As we’re in the throes of spook-a-doodle season, I wanted to do something a little different from a scary movie, which I tend to watch and write about throughout the year. It occurred to me that one of the spookiest wrestlers to ever do it, and one of my favourites, is entering the final chapter of his career over the next few months. As of this writing, Keiji Mutoh, The Great Muta, will be days away from his second-last match. It’s the denouement of a career that’s been one of the most memorable and influential of his generation. And, often, one of the spookiest.
Even though I’d seen wrestlers with painted faces before–the Road Warriors, Demolition, The Ultimate Warrior, and Sting–there was something unique about Muta that immediately made him stand apart for me when he appeared on World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in the 90’s. Already established as a world champion in Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling, the mystery and explosive violence of Muta’s presentation planted roots in me that eventually grew into a love of Japanese horror.
Japanese horror movies like Ju-On / The Grudge (2004), Audition (1999), and Ringu / The Ring (1998) have their own particular flavour; their own rhythm, references, and aesthetic. Japanese wrestling does too. Japanese “strong style” is generally associated with a harder-hitting, more theatrical presentation that relies less on backstage promos, talking segments, and dramatic storylines than strong, theatrically exaggerated characters that primarily do their storytelling between the ropes. When imported to the US wrestling scene, that style sets performers apart from those from other regions with their own wrestling culture like Mexico’s lucha and the UK’s catch wrestling (grappling) style. Muta built on the stronger, stiffer-looking Japanese style but introduced a kind of gracefulness and dark mystery, while innovating moves that we take for granted now, like the moonsault–a backflip dive that’s as fundamental to a modern high-flying wrestler’s arsenal as a wristlock. Muta also developed submissions like the Muta Lock submission and the vicious and still-impressive Shining Wizard (a running kick to the head as an opponent lies prone on the mat).
Though it was before my time as a wrestling fan, Muta first entered WCW and the US wrestling scene in 1989. He debuted as the protege of dastardly manager Gary Hart, who also managed one of the first Japanese wrestlers to enrapture (and terrify) American fans, The Great Kabuki. Muta, at first, was billed as Kabuki’s son in storyline, and borrowed one key thing from the pioneering Kabuki–the green mist. While most wrestlers were happy to throw a handful of salt into your eyes, momentarily blinding you so they can brain you with a chair or some other cheap shot, Kabuki and Muta would spray a “poison”* mist into your face to achieve the same effect. It was unlike anything happening in wrestling at the time and added a lot to the mystique of Kabuki and Muta’s characters.
In 1995, New Japan broke with established tradition of in-ring storytelling and tried their hand at producing two short films for their major stars: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger and Muta, the promotion’s perennial hero and villain respectively. Liger’s film, Fist of Thunder, centres around the anime-inspired hero facing his demons before becoming one himself. It’s not exactly the deepest story, but it has a certain appeal.
Muta’s film, The Origin of the Demon, on the other hand, is better than a lot of the horror shorts I’ve seen. The sheer goopiness of the dialogue-free Origin of the Demon (along with its easily-digestible 20-minute runtime) makes it a perfect watch this Halloween, even if you’re neither a fan of pro wrestling or the lack of subtlety or nuance that tends to come with it. Broken out into distinct chapters which tell the story of Muta’s ‘birth’, a battle with a monster that may or may not be a rejected character design from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Muta’s transformation into a demonic figure in order to defeat it, it’s not exactly reinventing any horror-themed wheels, but it’s unique for a wrestling product in that it boasts pretty-decent-for-1995 production values. It mirrors some of what WWF and WCW were putting out at the time, vignettes promoting Ultimate Warrior and Sting that more than crossed the line into cartoonish territory.
Speaking of Sting (Steve Borden), he’s a legend in his own right and his career has been intertwined with Muta’s for almost the whole time Muta has been in America. As longtime rivals and, more recently, allies Sting and Muta followed each other from the end of the 1980’s (a 1989 match at WCW Starrcade between Muta and Sting remains a career highlight for both) through reinventions and the ever-changing landscape of pro wrestling. As New Japan evolved through the 90’s and WCW grew to unprecedented popularity before burning out spectacularly, the once-colourful Sting seemed to dovetail with the dark energy of Muta and embraced a more brooding character, with a persona that borrowed a lot from Brandon Lee’s portrayal of The Crow (1994).
Muta called his shot a couple of months ago in June of 2022, announcing that he’d have his last five matches in the latter half of the year and wrapping up in January of 2023. In a year that witnessed the retirement of his contemporary Ric Flair (though whether that particular retirement will stick is still up in the air) and the death of the complicated but iconic Antonio Inoki, both of whom shaped Muta’s career in a multitude of ways, it seems fitting for Muta to bow out. 2022 marks an even thirty years since Muta won his first IWGP heavyweight championship from the legendary Riki Choshu in Japan. On his five-match retirement tour, Muta will face young talents like Kaito Kiyomiya, current stars like Hiroshi Tanahashi, and very fittingly, will reunite with his old rival and friend, Sting in his very last match.
Muta, these days, is showing the wear of his 30+ year career. Though he looks better than most, under the hood his bones have been ground down to a fine powder and there are only faint echoes of the versatile and dangerous wrestler who innovated a lot of the moves, mannerisms, and, yes, mist that have influenced countless modern wrestlers over the last three decades. Even as his body rebels, Muta presses on. His tenacity and considerable presence, one of the spookiest in an industry full of spooky guys, makes him deserving of your accolades, your respect, and your abject terror. But more than just scaring me at 9 years old, Muta opened my mind to a new way to be scared, to a world of Japanese horror that’s led me down innumerable rabbit holes over dozens of Halloween seasons. Whether it’s a movie, a tv show, a particular piece of art, or even a face-painted pro wrestler spraying an unidentified green substance into your face, I hope you find something like that too. This year, and every year.
*The actual toxicity of the poison mist remains in question, and to my knowledge, it has never been listed as the cause of death for any wrestler it’s come into contact with.
Sachin Hingoo has never sprayed poison mist in an effort to gain an advantage in a match, and no, you may not ask any questions about the green substance around his mouth.