Part III: Full Bloom
Vibrant, lively, innocent, and naive was how one wrestler described of Hana Kimura to Fight Game Media.
Hana disliked wrestling as a child. While she pursued hip hop dance until high school, she quickly lost interest in it when she was forced to dance to put money on the table. “It stopped being fun,” she said in a Stardom interview earlier this year. “I thought dance would be more enjoyable as a hobby.”
“Pro wrestling was a realistic option for me. Most people who become wrestlers, their parents are usually against it, or some of a prejudice against it, so it’s kind of a strange profession to choose. But for me, it was like carrying on the family business. It was a stable job! Pro wrestling was the safe choice.”
“For me, pro wrestling wasn’t something “interesting,” it was a part of everyday life.” Pro wrestling coursed through Hana Kimura like energy, or blood. “It’s just a part of me,” she’d say often.
“I didn’t really think ‘I love my pro-wrestler mom,’ I was in elementary school, or junior high school. I’d have to watch my mom getting booed. I’d have to watch her bleed, have to watch her make other people bleed. Of course, that was hard at first.”
Hana was charmed by her fearless heel-wrestler mom, but as she matured, her perspective on their relationship developed into something more complex. As she grew older, Hana started questioning her mother’s heel behavior in the ring. “I’d scold her when she came home. ‘Why are you being a bad person?’ I’d tell her.” She’d soon realize how different a life she lived compared with those of her classmates. “I thought ‘How come other kids watch movies or visit the aquarium on weekends, but I always get dragged to wrestling shows every week?'”
Hana never felt pressured by her mother to become a wrestler, though.
“She had a choice,” according to Fumi Saito.
“Well, before I started, I promised my mom that I’d do three years, minimum.”
While Hana loved modeling, singing and dancing throughout high school, she knew she would end up as a wrestler because it was always on her mind.
Aside from professional wrestling, she basically stayed at home and didn’t talk to colleagues. “I want to spend that time with people from the outside world.”
Hana’s first official step into the business began at the Wrestle-1 academy in Tokyo that launched in 2015. The recently folded promotion was primarily a men’s company, though training camp spots were open to anyone.
Kyoko didn’t want Hana to start out exclusively with only one joshi company, as she wanted as many options as possible open for Hana. The sky was the limit with her.
Hana was entirely in her element at Wrestle-1’s dojo. By the time she was started training, she had already developed many of the more nuanced, intangible skills needed to become a success in pro wrestling, something she developed from living and breathing the industry since she was two years old.
Growing up, Hana would often work concessions at her mom’s shows. It was behind counters where she learned to read crowd patterns; she knew exactly when a match was going to end, or which point of the match the wrestlers were in, all based on what the crowd sounded like, or which spots the wrestlers were doing. Once she began training, many realized how internalized these skills were. Wrestling was Hana’s sixth sense.
Hana was selling her mother’s merchandise at a Stardom show when she first saw Io Shirai wrestle. Shirai, current WWE NXT Women’s Champion, was one of Hana’s more modern inspirations; after seeing Shirai wrestle, Hana wondered what it would be like to be part of the show. “From a different perspective, it seemed like it would be really interesting. That’s what intrigued me.
Hana’s career took off soon after her she graduated from training. Her official debut was with Wrestle-1 in March 2016, where she lost to fellow W-1 trainee and bodybuilder idol, Reika Saiki, though Hana would get her win back just one month later in Saitama. It’s clear from old footage that Hana carried with her an air of confidence and dynamism not often seen in wrestlers so early into their careers. She knew the game like Kobe Bryant did, and at around the same age.
“I didn’t feel like ‘I’m a pro wrestler!’ when I made my debut.” Despite living and breathing the industry since birth, Hana still had trouble finding her footing in pro wrestling. She wouldn’t feel comfortable until she had more experience. After working for Stardom, Sendai Girls, Ice Ribbon and other companies, Hana eventually shifted her perspective and gained professional pride for her craft.
Pro wrestling broadcaster and analyst Jim Valley immediately took note of Hana’s charisma and presence when he would see her wrestle. “Watching her live in person is a different experience. She had something that just didn’t come across on TV.”
Valley, along with Fumi Saito, announced the English-language broadcast of the first Stardom show in New York in April 2019.
Valley was able to watch Hana wrestle again later that week in Madison Square Garden at NJPW and ROH’s G1 Supercard of Honor, and once more this past January where he saw Hana she wrestle inside the Tokyo Dome on Day 1 of this year’s Wrestle Kingdom card.
“At the Dome she had so much confidence, especially compared to the other girls. The ring was her home.” Hana’s ring general-ism was apparent wherever she went; she was a storm, like her mother, an inevitable force inside squared circles. “She is the reason the women got a match [on G1 Supercard],” Valley added.
Hana and Kyoko would team a few times before squaring off against each other in June. Proactive as she is, Kyoko organized an independent “produce” show in Shin Kiba entitled HANA, a celebration of her daughter’s first year in the ring.
While it was, in fact, a celebration, Kyoko showed no mercy in her first match against Hana, blasting her in the hamstring with a stiff low kick shortly after the bell.
A wrestler who worked with Kyoko explained to me just how nasty Kyoko’s kicks felt: “The first time she kicked me it was brutal. Like, it forced me to sell.”
Those close to the Kyoko and Hana were aware of how vicious their real-life fights were, and in their first singles match they echoed that sentiment. They beat on each other like bitter rivals from the bell. Later, they exchanged hard forearm shots and missile dropkicks as the small, enthusiastic crowd inside 1st Ring shouted in support of young Hana.
In the end, Kyoko submitted Hana with a jūji-gatame armlock for the win, but it was clear a star was made in Hana.
After the match, Kyoko grabbed the mic and screamed something that’d loosely translate to “Hey! That hurt, bastard!”
What made this most special was how we, the audience, were privileged to watch Kyoko transfer her distinct energy and intensity into Hana, live, in front of people. It wasn’t just a rookie match, but a coming-of-age ceremony.
With Hana’s career now steady in motion, Kyoko decided it was time to move aside and let Hana develop without her in Hana’s shadow. Her retirement event, LAST AFRO, featured herself, Hana and ISAO vs. Minoru Suzuki, Meiko Satomura and Aja Kong.
Kyoko actually married ISAO, or Isao Kobayashi, a Pancrase fighter, in 2016. It was a short-lived marriage, though, and only lasted a year and three months. Kyoko’s unfettered approach to life may or may have been a factor in their split; it was her way or the highway, and that was that. That’s the type of person she is.
“She’s crazy, but in a good way,” a wrestler who worked with both Kyoko and Hana, told Fight Game Media. “And she’s so strong.”
Fumi Saito put it firmly: “It’s always Kyoko’s call. Always.”
Across the Pacific
Hana would continue working as a freelancer over the next few years. In 2018, she was sent to Mexico for three months on a learning excursion, wrestling for DTU and Kaos. She worked almost exclusively with veteran Mary Apache in her matches.
It’s in Mexico where she picked up new grappling techniques like the octopus stretch submission which later would become her signature hold.
Actually, much of Hana’s in-ring offense was based on her mother’s move-set. Namely, she inherited Kyoko’s running yakuza kick to a dazed opponent, as well as Kyoko’s distinct shotgun dropkick, which Hana used in nearly every match. She replicated her mother’s form and technique completely, identically; an obvious extension of Kyoko.
By 2019, Hana was in full bloom. In March, she officially signed to an exclusive deal with Stardom, and a month later, she wrestled in the dark match on G1 Supercard, making her one of the six wrestlers to have a non-WWE pro wrestling match inside Madison Square Garden since 1960.
On the night before her MSG debut, Hana also wrestled on Stardom’s American Dream card in New York City, which aired live on the FITE streaming service. Hana teamed with Bobbi Tyler as part of another multi-person three-way tag match early on the show. She scored the pin for her team after putting down Brittany Blake with a the signature Kimura-family missile drop kick. Jim Valley and Fumi Saito, who handled English announcing duties for the show, spent a lot of time putting over how much of a star Hana would be in the future since she had signed to Stardom full-time; Saito even mentioned she could be “the next Rock.”
Later, in September, Hana would go on to win the 5*STAR Grand Prix tournament, Stardom’s annual round robin. Hana had a good match with Hazuki and a decent final bout over Konami, her Tokyo Cyber Squad stablemate. The win was beautiful in retrospect, albeit unintentionally; Hana had finally avenged her mother’s loss in the finals of the very first Stardom 5*GP, and about seven years and one week from the day.
It was clear to most fans where this was going: This was the beginning of the Hana Kimura Era.
In part four, we will take a look at everything else.