It’s been a heartbreaking week to be a pro wrestling fan.
Earlier this week Shad Gaspard passed away while swimming with his son at Venice Beach in California. I was sad, but talking about it with friends, watching clips of Cryme Tyme, and hearing other people’s stories about Shad helped me process my grief as a fan. Then today we all learned that Hana Kimura passed away from an apparent suicide. For whatever reason, Hana’s death is hitting me harder.
Maybe it’s hitting me harder because it’s the culmination of two tragic deaths so close together. Maybe it’s the circumstances surrounding her passing. Maybe it’s because I’m such a big fan of hers, and my fandom has only been increasing in the few years since I first saw her wrestle. Maybe it’s because I feel like I helped “discover” her in a way since I started watching her matches in Stardom regularly not long after her professional debut. Maybe it’s because this feels like such a blindside shock. Maybe it’s all of these reasons and more. I don’t know. All I know right now is that I’m sad and angry. Sad for a beautiful life cut short, and angry at the people and the environment that contributed to that life’s end.
I don’t want to focus on the anger though. Those people don’t deserve a single second of my or anyone else’s time. Right now, I just want to focus on the good and positive. With that in mind, I’d like to share the closest thing I have to a personal story about Hana Kimura. Please forgive me if I ramble. It’s a bit of a journey, but I’ll get to the point (and the moment) eventually.
Back in 2015 I moved to Japan to go to school. I lived in the greater Tokyo area for two years, and one of the first (of many) festivals I went to had a ring set up where they put on a few pro wrestling matches. After that I got in the habit of watching New Japan Pro Wrestling online more and more, and I began to reconnect with my love of Japanese pro wrestling. I wanted to see more live wrestling events, but my Japanese language skills were just okay, so going to ticketed events where I knew I might have to try to converse with people to find my seats or whatever else seemed quite intimidating at first. During my first year there though, I attended Wrestle Kingdom. It turns out that my ability to read and understand Japanese was better than I thought. So, filled with confidence, I decided to attend more shows.
It took me a little while before I went to another show. Being a student, money was tight, so as much as I love New Japan, I began looking for cheaper alternatives. My theory was that attending two smaller shows would be a greater value than attending one New Japan show. It was around this time that I discovered Stardom.
I heard about Stardom during the time when it was just a rumor that Kairi Hojo and Io Shirai were heading to WWE. Stardom had recently launched a streaming service, so I signed up. I fell in love with Stardom right away, and I immediately started to find some new favorite wrestlers. Kairi and Io were instant favorites (though Kairi did end up leaving shortly after I started watching regularly). Mayu Iwatani was another favorite of mine. Kairi, Io, and Mayu were the top three competitors in Stardom at the time, so liking them was pretty easy. Beyond the top three though, there was a stable that caught my attention like no other. That stable was Oedo Tai, and prominent within that group were two women who would quickly come to overshadow everyone else in Stardom in my eyes: Kagetsu and Hana Kimura.
Hana and Kagetsu teamed up a lot when I started watching Stardom, and they had such great chemistry together. Kagetsu was the kind of character who would beat you up while laughing in your face and taunting you, and Hana played the type of person who would smile sweetly and flaunt her charms before dropkicking you in the back of the head. They were such great jerks, and I loved it. I started watching them regularly around the beginning of 2017, not knowing that Hana had debuted professionally less than a year prior. Hana’s charisma and ring work were enthralling to me, and I’d quickly found another new favorite wrestler. More and more, I would look forward to Oedo Tai’s matches as much or more than whatever else was on the show. I was becoming such a big fan that I knew I needed to attend some Stardom shows before I inevitably had to leave Japan. So, early in the summer of 2017, I attended my first Stardom show at the legendary Korakuen Hall.
The main event of that show was Mayu Iwatani challenging Io Shirai for Stardom’s top title, but before that, Oedo Tai challenged Team Jungle for Stardom’s tag titles. As great as the main event was, the tag title match was really good as well. Hana and Kagetsu had great chemistry and teamwork as always, and they defeated Team Jungle for the titles. It was easily my second-favorite match of the night, but more importantly, I was in the crowd the night Hana Kimura won her first and only Goddess of Stardom tag team championship. Even being kind of far away from the ring didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the match and my excitement of being there for such an important night in the young career of one of my favorite wrestlers. Personally though, my second Stardom show would be even better.
A month later I attended my second Stardom show at Korakuen Hall. I had so much fun the first time that I decided to go all in and buy a front row seat. Sure, spending significantly more money kind of defeated the whole purpose of finding a smaller show to attend, but I didn’t care. I needed to be close to the ring. And yeah, I was close. Stardom doesn’t have any barricades, so basically the only things separating me from the ring were the mats on the floor. It was great.
Oedo Tai were still the tag champs, and they put their titles on the line against Jungle Kyona and HZK that night. Once again, the tag title match was the second-to-last match of the night, and this time I think their match tied the main event in terms of quality. For me though, seeing Kagestu and Hana Kimura perform so close that I could hear every strike and every bit of banter was kind of amazing. They got even closer at one point during the match. Oedo Tai liked to brawl outside the ring, and that night they chose the exact spot where I was sitting to dish out some punishment. If you watch the match (for some reason it’s not on Stardom World right now, but I’ll link it here if it’s uploaded again) you can clearly see one very timid-looking white guy stand up and move slightly out of the way as Hana and Kagetsu run their opponents into his chair and others at ringside. That white guy is me. Oedo Tai went on to successfully defend their titles, and that very timid white guy was very happy.
The show continued after that, and main event was also good, but the tag title match was more memorable for me. Then the show ended and it was time for everyone to head out. As I learned at my first Stardom show, many of the performers go out to the main hallway at the entrance of the venue after the show to sign autographs and take pictures. The hallway is fairly tiny, as most places in Tokyo are, so it quickly gets filled to capacity. Trying to get through the mass of people is shoulder-to-shoulder and very slow going. And if you want to stop off at a performer’s table, I wish you luck.
I looked over the crowd and considered my options. I could just try to leave, or I could attempt to work my way over to a table and wait in line for an autograph. The confidence I’d gained in my ventures out to shows quickly began to leave my body as I considered having to interact directly with one of the wrestlers and ask for specific things in Japanese. Plus, I’d already spent more than I probably should have on the front row seat. And on top of all of that, I didn’t even see Oedo Tai at a table. I decided the show itself was good enough for me, and I decided to leave. So I braced myself and pushed into the slowly-moving mass of people.
I was already slightly self-conscious about being one of the very few foreigners in the crowd, but it was the middle of summer and being a big sweaty white guy in Tokyo always seemed to make me even more self-conscious. I don’t know why, no one ever really even paid any attention to me, I just felt that way. Regardless, I just kept my eyes forward and inch by inch, baby step by baby step, I worked my way toward the exit. I was about halfway there when I noticed the crowd in front me begin to split apart from the far end. It took only a moment before I realized what was happening. Hana Kimura had come out, she was walking through the crowd, and she was heading directly towards me.
What remaining confidence I had completely sank as the split in the crowd got closer to me. The only thing I could do was shift over with everyone else as we created a small path for one-half of the Goddess of Stardom tag champs to walk through. I saw Hana approach from only a few feet away. She was still wearing most of her ring gear, but she’d removed her boots and was walking barefoot, so the first thing I thought about was how much shorter she seemed then as opposed to when I watched her in the ring just a little while earlier. I don’t know why that’s the first thing that came to my mind, but you think of strange things when you don’t really know what to do or how to act. I’m like that often.
Hana was looking straight ahead as she got even closer. As she came within a foot or two, she looked up at me. Our eyes met, and I got real awkward. I was as self-conscious as I’ve ever been, and I reverted back to my early days of living in Japan when I only felt confident enough to say a few Japanese words here and there. I can’t remember exactly because it was one of those moments when my mind was racing too hard to focus on much, but I think I stammered out a meek “sumimasen” (translation: “excuse me”) as Hana passed within a foot of me. A tiny smile flashed across Hana’s face as she lightly brushed her way past me.
As the crowd filled back in around me I briefly considered turning around and going over to her table for an autograph. But I’d already had my moment. For me, autographs and photos are great, but when I meet a wrestler or any other celebrity I’m a big fan of, the most meaningful part is that brief moment in time when it’s just them and me. One on one. Even if there are hundreds of people around us, it’s still just them and me. Maybe there are a few words exchanged that no one else hears. Maybe it’s just a handshake. Or maybe it’s just a look and a smile. That look and smile from Hana was just for me.
Reading stories about Hana Kimura today, it seems like she had a smile for everyone she ever met. There’s been an outpouring of love for her, from fans like me, to the people she worked with over the years, to her closest friends. I know my moment probably barely registered for Hana, and I’m sure countless other people have stories about her that are similar to mine. But this story is mine, and I wanted to share it today.
Hana Kimura was a bright shining light in a business that can so often lead to cynicism. Pro wrestling will be a little darker without her and the fantastic career she was just getting started. Rest in peace, Hana Kimura.