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.)