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By Stuart Carapola on 2012-11-16 10:54:07
In its continued effort to get the most out of their video library and release DVD compilations that cover the broad scope of their nearly eleven year history, Ring of Honor has recently branched into more "themed" DVD sets that focus on matches and wrestlers that might not necessarily warrant their own career retrospective like we've seen with folks like Davey Richards, the Briscoes, and Nigel McGuinness, but were part of a larger-reaching movement that had an important impact on ROH.

One of these sets is Japan's Finest, which looks at the various special appearances throughout the years by some of the stars from the Land of the Rising Sun. I will make the disclaimer right up front that I don't follow Japanese wrestling at all, and other than what they've done in ROH (or in some people's cases, their own separate company), I know next to nothing about some of the people on here. I'll do my best to provide a context, but I'll probably have to structure this review a little differently than normal and apologize in advance if I don't have much more to say than "they had a good match" given my limited knowledge of their backgrounds.

Dragon Gate Pro Wrestling

One of the things that surprised me a lot when I saw the lineup on this set was how many Dragon Gate matches were included. Granted, it's been a few years and it's not the same ROH as the one who had the blowup with Dragon Gate that led to the split and eventual creation of Dragon Gate USA, but you definitely don't get the sense like they're ready to start doing business again anytime soon. I certainly didn't expect to see nine matches with Dragon Gate wrestlers out of the nineteen matches on the set, and I understand that you can't stick your head in the sand and erase them from history, but there have been several other notable matches involving Japanese wrestlers that I think could have balanced this out a little more.

Regardless, Dragon Gate was obviously a big part of the ROH machine for several years, and those contributions are largely reflected on this set. The thing they were most known for in ROH were the Dragon Gate six man tags that took place on Wrestlemania weekend events, and all three were included. The first one from 2006 (Do Fixer vs Blood Generation) was so off the hook that the fans there invented the "please don't stop" chant, and they maintained the same standard in 2007 (CIMA, Susumu Yokosuka, & SHINGO vs Dragon Kid, Ryo Saito & Masaaki Mochizuki) and 2008 (Muscle Outlaws vs Typhoon).

The set also includes an eight man Dragon Gate vs ROH match from Wrestlemania weekend 2007 that had CIMA, Yokosuka, Dragon Kid, and Saito taking on Austin Aries, Delirious, Claudio Castagnoli & Rocky Romero. That one was important for a couple of the guys on the ROH team because, even though Aries and Romero were well established by that time, Delirious was coming off a huge 2006 and used this to help keep the momentum going, while Castagnoli was struggling to find a new direction after he stayed in ROH since his WWE deal never ended up happening. Claudio worked his ass off in this match, and I remember at the time thinking his performance here had to sway some favor back in his direction, and indeed he was winning the Race To The Top Tournament, defeating Naomichi Marufuji, and challenging Takeshi Morishima for the ROH World Title by the end of the year.

Tag team wrestling is obviously Dragon Gate's thing, and though SHINGO & Naruki Doi's short run as ROH World Tag Team Champions isn't covered, three other matches with teams from Dragon Gate are. Two of them involve Matt Sydal, who was working for both companies at the time and even held the Open The Brave Gate Champion at one point. The three matches were Sydal and AJ Styles taking on Dragon Kid and Genki Horiguchi during Wrestlemania weekend 2006, Sydal and Christopher Daniels defending the ROH World Tag Team Title against CIMA & SHINGO, and BxB Hulk & SHINGO taking on Kevin Steen & El Generico on Wrestlemania weekend 2008. Though nobody probably expected CIMA and SHINGO to win the title, the Dragon Gate wrestlers were always presented as ROH's equals, so it wasn't a situation where they were just coming in to job to ROH or, as we saw more frequently earlier in ROH's history, come in to draw a house and beat an ROH main eventer.

Pro Wrestling NOAH

Pro Wrestling NOAH was another Japanese company that had a major influence on ROH, and the involvement of stars like Naomichi Marufuji, Takeshi Morishima, and KENTA was hugely important in helping elevate ROH during the golden years of 2005-08.

Ground zero for the NOAH-ROH connection was when Kenta Kobashi came to the United States for a pair of appearances in October of 2005. The first match, against Samoa Joe, is probably the most legendary match to ever take place in the company, and at one time was the runaway highest selling DVD ROH ever produced. That match isn't included, but Kobashi's second appearance the next night, where he teamed with Homicide to take on Samoa Joe and Low Ki, was. I can't understate how important Kobashi's involvement was to ROH, and they pulled out all the stops to put him in the ring with the very best talent they had to produce two excellent matches.

ROH also hoped to make a good impression with Kobashi in the hopes that it would lead to a relationship and talent exchanges with NOAH. They achieved that goal, because KENTA and Naomichi Marufuji, and later on Takeshi Morishima and Go Shiozaki, became semi-regular attractions in ROH for the next three years. In fact, I'm a little surprised at how little NOAH content, a mere three matches, is included on the DVD given how important their involvement was.

The first NOAH match we get is actually an inter-interpromotional affair, as NOAH's Takeshi Morishima defended the ROH World Title against Dragon Gate's SHINGO. ROH had a really good deal going with NOAH and Dragon Gate, as they were not only able to maintain both relationships simultaneously, but also have the occasional crossover match like this one without it leading to any political problems.

Next up was Morishima & Marufuji taking on KENTA and Mitsuharu Misawa, the founder of Pro Wrestling NOAH and a guy the ROH fans had been begging to have come in from the moment the relationship with NOAH came together. I have to admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of Misawa's appearances in ROH, as he was well past his prime and wasn't close to the wrestler he used to be, and this match in particular I thought was disappointing because Misawa spent 90% of it camping out on the apron and letting KENTA do all the work. I know I'm in the minority here, but I really didn't enjoy Misawa's ROH matches given how limited he was at this point in his career.

Finally, we had Team NOAH (Morishima, Marufuji, and Go Shiozaki) taking on the No Remorse Corps of Roderick Strong, Davey Richards, and Rocky Romero. Nothing really to say about this other than you had six hard hitting guys beating each other up for 20 minutes, but I do think it's a little strange that this was the only appearance of Shiozaki on the DVD given that he was the FIP Champion (which was treated like the secondary ROH Title at the time), had challeneged for the ROH World Title, and beat multiple ROH main eventers during his year living in the United States and working full time for ROH.

Everyone Else

Though NOAH and Dragon Gate were by far the biggest Japanese influences on ROH, several other notables made their own small contributions to the company at various points.

Final Battle 2003 was a big night for ROH, since it would close out with three ROH vs All Japan Pro Wrestling matches. The most notable of the three, and the only one included on this set, was the Great Muta and Arashi taking on Christopher Daniels & Dan Maff. I don't really know much about Arashi other than the fact that he was a former sumo wrestler and was freakin' huge, but Muta's obviously a huge star with a long history in WCW as well as Japan, and can be almost singlehandedly credited for drawing the house and selling the DVDs, even if he didn't give the fans the moonsault they were chanting for.

Jushin Liger made his first ROH appearances in late 2004 as he battled Bryan Danielson in a pair of matches that aren't included on this set, but we do have his return to ROH over five years later when he faced Austin Aries at SoCal Showdown. This was ROH's second show in California and was not the financial disaster the first one was, though Liger's appearance probably helped with that. Aries was the ROH World Champion at the time, but this was a non-title match. You would think that was because Liger would have been booked to go over, but it ended up being Aries who won the match. I think it would have made more sense to make this a title match, if for no other reason than to have his name on the website as someone who unsuccessfully challenged for the title.

Muta and Liger were joined in ROH by another man with WCW roots, Kensuke Sasaki, as he and his protege Katsuhiko Nakajima made several appearances in ROH in late 2008. The only one that's included on the set is them taking on Brent Albright & Roderick Strong at All Star Extravaganza IV. This match was good, but I would have left this one out and used the match they had with the Briscoes the next night instead since they're still around as the top team in the company while Albright left the business entirely years ago.

The Briscoes did make an appearance on the DVD, taking on Austin Aries & Kota Ibushi at Tag Wars 2008. Ibushi was an unusual case, because usually you had Japanese wrestlers come in and at least get a few wins before they started losing matches, but Ibushi was in for four appearances and lost his first three before finally beating El Generico. So you've probably already figured out that he lost here, but for as little as I know about Ibushi, I can tell you that he's one of those wrestlers who is so athletic that it sometimes seems like the laws of physics don't apply to him. He was a lot of fun to watch, even if his impact on ROH was minimal.

Another person featured on this set who had minimal impact was Ikuto Hidaka, who made a few appearances in late 2002, including one on this DVD against Amazing Red, and that was really about it. The live fans seemed happy to see him, but I really couldn't tell you thing one about the guy other than the interesting bit of trivia that he and Ibushi, the two guys I know the least about on this set, later main evented the first two EVOLVE shows and had fantastic matches there.

We move on to Kikutaro, someone I was always glad to see come to ROH because he's a short, pudgy, masked man with questionable athletic ability and a wonderful grasp for comedy wrestling. He faces Colt Cabana, whose comedy credentials are obviously in good order, and this is probably the most fun match on the set to watch even if the match itself isn't the insane workrate spectacle a lot of other matches on the set are.

Finally, we get some women's action thrown in from Wrestlemania weekend 2011, as Hiroyo Matsumoto and Ayumi Kurihara defeat Sara Del Rey & Serena Deeb on the first night to earn a shot at the SHIMMER Tag Team Title, which they get a night later as they challenge Daizee Haze & Tomoka Nakagawa. This was a refreshing pair of matches to see at the time since women's wrestling had been basically nonexistent in ROH for a couple of years, and all the girls worked their asses off to stand out. I don't think any of them except Sara have been seen in ROH since, but I was glad to see these included because they were both very good matches.

* * *

I think this set presented a good overall look at the impressive breadth of Japanese involvement in ROH over the years, and included a hell of a lot of very good and historically significant matches. The only real negative I saw, other than some odd match choices for certain people, was that it was disproportionately heavy on Dragon Gate content, and I'm not sure that's fair to NOAH, who was every bit as important to ROH as Dragon Gate was, if not more. I would have cut back a bit on the Dragon Gate content a bit and maybe included other matches, especially some of the early stuff like Shinjiro Ohtani & Masato Tanaka vs Steve Corino & Low Ki or Homicide vs Satoshi Kojima, just to balance it out a bit better.

That said, I felt like they did a good job putting this one together and, unless they plan to do a set specifically looking at NOAH wrestlers or Dragon Gate wrestlers, pretty much covered all the important Japanese influences to ever come through ROH. There's almost nothing in the way of storyline content since the nature of the set means it's comprised almost exclusively of special appearances, but if you don't care about that and are just interested in good in-ring action, you might like this one a lot.

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