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Sukeban women's wrestling 04
Photography Jiro Konami

The fierce girl gang style of Sukeban wrestling takes New York

Blending fashion, beauty, and anime with traditional Japanese women’s wrestling, Sukeban brings together terror-filled IRL battles and cute costumes

Think girls can’t fight? Sukeban, a new Japanese women’s wrestling league, had its world premiere in New York City last week (September 21), proving once and for all that women can throw hands just as well as men, while looking twice as cute. Although women’s wrestling – known as “Joshi” – has been popular in Japan for decades, the event brought the sport-slash-performance-artform to an eager new audience who, for the most part, did not know what they had been missing.

When guests entered Capitale, a grandiose former bank on the Bowery in downtown Manhattan, they were met with a lobby madeover as a Japanese street festival, with vendors offering Sukeban merch and snacks including fairy floss, candy apples, and the Japanese fish-shaped waffle taiyaki. Just before 8pm, the doors to the ring and seating area opened and guests flooded through to claim their seats while a ten-minute countdown timer helped build excitement. Before the pros took the stage, a gaggle of hyped-up kids entered the ring and began mock fighting until an adult intervened in time for the real games to begin.

The Sukeban league is named for Japanese girl gangs of the 1960s and 70s: groups of women on the fringes of society who lived dangerously and challenged traditional gender norms. In addition to their penchant for petty crime, sukeban gangs were defined by their fashion, which riffed on school uniforms with long, pleated skirts (perfect for hiding razor blades), and shirts with sailor collars. Western audiences were introduced to sukeban through Gogo Yubari, the deranged schoolgirl in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

Like the girl gangs before them, the wrestlers were perfectly outfitted, with costumes by Olympia Le-Tan, the designer known for her book cover clutches; hats by milliner Stephen Jones, who has designed for Princess Diana and Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Vivienne Westwood runways; and custom nails by Mei Kawajiri, whose clients include Cardi B, Dua Lipa, and… Seth Rogen. Le-Tan drew inspiration for the costumes from sukeban, anime and the wrestlers themselves. “We worked in parallel by deciding on the characters we wanted to have in the league – a clown, a nerd, a biker – and then choosing which characters fit the way the wrestlers look and their personalities,” she explained. “I wanted it to appeal to people who aren’t necessarily fans of wrestling, but are interested in fashion, beauty, and anime.” 

Opportunities for drama did not go astray; wrestlers entered the ring as theatrically as possible, with their anime body doubles flashing on screen and walk-on music such as “I Want Candy” and “Bad Reputation” blasting. The wrestlers rolled in four teams: the Harajuku Stars, the Vandals, Dangerous Liaisons, and Cherry Bomb Girls, each with their own distinct aesthetic and athletic sensibilities. Standout stars of the show included Bingo, an evil black and white clown with a tendency to break into mime; Lady Antoinette, who entered the ring with an Elizabethan style blue wig that she then ripped off pre-combat; and the Queen of Hearts, who wore a red latex dress, Cruella DeVille-esque dalmatian coat, and a jaunty little crown, and invited cries of “your highness” from subservient fans.

“I wanted [the wrestler’s looks] to appeal to people who aren’t necessarily fans of wrestling, but are interested in fashion, beauty, and anime” - Olympia Le-Tan

While Joshi wrestling is staged, the combination of acrobatic flips, full body slams, fly kicks, and audible slaps is chaotic enough to keep the most easily distracted spectator highly engaged. The wrestlers are so good at faking terror that it’s often impossible to tell that they’re not actually asphyxiating from the use of their own hair braids to choke them out. Sometimes, the action spilled out of the ring, with fatigued fighters literally rolled off stage to recuperate among the crowd (a mix of curious newcomers and seasoned Joshi fans). One particularly enthused man stood and clapped through the entire show, while a child got so over excited that his hysterical cheering turned into painful shrieking.

After five frenzied matches, Commander Nakajima of the Dangerous Liaisons crew and Ichigo Sayaka of the Harajuku Stars emerged victorious. The pair will face off at the yet to be announced next leg of Sukeban’s US tour. After the fighters danced and hobbled their way offstage, the crowd filtered back out into the night, our collective adrenaline riding high from the delightfully unhinged spectacle that is Sukeban.