Reviewby Daryl Surat, Feb 10th 2017
Tiger Mask W
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Professional wrestling is not predetermined or coordinated. It's a sporting battleground of superheroes and supervillains! When Japanese veteran Daisuke Fujii is paralyzed by the masked “Yellow Devil” from the invading American promotion “Global Wrestling Monopoly,” two young wrestling trainees embark on dual paths for revenge. Fujii's son Takuma becomes the red-hooded “Tiger the Dark” to infiltrate GWM from within. But Naoto Azuma inherits the principles, training, and identity of the caped hero “Tiger Mask,” to challenge GWM head-on. With help from the stars of GWM's biggest rival, New Japan Pro Wrestling, the grueling battle between good and evil for pro wrestling supremacy resumes anew.
I love it when anime gains traction among an audience who otherwise wouldn't typically think to watch it. Recent fan favorite Yuri!!! On Ice, for example, gained some noteworthy visibility among professional ice skaters which permeated down to some of their otherwise sports-minded fans. But the same thing happened within the last three months for another series, and you may not have even heard about it happening.
Tiger Mask W—Japan pronounces “W” as “double,” and since there are two Tigers, now the title makes sense—is rather “under the radar” by anime simulcast popularity standards in the west. It's the latest installment in a decades-old sports-themed battle series for which almost nothing was ever translated into English, and the “sport” in question is professional wrestling: an endeavor frequently derided among sports and fiction fans alike. There just isn't much crossover between fans of anime and Japanese professional wrestling, or “puroresu” as the Japanese would abbreviate it. (Or just “puro”; viva iterative abbreviation!) Fortunately, Tiger Mask W is designed to appeal both to anime fans who don't care one bit about puroresu as well as puro fans who don't follow anime.
The hero originated in the 1960s, care of author Ikki Kajiwara, whose foundational classic shonen series such as Tomorrow's Joe and Star of the Giants also never saw much daylight in the United States. The original masked man was Naoto Date, the top prospect of the “Tiger's Den” where the toughest bad guy wrestlers are trained. But Naoto renounced evil and began to fight for the sake of donating his winnings to the orphanage he was raised in; his eventual successor was a child from this very orphanage. (Gamers may be reminded of jaguar-headed King from the Tekken fighting games, who has this exact backstory only with a jaguar mask instead.) The Tiger's Den, led by the fiendish Mr. X, retaliated by sending their wrestlers out to destroy the traitor. It's a simple story by today's standards, but fiction became reality decades later in 2010, when a then-anonymous person started donating sums of money to orphanages under the name “Naoto Date,” inspiring others to do the same.
Don't worry, Tiger Mask W assumes its viewers weren't around for that, so despite some original cast members resuming their roles, all relevant details are recapped as part of the modernization. New incarnations of their wrestlers now exist, and there is also a “Miss X,” for instance. Throughout his battles, Tiger Mask crossed paths with real-life wrestlers of the era. Then in the 1980s, New Japan Pro Wrestling decided to make the fictional character reality. The resulting junior heavyweight matches turned out to be so stylistically groundbreaking that they're remembered to this day among wrestling fans even outside of Japan, many of whom have no idea there was ever a manga or anime.
Today, New Japan is the second largest pro wrestling organization in the world, with plans to run their first shows in the United States this year in the very same weekend and city as Anime Expo! The latest Sengoku Basara, Yakuza, and Tekken games feature NJPW crossovers; Tekken's is particularly fitting, since King's original motion capture was done by current NJPW top bad guy, Minoru Suzuki! It's thanks to the ownership of trading card game and anime producer Bushiroad, who has adopted the dual language simulcast and VOD distribution approach of anime with their NJPW World service. That's a threat to the largest and—in spite of itself—most successful pro wrestling organization in the world: World Wrestling Entertainment, who has recently been “raiding” Japan, Mexico, and Europe by trying to sign away their top stars, with noteworthy holdouts. Yep, Tiger Mask W's promotional war between GWM and NJPW is fictionalizing WWE vs NJPW. In fact, one such performer, Kota Ibushi, upon neglecting to join WWE, returned to Japan to wrestle as Tiger Mask!
Sure, Tiger Mask W is really fun to watch if you're a puro nerd who can recognize all the reality-blurring at play. With minor exceptions, the New Japan stars shown are all real wrestlers—this anime's chief goal is product placement even if they can't voice themselves due to travel rigors—while others are slightly altered versions of other real-life performers alongside the made-up ones. Wrestling maneuvers and fan diversity are accurately depicted, with minor intentional inaccuracies. But what about the far more likely scenario: if you're not a puro fan and absolutely none of what I just said matters? It'll still be consistently enjoyable, provided you're of a certain mindset. Tiger Mask W approaches plot and character with a double-sided approach befitting its name.
The first is an adherence to the spirit of its classic “brutal determination” sports action anime roots. Back then, such heroes were meant to symbolize Japan's spirit of post-war recovery. Now, Naoto Azuma is a man whose hometown was swept off the map by disaster years ago and has not been rebuilt: a clear invocation of this decade's crises. Boxing was the vector Joe Yabuki used to aim for a better tomorrow, but it's pro wrestling that gave Naoto Azuma purpose when he hears his future mentor proclaim “I've lost many times. But I have risen every single time. I don't know to give up. I hope my pro wrestling will give you some strength. I will keep trying hard!”
Alongside the blood, sweat, and tears lies a subtler storytelling thread, one more familiar to anime otaku, that the trials and tribulations of the modern pro wrestler are very much in line with those depicted in idol singer stories. Wrestlers must not only train themselves past the point of exhaustion, but also look good, diet, do promotional work, sell merchandise, travel to venues, meet their fans, give interviews to the media, and so on. One memorable episode even involves a pair of gimmicky, wrestling-hating idol singers seeking to get noticed. That one's the realest of the real on multiple levels.
This is a Toei Animation production, so Tiger Mask W's visuals are generally “serviceable” at best, as one would expect. However, there are noticeable quality and stylistic improvements that stand out during more momentous bouts. Rather than extending across multiple episodes a la Kinnikuman, matches thus far are over and done within less than one episode. The series is currently planned for 39 episodes, and by the end of this initial batch of 13, the former friends turned rival twin tigers have already faced off with one another. (Take note, Hajime no Ippo!)
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Hard-hitting and occasionally bloody action that captures the emotional appeal of pro wrestling, no excessive gimmicks or fantasy, focuses on victory and growth while still making time for goofy interludes
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