaoru being a single mother played into the story well. Looking through the series it was clear Kaoru was lazy and easygoing, but these traits came out the most when she interacted with her daughter. For instance, in the first volume of Love Buzz Kaoru was playing with Erika despite the fact Kaoru should have been training. This was an insightful moment into Kaoru’s personality as it clearly demonstrated she was all about fun and games and less about the work needed to achieve that sort of enjoyment. It’s funny in a sense because it wasn’t as though Kaoru was a good mother to begin with. She certainly cared for her daughter, but then again she was patently lazy, albeit high-spirited. But, Kaoru could only get away with slacking off on her training because she had a strong safety net of people who were willing to help her. While it was disappointing how Love Buzz never called into question the difficulties of a young, working, and single mother, the mere fact the protagonist fell into those three categories was a miracle to say least.
Surprisingly, the complex nature of Kaoru’s character was actually where the strength of the series was born. The conflict of Kaoru seeking a second chance and her path to achieve it felt more like a window into a small section of her life rather than a grandiose tale of redemption. This, too, was a radical departure from the standard conventions of a slice-of-life manga series if only because it actually was a slice of the life of the respective characters, particularly Kaoru’s. Where many other slice-of-life manga series tend to explore the minutia and comedy of everyday life, Love Buzz only looked at one portion of Kaoru’s life. We never truly saw what prompted her to leave professional wrestling prior to the series and although it’s touched upon lightly, the full extent of her romantic exploits were never delved into in great detail either. Thus, it forced readers to quickly understand Kaoru had a history, but we would never receive the full extent of it. All our understanding of her came from what we were presented with concerning her current life and what we could infer from the dialog and the short flashbacks.
Some may argue, then, all stories fall into the slice-of-life genre. While this is an interesting argument, we still recognize series in this genre follow certain rules in regards to the presentation of the story. Conventional wisdom may dictate slice-of-life stories have to be a comedy series with no discernable story arcs, but this doesn’t mean authors are bound by those rules, as was the case with Love Buzz. There was no need for extensive background information regarding the characters because this small section of their lives was fascinating enough. We didn’t need to see beyond what happened after the conclusion of the series as well because the focus was on Kaoru facing her past decisions and owning up to them and receiving a second chance. As such, this was, for all intents and purposes, a more accurate representation of a slice-of-life.
However, the narrative of the series wasn’t the only thing that heightened the reading experience. The minimalist art style of Takako Shimura added a great deal to it as well. To be clear, I don’t mean minimalist in the sense all the panels were filled with rough sketches, but rather they lacked the same detail we find in other manga series. More specifically, it was how panels lacked background art in favor of solid backgrounds or screen tones. Ultimately, this forced our attention on the characters, their movement—though we’re talking about still images here—and their emotions. This helped emphasize the emotional weight during the interpersonal moments between the characters. Of course, not all the panels lacked a background, but when a detailed one was included, it was either used as an establishing shot or used in wrestling matches to give them a sense of urgency. On top of this, the character designs were always fun to look at. Granted, there wasn’t much variety to those designs, but they had a soft touch to them and worked well in conjunction with the narrative of the story. Takako Shimura has a distinct art style and I enjoy it.
As I stated above, Love Buzz is by no means an opus, but for the story Takako Shimura wrote it’s enjoyable. She effectively used the backdrop of women’s professional wrestling to craft a story about second chances and facing the poor decisions we may have made in the past. While I contend there was little growth in the personality of the protagonist, Kaoru Fuji, there was an overall change in how she approached her work. The idea that not all psychological wounds heal over time or with an apology was also one that very few series I’ve seen tackle and for that reason this series is unique. I would have liked to have seen more in terms of an examination of the lives of young, working, single mothers, but if that issue had taken center stage it would have disrupted the narrative Takako Shimura wanted to tell. The art style definitely added to the narrative of the series and I enjoyed not only how Takako Shimura used a variety of backgrounds, or lack thereof, to heighten the story, but also the simplistic nature of the character designs as well. But, it was the presentation of the story that was the most fascinating feature of the series. It truly was a small slice of Kaoru’s life and never delved into great detail surrounding her background and other endeavors. The original publication of the series can be difficult to find, but a reprint version was released in 2011. Either edition is worth reading and you will not be disappointed in doing so.