The Mike Toole Show
What's Up, Tiger Mask?

by Michael Toole,

Last May, I hopped a bus to New York City, on a mission to explore more Japanese pop culture. I'd previously made similar trips to take in the likes of Tokyo Godfathers and Steamboy and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, so you'd think that this was some sort of anime thing. A brisk few hours later, I was in Manhattan, lining up outside the Hammerstein Ballroom amongst a motley assembly of around 3,000 noisy, cheerful, energetic fans of professional wrestling. That's right: I was attending my first pro wrestling match since 1988, when 12-year-old me bum-rushed the Boston Garden to see Hulk Hogan take on the Big Boss Man in a steel cage match. I was in New York for more of the same complex, atmospheric entertainment, you know? Culture.

Don't worry, there's still an anime angle in here. The show was a team-up between two companies, the tenacious, modest Ring of Honor, based in the mid-Atlantic, and New Japan Pro Wrestling, the forceful standard-bearer of “strong style” wrestling that has dominated Japan for decades. I have a lot of friends who enjoy wrestling, but I don't really know anything about it anymore. When I asked one wrestling otaku friend if something like this was worth seeing, he said “New Japan is the most entertaining wrestling promotion in the entire world. Go.” Intrigued, I took a look at the fight card, noticed the name of Jūshin Liger, an old Go Nagai character, and realized I had to go.

The thing is, Jūshin Liger, a TV series that Go Nagai developed for Sunrise, isn't a wrestling thing, it's a super robot thing, about a couple of dumb kids who fight an alien invasion using crazy biomechanical armor. The wrestler would come as part of a promotional tie-in, with New Japan billing a masked hero called Jūshin Liger whose costume, mask, and moves would evolve and change in tandem with the character in the series. It's kind of a weird idea, but certainly a novel one, and fans seemed ready to accept the mysterious man in the suit, who burst on the scene in April 1989 (one month after the anime started airing, natch) and plied his trade with a dizzying array of high-flying jumps and power moves.

 But while Jūshin Liger the anime inevitably ended after several months, Jūshin Liger the man just kept on going. The costumes and branding that directly evoked Nagai's hero were eventually quietly put aside, making way for a more traditional horned, demonic look. 25 years after an anime character turned into a real-life wrestler, I got to see the present-day Jushin “Thunder” Liger, a 49-year-old wonder who couldn't manage a lot of aerial work any more, but who still raced around the ring, subjecting opponent and Ring of Honor champ Adam Cole to a flurry of low kicks, lunges, and grabs. In that packed ballroom, Liger lost the match, but won the audience over, just as he'd been doing in Japan for decades.

It turns out that Jūshin Liger wasn't even Go Nagai's first weird wrestling tie-in. That was Azteckaiser, a live-action tokusatsu TV series with wrestling themes. Jūshin Liger wasn't the first anime character to make the jump to the squared circle, either. The trend-setter for that particular stunt also happens to be one of Japan's great pop culture heroes, the grapplin’ defender of poor orphans everywhere, Tiger Mask! Tiger Mask, who can smash bad guys to a pulp with his bare hands and change the course of mighty rivers. And who, disguised as mild-mannered orphan Naoto Date, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the Japanese way. Tiger Mask, originally cooked up by Ikki Kajiwara and Naoki Tsuji to run in boys’ magazines like Weekly Shonen, was ultimately a reaction to the earliest waves of Japanese pro wrestling success. After a number of bids to introduce the sporting entertainment to fans over the course of the century, a burly sometime sumo wrestler named Mitsuhiro Momota finally figured out the key to success: beating up on Americans.

It wasn't that simple, of course. Momota, who wrestled under the name Rikidozan, got pro wrestling into Japan's cultural consciousness by establishing its first large-scale promotion, the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance. Success came slowly at first, but arrived very suddenly when Rikidozan invited the legendary grappler Lou Thesz to have a contest in Japan. Their first major clash in the east, a pulsating 60-minute draw, drew a hilariously high TV audience—something like ninety percent of the TV sets in the country (admittedly, probably a small number in 1957) were estimated to have tuned in to the match. The following year Rikidozan defeated Thesz on national TV, cementing his reputation as a superstar, and Japan's hunger for pro wrestling has not abated since then.

But what of Tiger Mask? The manga, sporting the cute, rounded character artwork typical of shonen manga at the time, was gritty and ambitious from the start, opening with the introduction of the mysterious Tiger Mask at a marquee bout in Madison Square Garden. Turns out he's a student from a school of evil wrestlers; after a particularly vicious bout that ends in the death of his opponent, he vows to change his evil ways and help orphans. This apparently enrages all of the really evil wrestlers, especially the Tiger's Cave, the aforementioned Evil Wrestling School, and so they send one gimmicky wrestler after another after him. The manga's a bizarre and fun read, but it's the Tiger Mask anime that really catches the eye.

The animation team, notably auteur animator and character designer Keiichiro Kimura, completely retooled the look of Tiger Mask, with sketchy, primal character designs, a tweaked , scarier version of Tiger Mask's mask, and a style that favored bold character artwork over constant movement. Tiger Mask competed in the ring and fought against evil surrounded by real-life wrestling heroes, including the foundational Japanese wrestlers Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, who would each start enduringly popular promotions—the popular Giant Baba got All-Japan Pro Wrestling, with its brawling, rollickingly theatrical “King's Road” style approach underway, while the handsome, highly-trained Inoki utilized his martial, full-contact “strong style” to launch New Japan Pro Wrestling. In a very real sense, Tiger Mask led directly to that auditorium in Manhattan.

I think this is pretty cool, because Tiger Mask is awesome. While the series enjoyed a spell of popularity, it eventually went away, only to return in the form of 1981's creatively titled Tiger Mask II. Featuring a whole new hero taking the mantle of Tiger Mask, this new show really upped the craziness level, with special attacks, otherworldly bad guys, and a gimmicky transforming car(!) for our hero.  My favorite part of this new show, however? Way more cameos of real life wrestlers, including the likes of Stan Hansen, Abdullah the Butcher, and Andre the Giant. Wait, really?!

…yep, that's Andre the Giant, alright!  Also, it was due to this series that Tiger Mask made the jump to the real-life wrestling ring, with New Japan's Satoru Sayama donning the striped mask to compete for glory.  Tiger Mask still wrestles today, with a total of five wrestlers having enforced his unique brand of justice in the ring. I think my favorite echo of Tiger Mask's influence on pop culture is a phenomenon that began in 2010, as anonymous donors flooded needy school districts and charities with donated goods and money—all submitted in the name of Naoto Date, friend to needy children.

Tiger Mask
is just one of wrestling anime's big names. Another one? Kinnikuman.  Created in 1979 by high-schoolers Yoshinori Nakai and Takashi Shimada as a would-be parody of Ultraman, the series quickly ditched cosmic gags in favor of funny tales of the squared circle, as the oafish Suguru Kinniku discovers he's an alien prince destined to battle super-powered wrestlers to assume the throne of his homeworld. The duo's manga, published under the name “Yudetamago,” never made it over here, and neither did the cartoon, but we did get the toys, creatively rebranded as M.U.S.C.L.E., plus the Nintendo game, widely considered to be one of the worst video games ever. Jackpot!

I discovered Kinnikuman at the end of one of the many 6-hour marathon tapes of off-air anime episodes that got traded around amongst my pals in 1995. The cartoon is appealing even without subtitles, with a charmingly daft, hapless hero… and what struck me as, unmistakably, a blond Terry Funk.

Yep, that's Terryman, who functions, alternately, as Kinnikuman's tag-team partner and a sort of one-man Greek chorus, describing the bad guys and techniques that Kinnikuman must prevail against. Funk was popular in Japan, and Terryman is a natural answer, a smug but affable Texan who boasts the exact same moves as the real-life wrestler.  The sprawling cast of heroes and villains, supplanted by gag characters cooked up by Kinnikuman’s readers, includes tributes to Verne Gagne, Tiger Jeet Singh, and yes, Andre the Giant, not to mention vikings, yeti, Nazis(!), and a guy named after ramen who became so popular that he got his own manga and anime series.

I never got as much exposure to Kinnikuman as I wanted to, but the show's eventual next-gen spinoff, Kinnikuman II, got released here under the title Ultimate Muscle. Anyone remember watching it on Saturday mornings? It was part of the Fox Box, 4kids’ Entertainment's bold attempt to claim some Saturday Morning Cartoon mindshare during a time when the big networks were starting to bail on the concept. Rag on 4kids for their weird localization choices all you want, but they had big plans for Ultimate Muscle, and in a couple of ways, they actually paid off.

First of all, the company actually got Ultimate Muscle toys into stores, not to mention helping publish a sort of amazingly good GameCube game called Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation. It's distinctly fast-paced for a wrestling game, with a huge list of grapples and counters, and victory is only achieveable by knockout. There's even a feature that lets you design your own wrestler, a nifty addition that's puzzlingly absent from the PS2 port of the game, Galactic Wrestling. It's easy to think of 4kids as this inept publisher, but their real bag was licensing, getting the anime on TV so they can profit from toy and merchandise licensing. With Ultimate Muscle, they pulled that part of the operation off.

Our own Shaenon Garrity wrote extensively about Kinnikuman and the Ultimate Muscle manga, which she edited, right here. I do take issue with one of her remarks, though—she said that Ultimate Muscle, in animated form, “died a quick death.” She's right in that it was never a blockbuster (there wasn't even a home video release past one single lonely orphan disc, which hopefully has Naoto Date, friend to orphans, in its corner), but it was immediately successful on TV enough to fund a second season especially for US release. I love it when stuff like this happens, because this second season, while wholly created in Japan using elements from Yudetamago's manga, was dubbed and broadcast in the US well before it hit Japan.

Unlike the manga, which uses acts of extreme violence for shock and comedy value, the Ultimate Muscle cartoon is generally family friendly, concerning the exploits of Kinnikuman's son, Kid M.U.S.C.L.E. The younger Muscleman is just as dumb and lazy as his dad, but like his dad, he still somehow possesses the fundamentals of a great grappler. The show is packed with fun jokes and references to the original, which the dub makes no effort to hide.  (Easily the best gimmick wrestler? A toilet-shaped guy called “Wash Ass.” The dub topped that name, renaming him “the Hollywood Bowl.”) In spite of myself, I have really good memories of the dubbed version, which includes particularly acerbic banter between the two commentators (my favorite: lead commentator Mac Metaphor, responding to a tardy Kid M.U.S.C.L.E., remarks “The clock is ticking… but there's still no Kid!” and his partner glibly responds, “Sounds like my marriage...”), plus a nonsense song that Kid M.U.S.C.L.E. sings whenever he's about to chow down. I still know the words to that damn song; how about you?

Tiger Mask
and Kinnikuman are just a couple of big examples of an intriguing cross-media phenomenon. Hulk Hogan appears as a goon in Fist of the North Star, whom Kenshiro easily defeats. Characters in comedies routinely use wrestling moves as sight gags (how many harem comedies have you seen where the girl puts the boy in a Boston Crab hold?), and wrestlers in shonen fighting fare like Air Master are treated like legitimate fighters.  And then there's Tiger Mask, and Jūshin Liger, and their real-life counterparts. The larger-than-life characters and storylines of pro wrestling cross over to anime effortlessly, and vice-versa. We got a Hulk Hogan cartoon in America, of course, but I don't think that counts as anime.

There are a couple of other big examples of wrestling anime – one of them is Plawres Sanshiro, a genuinely weird attempt to sell plastic model kits of wrestlers that my pal Dave Merrill writes about extensively here. Several shows also use elements and scenarios from girls’ pro wrestling, which is pretty much an entirely distinct, separate phenomenon from the puroresu that I've been talking about. Seriously, it's different enough that it kind of requires its own separate piece. And the iconic Tiger Mask got a feature film adaptation just a couple of years ago. You know, that film adaptation was hotly anticipated, but all discussion of it abruptly stopped after it hit theatres, just like Gatchaman, Devilman, and every other god-awful live-action anime/manga adaptation, so I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that it's terrible.

Japanese pro wrestling isn't going away. There's going to be another set of New Japan shows this spring (look for me at the New York one!), the New Japan guys just got a TV deal here, and most intriguingly, a notable amount of attention was paid to Wrestle Kingdom, which is sort of Japan's answer to Wrestlemania, complete with thousands of dorks staying up until 2 in the morning to watch a live pay-per-view broadcast. This cheers me on, because it's a cultural exchange that's not all that different from fans around the world sharing animation and comics. Our shared legacy of showy professional wrestling is just another point of cultural convergence that brings us all together and makes our world a smaller place. I only hope that it leads to more openness between Japan and the west, greater empathy and understanding, and some sort of crazy anime fighting cartoon guest-starring Rey Mysterioso and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.

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