To give credit where it is due, the underground bouts produced by a shadowy criminal syndicate are not fixed. On the other hand, they often end with a fatality. Three of their up-and-coming wrestlers have a distinct advantage. After all, they are not wearing that headgear for Lucha Libre style points. The cult 1960’s wrestling manga and anime series gets a darkly super-heroic face-lift in Ken Ochiai’s The Tiger Mask (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.
After watching the landlord bully the gentle director of his beloved orphanage, young Naoto Date resolves to stop being a victim. Unfortunately, this makes him ripe for recruitment by the mysteriously powerful Mr. X, who whisks him away to train in the Tiger’s Lair to as a wrestler. Most of the boys arriving with him will not make it, but the top three will be awarded Tiger Masks. Either through science or black arts, these strange accessories amplify the natural powers of those who wear them, but leave them drained after their matches.
Ten years later, Date receives the Black Tiger Mask and duly triumphs over his first opponent in the ring. His friend Dan will grapple as the Gold Tiger Mask and the final White Tiger Mask will go to Jo, the mean-spirited trouble-maker. Obviously, there is a grudge match brewing between him and Date, especially when the disillusioned wrestler decides to go rogue.
Evidently, Tiger Mask is a beloved franchise in Japan that spawned a succession of real life Tiger Masks in Japanese pro-wrestling. Even by cartoon standards, the ring action in Ochiai’s reboot is pretty crazy, with the Masks’ opponents looking more like Dick Tracy villains than underground athletes. It definitely follows in the darkly stylized Sin City tradition, but it carried the seal of approval of its late producer Hisao Maki, the younger brother of Tiger Mask creator Ikki Kajiwara, who passed away shortly before the film was created. Obviously, there must be hopes this will be the start of a new franchise, but uninitiated viewers might be somewhat frustrated by the limited ground covered by the narrative, basically giving viewers the temporary closure of a ninety minute TV pilot rather than a feature tent-pole.
Still, there is some unapologetically meathead action in Tiger, staged with relish. Yet, the film also has some heart, especially from Gantz’s Natsuna Watanabe, pleasingly upbeat and idealistic as Ruriko Wakatsuki, the grown-up daughter of the old orphanage headmaster. Cross-over pop-star Eiji Wentz also broods decently as Date, but perhaps the considerable amount of time he spends masked it not such an unfortunate thing.