Even though I’m a grown man, there are a lot of things from my boyhood I still enjoy. Tokusatsu genre shows and movies, for one, which probably stems from my obsession with Ultraman and Infra-Man growing up. (The latter maybe not technically tokusatsu since it’s Chinese, but close enough.) Also pro wrestling, which always surprises people. Admittedly, I don’t follow it as much these days unless CM Punk or Daniel Bryan are involved, but I’m still interested in it, even just how the industry has evolved since the 1980s.
The Tiger Mask seemed to bring together these two boyhood interests, and it starts out so strong. And then it loses it. It’s a movie that goes from 60 to 0 after about 35 minutes.
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The Tiger Mask (Taiga Masuku | タイガーマスク)
Director: Ken Ochiai
Release Date: November 2013 (Japan)
We begin with some strange, underground wrestling match. A man puts on a magical mask and turns into The Golden Tiger. He hops into the ring with some bizarre mutant freak who’s been on an unstoppable winning streak. The fight begins, and it’s more like a chop socky film or tokusatsu action scene than a wrestling match. There’s high energy, loads of flips, and it’s so much fun.
We break in the action to flashback 10 whole years. There we meet a young orphan named Naoto. (He’s played later in the film as an adult by Eiji Wentz, though I don’t have the child actor’s name.) While at the zoo with the rest of his orphanage, he hears a voice that lures him away. It’s a bit like a dark version of the Captain Marvel/Shazam origin. Rather than meet a wizard who gives him powers, he’s kidnapped with other young boys. They’re forced to join the Japanese wing of an international criminal network that trains them to become great fighters. The three best fighters will be given a special tiger mask to wear that gives them superpowers.
And for some reason they use their superpowers to be in wrestling.
It’s bonkers, and it’s so much hokey fun. The head kidnapper (Sho Aikawa) has a cane with a winged-tiger for a handle, a cataract in one of his eyes, and a haircut like he’s in a new wave band. The kids are put in Dickensian situations where they fight, dodge flames in a corridor, and fight some more.
The first third of The Tiger Mask is like an eight-year-old boy’s power fantasy in its purest form. It’s the crazed plot of recess playtime. If you were to ask the kid what happened on the playground, he’d describe the plot of his Tiger Mask adventure in a rapid succession of strange events linked with a series of “and then’s,” the stream of gleeful imagination interrupted only for the occasional gulp of breath.
The promising start makes the the many failings that come afterward seem worse. Nothing that follows the first 30 minutes lives up to the build, and independent of this build-up, the last two-thirds of the film just aren’t all that interesting. Rather than let the kid finish his crazy story, some adult came in and bogged down the wonder with a bunch of boring cliches. (There are four credited screenwriters, so make that four boring adults.)
There are only three fights in The Tiger Mask, which is disappointing enough. Worse, the first fight is the best one. Generally there’s an expectation — especially in wrestling events, martial arts movies, and tokusatsu entertainment — that the first fight sets the stage for the main event, which is meant to be the showstopper. The final fight in The Tiger Mask starts out promising enough, but it’s brief and just plain underwhelming. It’s like watching Hulk Hogan fight Hulk Hogan: bland fighting without any drama or imapct. Give how serious and creative the Japanese wrestling scene is, the conclusion of the final battle is shockingly boring.
There’s also unrealized potential in the differences between the masks. There’s the Golden Tiger Mask that’s supposed to up a person’s strength, the White Tiger Mask that’s supposed to increase a person’s speed, and the Black Tiger Mask that’s supposed to be the best mask of them all. “Supposed to” is key. All the Tiger Mask characters fight the exact same way. No one’s necessarily moving faster or punching that much harder. It would have been great to see how the abilities of these masks are used to better advantage. There’s also a flaw with the Black Tiger Mask that’s introduced but is never explored.
The Tiger Mask was adapted from a manga series that started in the late 1960s. I’m not familiar with it, but the manga has been adapted into other media for decades. (King from Tekken was inspired by The Tiger Mask.) I watched a few clips of the anime from the 1970s, and they’re so much fun and so inventive. It’s a little sad that this live-action film is nowhere near as lively as something four decades old.
The draw of wrestling and tokusatsu is seeing big personalities fight each other in ways that reveal character. Kamen Rider fights a certain way, Ultraman fights a certain way, Ricky Steamboat has certain moves in his toolbox, Roddy Piper does his own thing. With their masks on, the Tiger Mask guys are all the same as fighters, though one is more ruthless than the others. Yet even when we see Naoto and the others without their masks, they don’t have anything to offer the story. They just bore. I’d rather see a guy wearing a mask duke it out with freaks in a wrestling ring than see him unmasked doing odd jobs to pay the bills. I don’t see the fun in the latter, and it’s really sad that the filmmakers did.