It began, as so many things do, with sweaty men in tight underpants. And they wore masks. Let's not forget the masks. Lucha Libre masks. Those masks might have started in Mexican professional wrestling, but they live on in Japan, whether that be in fashion, manga, pornos and, yes, video games.
"You want to know about masked men?" game designer Goichi Suda (No More Heroes) asked during the Tokyo Game Show while chatting with Kotaku. "I'll tell you about masked men."
In Japan, they're called "fukumen wrestler" (literally, "mask wrestler"). Yet, those Lucha Libre masks show up in all sorts of places—places like Japanese city hall. When a cute cop drawing was recently selected by Matsudo City to help fight crime, a Japanese illustrator who goes by the moniker "76" showed up to get an award from the city. He wore a wrestling mask. Next to him stood dour men in suits, along with with a cardboard cutout of a cut cop.
The Mexican wrestling mask has been re-appropriated by Japanese otaku, divorced from its original wrestling origins and given a slightly ironic twist. That's why whenever Jin115, a popular Japanese video game blogger, appears on video site Nico Nico Douga, he does so wearing a mask. "It's not because I'm some huge wrestling fan," he told Kotaku. "I just thought it would be interesting—nothing deeper than that." Yet it does cut deeper.
Masks hide the wearer's identity. This is why the ultimate victory in Lucha Libre wrestling is the unmasking. It's a humiliation. Besides somewhat protecting the fighter, the wrestling mask serves the same function as a superhero mask by adding an element of mystery. It's no wonder that when Jin115 took off his mask for a few brief seconds that Japanese netizens began clamoring about the popular blogger taking off his reindeer mask, even uploading slow-mo clips to the internet.
Masks continue to play a major part in Japanese culture. There is the concept of masking one's emotions. That isn't to say that Japanese people don't show emotion—cry, get pissed off, laugh, and smile. They do. Many of them also have a good poker face. Historically, there is a long tradition of masks, including samurai armor faceplates or the female masks male actors wear in Noh theaters. Mask don't merely hide identities. They create new ones.
The importance of masks continues in Japan. Even today, surgical masks, or sickness masks, are common. Some people wear them because they are ill and don't want to infect others. Some wear them because they don't want to get sick. Many famous people, however, wear them for different reasons entirely. Unlike in America, where Michael Jackson's mask wearing raised eyebrows about possible plastic surgery, masks in Japan are ubiquitous and associated with colds. These connotations allow famous Japanese citizens to put on a mask, cover their face, and do banal things like take the subway or go to the supermarket without being noticed.
Growing up in Texas, I watched wrestling at the Dallas Sportatorium, but masked men were not something that stuck out. Occasionally, I'd see one, but the Von Erichs, for example, did not wear masks. This was a time when American wrestlers wanted to have their faces noticed. No wonder Starman in Nintendo's Pro Wrestling made such an impression on me. When I went to Monterrey, Mexico for a couple weeks as a young lad and saw wrestling, I said, "Oh, this is like Starman."
Pro Wrestling featured a masked wrestler, because in Japan, masked wrestlers were not unusual. This is also why Japanese fighting games, whether they be Tekken or Street Fighter, figure masked brawlers. "The guy who made the masked wrestlers popular in Japan was The Destroyer," said Suda, who's been known to don a wrestling mask himself and used to work on the Super Fire Pro Wrestling games. His cult classic title, Killer7, featured a Lucha Libre character.
The Destroyer wasn't Japanese, but an American wrestler named Dick Beyer, who began wearing a mask only after being goaded into it. In 1963, The Destroyer wrestled against Japanese wrestling pioneer Giant Baba in Los Angeles and traveled to Japan later that year. His masked persona fascinated the Japanese populace. During the 1970s, he lived and wrestled in Japan, appearing on late night variety programs and even releasing a Christmas album in Japanese. Other masked wrestlers, such as the legendary Mil Máscaras, not only became famous in Japan, but also wrestled there.
"But it was Tiger Mask that made masked wrestlers a Japanese thing," Suda added. Tiger Mask, a popular manga about a masked wrestler who does good, is why, when many Japanese people see a Lucha Libre mask, they don't think of Mexico. They think of Tiger Mask. There have been a string of real wrestlers wrestling under the Tiger Mask name. The manga is so iconic in Japan that it spawned a do-gooder movement earlier this year. Tiger Mask also inspired the Tekken character King.
The luchador mask came from the outside, but its been adapted into Japanese pop culture, just like so many things, whether that be the camera or blue jeans. Lucha Libre masks encapsulate Japan's fascination with two things: foreign imports and the mask itself. For a country that's so far from Mexico, that actually shares so little culturally with it (especially when compared to, for example, Korea, Brazil, or the U.S.), they'll at least always have wrestling and they'll always have Lucha Libre masks in common. It's where the two nations intersect and intertwine. The origin might be Mexico, but the love and the cultural riffs on those masks are both of theirs.