The 50 Year Legacy, The Fun, and The Intensity of Tiger Mask W

Professional wrestling is at times bad, amazing, fun, ridiculous, or intense. Within this year alone, there have been all time classic matches in multiple organizations, an empty arena match inside the Tokyo Dome, and the tragic loss of Daryl the cat. Yet, with everything that has happened in wrestling over the past year, my favorite thing has been a wrestling anime of all things. Tiger Mask W hit the airwaves in October of 2016 as a sequel to the original Tiger Mask series. The show is essentially a cross between the shonen and sports genres, but is able to capture the fun that pro wrestling is able to offer people with its blend of sports and entertainment. Before we dive into the show properly, let’s talk about the history of the Tiger Mask franchise and wrestler which both go back quite a few years.

Tiger Mask in its initial run as a manga was published between 1968 and 1971 with an anime adaptation happening between 1969 and 1971. The manga had fourteen volumes and the anime’s first run had 105 episodes. Tiger Mask followed the story of Naoto Date, who is referenced in Tiger Mask W but never shown, a former American heel (bad guy) pro wrestler who travels to Japan and becomes a face (good guy) after meeting a child who wanted to become a bad guy like him. Instead, he changes the Tiger Mask character to become a more fan favorite and take on the villainous Tiger’s Den, the same group featured in Tiger Mask W. Both shows share similar characters and even the same characters given that Tiger Mask W is a sequel. The Tiger’s Den group still exists in the new show along with Mister X, who is voiced by the same voice actor who played him in the 1969 anime. Kentaro Takaoka’s character in the original show was that of Yellow Devil, an antagonist who would be heavily rooted in the beginning of Tiger Mask W, but in the sequel becomes the mentor for the new Tiger Mask and is also played by the same voice actor from the 1969 anime. The two shows also share numerous villains such as Tiger the Great, Big Tiger, Black Tiger, and King Tiger, all who would have predecessors show up in Tiger Mask W. Tiger Mask would go on to have a sequel anime called Tiger Mask II in 1981 where Naoto Date had passed away and a new Tiger Mask emerges to fight off a new set of villains. The sequel and the manga ending of Date’s death are not recognized in Tiger Mask W as his whereabouts are unconfirmed. Tracking down the original anime or manga is incredibly difficult. Given the age of the anime, it is not surprising that there really is no current way to find it online with subs or without. The manga is a little different as there have been a handful of chapters translated, but it is just a brief glimpse at the series and nowhere near its entirety. It is a shame that Tiger Mask W did not give Toei incentive to re-release the original series, but given the horror stories that I’ve heard about the early days of anime production and how they would just re-use parts of production constantly for shows, it would not be surprising if the original series is lost to time. Of course, it wouldn’t be great if the only means to see it in English would be through a bootleg anime site, but it is an argument for the preservation of these older shows that might never see the light of day. Hopefully, the manga eventually finds its way to being translated either via scanlations or an official release. However, the sequel did bring one thing to the professional wrestling industry, and that is the real life version of Tiger Mask.

Tiger Mask from the 1969 series.

Tiger Mask from the 1969 series.

With the release of Tiger Mask II, New Japan Pro Wrestling obtained the license for the Tiger Mask character and decided to use it to bolster their junior heavyweight division. The company gave the character to Satoru Sayama, a wrestler trained by Karl Gotch and Antonio Inoki who was once called by WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart, the “Bruce Lee of wrestling”. Sayama as Tiger Mask would become the first man to hold the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship (New Japan’s junior division title at the time) and the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship simultaneously. This would create controversy due to the NWA not having any ties with the WWF at the time, but New Japan and the NWA eventually ironed out the problems to allow Sayama to hold both titles. Sayama would also create the Tiger Suplex, which is now a move seen throughout all of pro wrestling. In 1983, Sayama would leave New Japan Pro Wrestling due to backstage politics which left the company without one of their star attractions. However, Tiger Mask would not be gone for long as in 1984, All Japan Pro Wrestling, a rival company to New Japan, would buy the rights of the character from New Japan and give it to another upstart and future legend, Mitsuharu Misawa. Misawa would take the Tiger Mask character and use it for 6 years, capturing the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship, the PWF Tag Team Championship with Jumbo Tsurata, and All Japan’s All Asia Tag Team Championship with Kenta Kobashi while using the persona. Misawa would also graduate to the heavyweight division in the final years of him having the character and would be the creator of the Tiger Driver, an underhook sit out powerbomb, that is now infamous as Tiger Mask’s finishing move. In 1990, Misawa would unmask in the middle of a match to wrestle as himself, thus leaving the character without a body yet again. Misawa would go on to become the president of All Japan and create Pro Wrestling NOAH in 2000. He tragically passed away during a match in 2009.

1992 would see Tiger Mask reemerge, this time back in New Japan Pro Wrestling with Koji Kanemoto under the mask. Kanemoto would become a rival to New Japan’s top junior of the early 90s, Jushin Thunder Liger. The experiment to bring back Tiger Mask failed due to the success of Liger, and Kanemoto would lose a mask vs. mask match in 1994 to Liger. Kanemoto’s success in pro wrestling would come after losing the Tiger Mask persona where he would become a multiple time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and the first person to defend that title in the United States. In 2010, he held the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships with the current incarnation of Tiger Mask. 1995 would see a new holder of the Tiger Mask persona. Yoshihiro Yamazaki donned the mask for Michinoku Pro before eventually heading to New Japan in the early parts of the 21st century and still carries it to this day. Yamazaki has held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship on six separate occasions, won New Japan’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament in 2004 and 2005, and most recently has twice held the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship. Yamazaki was trained by Sayama, the original Tiger Mask, which gave him credence to becoming the character. He has become the most prolific and decorated version of Tiger Mask in the character’s 30+ year run. A fifth Tiger Mask was debuted in 2010 as Sayama introduced MMA fighter Ikuhisa Minowa as the newest Tiger Mask, however Minowa has not done anything with the character since a 2010 tag team match where he teamed with Minoru Suzuki.

With Tiger Mask W and New Japan’s partnership in the anime itself, the company decided to create a new version of Tiger Mask to promote the show in various matches during the anime’s run. New Japan, despite having their own version of Tiger Mask on the roster in Yamazaki, decided to go with a fresh approach for Tiger Mask W and brought back Kota Ibushi, a wrestler who earlier in 2016 had left New Japan to become a freelancer before heading to the United States to compete in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic. After declining WWE’s generous contract offers, Ibushi returned to New Japan, but only under the Tiger Mask W persona, not as himself. Ibushi as Tiger Mask W would debut on October 10, 2016 in the pre-show for King of Pro Wrestling facing Red Death Mask, a character from the show being portrayed by New Japan’s Juice Robinson. Tiger Mask W would return after his victory to compete in the opening of Wrestle Kingdom 11 in the Tokyo Dome, the company’s biggest event of the year, on January 4, 2017 against Tiger the Dark, played by independent wrestler ACH. A fun and cool part of the promotional aspect was that for the Wrestle Kingdom 11 match, Tiger Mask W was led to the ring and introduced by Suzuko Mimori, the voice actress for Haruna Takaoka who is Tiger Mask’s agent in the series. She and Taku Yashiro, the voice of the new Tiger Mask in the show Naoto Azuma were brought on the Japanese commentary for Tiger Mask W’s matches in New Japan. Tiger Mask W’s run in New Japan would end after a tag team match where he would team with Tiger Mask (Yamazaki) to take on Gedo and IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada and a match at New Japan’s 45th Anniversary show where he would take on Okada in a non-title match. The promotional aspect for Tiger Mask W worked better than it probably should have given the talent Ibushi has and the matches were just fun. His match with Okada was very good and is certainly one any fan should seek out. Ibushi has since returned to New Japan as himself with the company not acknowledging that he was Tiger Mask W.

Tiger Mask W and Tiger Mask IV

Tiger Mask W and Tiger Mask IV

Tiger Mask W starts off with a simple premise. Two trainees see their mentor Daisuke Fujii injured at the hands of a wrestler by the name of Yellow Devil. After the match, the two find themselves going down opposite paths with the chance of never seeing each other again. Naoto Azuma is recruited by the original Yellow Devil, Kentaro Takaoka and presented with becoming Tiger Mask. Takuma Fujii takes another path and joins the Tiger’s Den, which the new Yellow Devil is a part of and becomes Tiger the Dark. The two deuteragonists have a quest for revenge, but the two are unaware of what the other is doing or who they have become. Revenge stories are nothing new for any sort of media and that includes pro wrestling. What makes Tiger Mask W work is that it is simple storytelling that builds slowly to its payoff. The show benefits from having 38 episodes to create these slow burning stories that last the entirety of the series. Despite the fact that both have gone their own ways, neither is necessarily the hero or villain, even with how they would be portrayed in the wrestling ring. Tiger Mask is the babyface and Tiger the Dark is the heel, but Naoto and Takuma both have the same goal in mind, just with a different way of trying to accomplish it. You see this as the show progresses when Tiger Mask has to turn his back on New Japan, the company he has aligned with to battle the invading Global Wrestling Monopoly, a slight parody of WWE, and turns heel as he feels that it is the only way he can get the revenge he desires. This action leaves him ostracized from New Japan for quite some time until the end of the series when he regains their trust. The same happens for Tiger the Dark after he is injured in a match against Yellow Devil, who is now Tiger the Great the Third, the grandson of Tiger Mask’s Tiger the Great, and is basically left for dead by the Tiger’s Den. He works his way back from injury to make a triumphant comeback and turn into a babyface by showing up to team with New Japan against GWM in their promotion war. The promotion war story that encompasses the latter half of the series is an enormous amount of fun, which personally I am a big fan of any type of promotion or stable war in pro wrestling. A modern day complaint about pro wrestling storytelling is that it is too worried about immediacy and has forgotten about long, drawn out stories. It is a nature of the business with the bigger companies like WWE having multiple shows in a week and sometimes multiple pay per views in a month. Tiger Mask W does not have to worry about any of that and it allows for the show to create a longer story for the viewer to watch unfold over 38 weeks and really get what they would want out of it.

Besides the main narrative, Tiger Mask W is able to have fun with its side characters. There is a centralized pro wrestling journalist, Hikari Kuruma, who becomes interested in both Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark due to their sudden rise within pro wrestling and is always seen at press conferences. Even though she’s a journalist, she casually drops “insider” remarks like how Tiger’s Den wrestlers were trained to be heels or how wrestling has changed to focus more on high spots than how it used to be decades ago. She also becomes the vessel for telling the viewer the events of the original Tiger Mask when she interviews Tiger Mask early in the series and lays out the exploits of Naoto Date. The comedy wrestler Fukuwara Mask was mostly seen as comic relief and showed up as a color commentator for a variety of matches. Even with his unserious antics, it is later revealed that he was a former member of Tiger’s Den and also coached Tiger the Great the Third. Haruna, the agent of Tiger Mask, also has more than just her managerial duties as she becomes a wrestler herself under the guise of Spring Tiger to aid the Candy Pair tag team. She also gets the series finale episode focused around her after Miss X buys the rights to the GWM name and image after the events of the penultimate episode and goes specifically to Haruna to be the ace of the new women’s only promotion. The episode itself is goofy and even delves into some of the sexist ways that pro wrestling has always had as Korakuen Hall would not license the promotion to have a match if Haruna lost and had to expose her butt, which Miss X argues that the men are able to do for spots all the time and never see any repercussions. Even with the episode and its silliness, it actually made me want a sequel show that would be based around Haruna and the shenanigans that the new GWM would get into, though it is highly unlikely it will happen. Perhaps one of the things I disliked about Tiger Mask W was that it felt like the show shoehorned in Haruna having feelings for Naoto right at the very end. It is certainly something that could have been handled better, given that the viewer before that was curious whether Naoto would try and pursue Ruriko, who he had formally dated, but was now spending more time with Takuma. Despite the way the show handles Haruna and romance, it smartly chose how Naoto handled Ruriko and Takuma. Naoto and Ruriko had dated, but it wasn’t anything serious and after Takama was injured, she became his personal therapist to help with his rehab. Those two ended up getting close and Naoto never reacted in a negative way. Although he was bummed, thankfully he never turned into a douchebag about what happened. Tiger Mask W also allows for a reading of how one of Takuma’s friends, Kevin, feels about him as it can be seen as Kevin having romantic feelings for Takuma due to his jealousy of Takuma and Ruriko’s relationship. Homosexuality in pro wrestling has often been handled in a way that is played for homophobic jokes or to vilify wrestlers who play gay characters, so it was very surprising to see that the show allowed that kind of subtext.

Tiger Mask hits the Tiger Fang

Tiger Mask hits the Tiger Fang

New Japan’s partnership with the show not only allowed the name and brand to be used, but also a bevy of the current roster showed up as cameos or supporting roles. Most of the wrestlers did not voice themselves unfortunately. The two exceptions are Togi Makabe which is most likely due to his popularity on Japanese variety shows outside of wrestling and Kota Ibushi who only had a brief cameo in the penultimate episode. Big stars from New Japan like Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, and Kenny Omega all make appearances within the show. Omega and Tanahashi are more supporting due to how often they appear and their importance in the story’s latter half of it and also are extensions of their wrestling personas. Naito perhaps has the strangest adaptation of his character out of the New Japan cameos. He of course is using his Los Ingobernables de Japon persona, but unlike how in reality where he has clashed with New Japan management and gave up on caring if the fans liked him or not, this version of Naito almost had a sense of pride when it came down to it about fighting for the company. Even near the end of the series when Okada, Tanahashi, Tiger Mask, and Yuji Nagata, who for some reason runs New Japan in the show, have written off Naito, he still shows up ready to go, albeit he does show up too late and essentially is the voice of reason that tells Okada not to compete due to injury and that everything will be okay if Tiger Mask wrestles Tiger the Great the Third. It is certainly a different take on his character, but also shows the complexity of it given that he is presented as a heel in actual New Japan, but is a huge fan favorite to where when he faced Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, people were booing Okada and cheering Naito. For the most part, everyone else is true to their character. Okada is brash and cocky and Tanahashi is confident and exudes the aura of the ace of the company. The original series also featured actual wrestlers of its time like Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, but did not feature the New Japan license as its sequel does. The show also featured numerous parodies of wrestlers such as ones for former WCW and WWE wrestler Billy Kidman and current WWE wrestlers Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch.

The animation for the show at times seemed a bit rough, but also was partially its style as it was reminiscent to how the original show looked. The actual wrestling within the show was usually fast paced with matches never lasting longer than half or a full episode and also featuring parts that were completely unrealistic, but still kept the intense drama that pro wrestling can provide. Each impact had gravitas to it in a way that seemed reminiscent of action shows like Dragon Ball Z which is what the show needed as if each move didn’t have that sort of oomph to them, the action wouldn’t be as good, the drama of the match could fall apart, and it would just look unappealing to the viewer. It helps that it is an anime as they are able to get away with having unrealistic aspects like that. The original series, given that it came out in 1969 is rough to look at if you are able to see clips of it, but using that as an influence for Tiger Mask W, but also smoothing it overall to make it flow better animation-wise for a modern show gives it a unique style that other shows may not necessarily have. It certainly is a neat touch that Tiger Mask W is able to keep referencing a show that is its predecessor by nearly fifty years, but have it work out so well. Whether it’s from the animation, the references to the original story, or how the opening is an homage to the Tiger Mask opening. You can watch the entire show and perhaps not realize it is a sequel to a 1969 anime, but once you realize and connect the dots, the various ways that Toei used that to their advantage is something that was well done.

Togi Makabe really loves sweets. No, he really does.

Togi Makabe really loves sweets. No, he really does.

Tiger Mask W is not going to be for everyone. Pro wrestling is such a niche product in and of itself that of course this show would not appeal to people who obviously do not like wrestling. However, for those who wish to give it a try, whether they are fans or not, there is a lot to find in Tiger Mask W that is great. The characters, the story, the action, the drama, and even the comedy and filler are all aspects of the show that are well done. It is never going to be known as one of the more popular anime series of the 2010s, but it should be known as a surprise hit the excelled when its time came. Cross promotion in terms of media has a history of creating something disappointing, but Tiger Mask W certainly flips that on its head and gives both wrestling and anime something that they should cherish and does not tarnish its near fifty year legacy.