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Mists of Fury

A brief history of wrestling bad guys spewing mist, from Kabuki to Asuka

Alycea Tinoyan

Amid all the controversy surrounding Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt’s main-event match stoppage at this year’s Hell in a Cell, another historic moment that night went all but overlooked. Asuka, the former NXT and SmackDown Women’s Champion, snagged her first share of the Women’s Tag Team Championship (alongside Kabuki Warriors partner Kairi Sane) by “blinding” opponent Nikki Cross with a mysterious green mist from her mouth. Asuka’s illicit, highly unhygienic act both concretized her heel turn and revived a villainous wrestling trope that hasn’t been seen with regularity on WWE TV since the days when Japanese buzzsaw Tajiri tormented the Cruiserweight division circa the early to mid-aughts. (Tajiri did, in fact, briefly reboot the practice on 205 Live two years ago.)

“Asian mist” (so called because it has largely been the province of wrestlers of East Asian heritage) has been spewed from the mouths of mystical antagonists for more than 35 years, and in a wide spectrum of shades and shocking colors. Besides temporarily impairing a victim’s vision, it has been storied as a paralytic agent in kayfabe lore, imbued with properties that—at minimum—burn one’s retinas with the strength of 1,000 administrations of pepper spray. And like so many tools of the professional-wrestling trade, it walks a fine and complicated line between crudely stereotypical shtick and reverentially appropriated tradition.

Fitting, then, that the mist was first popularized stateside by American promoter Gary Hart. Hart, a Chicago native who had cut his teeth in the ring and behind the scenes across the Midwest and Rust Belt throughout the 1960s and ’70s, was instrumental in the early-’80s rise of Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling. And one of his most impactful booking innovations was widening the company’s scope beyond good ol’ boys like the Von Erichs and searching for the kind of “exotic” character that would soon be a hallmark of Vince McMahon’s WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW. He found his muse in Japanese veteran Akihisa Mera, who was then ubiquitous on the Kansas City circuit under the name Takachiho. WCCW star Bruiser Brody arranged a meetup between the two, and before long—inspired by an overseas trip that introduced Hart to the customs and concepts of Kabuki theater—Mera and Hart were scouring stores in Los Angeles for samurai swords and devil masks. As Hart, who died in 2008, noted in his autobiography, My Life in Wrestling, we were decades out from the end of World War II, and “just being from Japan wasn’t enough to make it as a heel in wrestling anymore.” So they upped the ante with face paint and masks and robes and fearsome wigs, and the Great Kabuki was born. (Incidentally, the decision to have Kabuki wear masks and face paint was part of a backstory about his having been burned and scarred as a child. It was, to say the least, an influential notion.)

Lest anyone think that the mist itself, first weaponized during a promo on Fritz Von Erich, was similarly rooted in ancient Asian ritual, its origins couldn’t be more benign. Hart’s wife accidentally spilled a bottle of green food coloring while baking cookies one day, rousing her husband’s aha moment. As Hart put it in My Life, “I took a little mouthwash, mixed in some green food coloring, poured it into a condom and tied it off really tight.” He beckoned Mera to his house, where the two honed the timing and execution of what evolved into one of the sport’s most infamous dirty deeds. The Great Kabuki became an immediate, sensational bogeyman, and Hart ensured the mist maintained its aura, characterizing it as the bilious manifestation of Kabuki’s animus toward young fans. It was pre–Reality Era gold. (Though Kabuki’s mist itself would, from virtually the beginning, occasionally materialize in an alternative crimson hue.)

Hart and Kabuki began exponentially increasing their profits as they split time between WCCW and promoter Jim Barnett’s Georgia Championship Wrestling, which had a nationally syndicated TV presence on TBS, helping transform the mist from a territorial oddity into a national curiosity. As simultaneous demand for Kabuki and his marketable spit takes grew, Hart would often dispatch Japanese up-and-comer Magic Dragon (a.k.a. Kazuharu Sonoda) to GCW under the persona of Kabuki while the original Kabuki fulfilled dates in Texas. (Again, a pioneering move, for better or worse.) And over the ensuing several years, Hart and Kabuki further put mist on the map in Jimmy Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and nearly every other significant regional promotion.

Despite Hart’s own willingness to muddy the waters by loaning out Magic Dragon as Kabuki’s surrogate, other territorial masterminds largely respected the gimmick’s sovereignty (fellow mist-maker and groundbreaking hybrid fighter Kendo Nagasaki notwithstanding). Unsurprisingly, the same can’t be said of Vince McMahon, who by the mid-’80s was not only rendering a bulk of National Wrestling Alliance–affiliated promotions extinct, but strip-mining them for creative parts. Killer Khan (a.k.a. Masashi Ozawa) had appeared in WWF as early as 1981, notably in a stretcher match against Andre the Giant. Fast-forward six years and Khan—a Mongolian character portrayed by the Japanese Ozawa—was suddenly stopping opponents where they stood with a conspicuously Kabuki-esque “green spew,” as McMahon dubbed it in play-by-play. (It is doubtful, however, that Kabuki ever froze with cartoonish ineptitude after missing his prey.)

Meanwhile, Hart and Kabuki’s partnership had dissolved by the late ’80s, and Kabuki made the sojourn back to Japan, taking the gimmick—and his signature toxic mist—with him. Concurrently, CNN mogul Ted Turner shook up the industry in the U.S. by purchasing Jim Crockett Promotions’ unified, ill-fated NWA and rebranding it World Championship Wrestling, in addition to giving WCW a steady broadcast slot on TBS, which Turner also owned. Hart was on board as an onscreen manager and backstage talent developer, and was asked to nurture a Kabuki emulation for WCW. This led Hart to form a partnership with known Japanese entity Keiji Mutoh, who had been making waves as the White Ninja in Florida. The premise was pure and straightforward, a crucial cog in one of the last great kayfabe family backstories before Vince McMahon’s courtroom testimony and—later, the internet of things—imperiled fans’ suspension of disbelief: Mutoh would debut in WCW in 1989 as the Great Muta, son of the Great Kabuki.

The mist was central to his persona, though it was repurposed as part of a spectacular entrance (what say you, Triple H?), sporadically deployed in combat when necessary (i.e., against dirty players like foe Ric Flair). The mist was so popular that Muta was—perhaps surprisingly—positioned as a babyface, a bold and bewildering booking gambit that inexplicably got over.

Muta and Hart would part ways in 1990, and Muta—à la Kabuki before him—would take his mist-ique across the Pacific to Japan (intermittently making appearances for WCW, which had a business arrangement with New Japan Pro Wrestling at the time), broadening his own legend and that of the poisonous spray. Taking the mist “back” to Japan retconned it into the lore of the Japanese wrestling world, at least in the American perception. That could explain why, in 1994, McMahon resumed wreaking havoc on cultural nuance. That year, the artist more commonly known as Savio Vega premiered on WWE TV as a masked ass-kicker from “The Orient” dubbed Kwang. And Kwang, as you may have guessed, marred his opponents with a visage-full of green grossness. But as mentioned, the mist made its most visible comeback when Tajiri took WWE’s cruiserweight ranks by storm in the period after its late-’90s Attitude Era. The bendable buzzsaw favored good old green (he would swap out Hart’s mouthwash for plain water), but infamously bet on black from time to time. (Here’s a handy “Kayfabe Science” primer for those who want to nerd out on the color wheel when it comes to all things mist.)

Between Tajiri and Asuka, there has been a sincere—and, perhaps, as was the case post-Kabuki, pointedly selective—second coming of the mist. (Let’s all agree to pretend this never happened.) And belying its beginnings in Gary Hart’s backyard, the matter of said mist has become more of a fluid cultural exchange between East and West. In the mid-2000s, WWE’s Albert (a.k.a. current NXT trainer Matt Bloom) relocated to Japan and reconfigured himself as the Giant Bernard. Upon returning to U.S. soil in the early 2010s as Lord Tensai, he set about handicapping adversaries including John Cena with green mist, a move that in reality originated a short domestic flight from his childhood home in New England when he was a boy, but that he supposedly picked up in earnest decades later while abroad. And in Japan, NJPW standout Bushi (who, in a further contortion of the mist’s cultural footprint, is a member of Mexican Luchador-inspired faction Los Ingobernables de Japon) has been obscuring his enemies’ eyesight for the past four years.

Nor is Asuka even the first female on the scene to claim the mist as her own. Impact’s goth phenomenon Rosemary began showering men and women alike with a medley of misty colors in 2016, famously getting the reverse-loogie treatment from Broken Matt Hardy. If there’s anything remarkable about Asuka’s iteration, it’s how vividly the sheer viscosity projects on high-def screens. It’s also decidedly prop-like, an inevitable symptom of present-day Raw’s relatively slow-walked approach to anything that could be deemed too subversive for all but the most sensitive viewers (assuming one, unlike Asuka’s latest target, Paige, can see at all). It’s not the most imaginative move for Asuka (even if, in retrospect, the name Kabuki Warriors foreshadowed it), but what’s fascinating about the green light to go there—a choice perhaps made by recently appointed Raw executive director Paul Heyman, an alumnus of Muta-era WCW—is how it beckons the past in a way that forces us to question what really ought to be a part of wrestling’s future.

Does the decision to effectively double down on Asuka and Sane’s sudden entrenchment in Asian mysticism—as if they were modern-day avatars of Gary Hart’s earliest whimsy—negate the retrograde optics or amplify them? It’s too early to know whether the sum of Kabuki Warriors’ parts scans as reverential or deliberately provocative or almost shruggingly reductive, and which would be worse. And contemporary wrestling gimmicks—like all cultural typecasting—are all “subject to change,” constantly being fine-tuned, virtually in real time, in response to consumer feedback. That’s a seductive safety net for risk-takers like Heyman (or whomever ideated Kabuki Warriors and Asuka’s mist) trafficking in an inherently lurid medium. There is, after all, an adaptation unique to wrestling wherein objectively troubling ethnic or racial tropes are rendered relatively inoffensive in the context of grown-up roleplay fighting.

The Asian mist, be it green, yellow, red, or rainbow, started off as the shrewd but simplistic musings of a white man from Chicago. Today, for reasons that are difficult to deduce even given (or on account of) wrestling’s internal pretzel logic, it’s something closer to sacred. Perhaps it’s because the one thing that hasn’t changed about wrestling fans, from the sport’s carnival roots to its current mass-media visibility, is that they long to witness fantastic rites of passage and wax poignant over torches passed. There’s absolutely nothing practical or politically correct about Asuka—or Muta and Kabuki et al. before her—blinding their enemies with bogus mist, but it’s part of wrestling’s curiously crowd-sourced alternate history, the shaky bedrock on which kayfabe stands. Its effects are temporary, but the mist itself will probably never disappear.

Kenny Herzog has covered everything from wrestling and television to politics and pop music for outlets including Rolling Stone, New York magazine, Esquire, Paste, Bleacher Report, Slate, ESPN, Nylon, Mic, and many more for nearly 20 years.