TIGER MASK 🐯 – The heat of the day wafts the city streets as the caped hero rushes into the setting sunlight of a sweltering summer evening. He flies to the rescue of a desperate woman, who shrieks in help of a petty hoodlum. He lurked her in a narrow alley way to harass her now. Arriving on the scene, the masked hero not begged twice, blows the bad guy cracking …
.. with a funny punch line! Well, that is how I first met with Tiger Mask (タイガーマスク), through this comical sketch in one of Japan’s less than hilarious late night comedy shows. My memories have become faint over the years, but I remember this first encounter with the character as if it was yesterday …
… meeh, maybe leave out on the sweltering … the heat of the scene might derive from the fact, me watching that show in the sauna with my company people before heading out into a night of entertainment. Not a very spectacular way to get to know a hero I must admit, sitting all buck naked with my boss and colleagues in a small space, but still, I’m glad I did, because once the character is revealed, one will know that more than funny punch lines lay behind the mask of this iconic wrestler hero. His story is that of being orphan, sadness and despair, yet again of helping the weak and to fight for justice with all ones might!
For those who never heard about Tiger Mask, don’t get this mixed up with Netflix’s Tiger King to put this clear. This article covers the Showa anime wrestler in the guise of a tiger, a cultural icon of Japan in anime and real life. For the occasion of the Year of the Tiger, I thought the tiger shall be released from its cage, or I shall rather say, from the tiger’s den! Hold on tight, here comes the Tiger Mask (roarrr)!!
BELOVED MODERN FOLK HERO 🐅
I still chide myself for not having taken at least a glimpse into the vivid wrestling scene when I was in Japan. Professional wrestling is huge there in following and market. That is also why wrestling related content like in anime and manga enjoy quite some popularity in the country. Kinnikuman (キン肉マン・きんにくまん) to name another prominent wrestling themed franchise. Together with Ashita no Joe (あしたのジョー), a boxing series manga, and Star of the Giants (巨人の星・きょじんのほし), a baseball related manga series, Tiger Mask is one of the 3 main representative works of author Ikki Kajiwara (梶原 一騎・かじわら いっき), the maestro of the sport spirit, whose stories are based on popular sports of the Showa era (昭和時代 ・しょうわじだい; from 1926 – 1989), of which professional wrestling was one and still is to this very day.
While the original anime series is at times violent in depiction with massively blood running the stage, it was primarily aimed at a youth audience. The anime however also went eye-on-eye with social problems, of which the topics of orphan children, the plight of children homes, overprotective childcare, social injustices with poverty, discrimination and prejudice are part of. In an episode it also narrates the effects of industrial smokes on health as well as the irrecoverable scars of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. So there is also plenty for adults to contemplate and reflect on in this retro anime series.
The lineup of appearing characters in Tiger Mask is vast, the rival wrestler designs indigenous and the starring of real-life personalities like illustrious Antonio Inoki (アントニオ猪木・アントニオいのき), towering Giant Baba (ジャイアント馬場・ジャイアントばば), karate-chop Rikidouzan (力道山・りきどうざん) or fierce Kintarou Ooki (大木 金太郎・おおき きんたろう) – altogether big names in the Japanese pro wrestling world – make up the appeal of the original anime, to which I will be mostly referring to in this essay article. The story to the manga diverges and has a different ending, so I leave out on that here. The series later brought about the licensing of a real-life Tiger Mask, who was first portrayed by Satoru Sayama (佐山 聡・さやま さとる). A formidable choice for the original Tiger Mask with many memorable matches and tag-teams on the mat – including its own share of drama -, doing perfect justice to the origin of the character in skill and attitude.
It was this personification that let the character grow into a modern folk hero of society, made him tangible unlike any popular character before him. And anonymous social welfare donations across the country under the alias name of Naoto Date have contributed to retaining the character’s mysterious air through the years.
Naoto Date (伊達 直人・だて なおと), the name behind the anime series Tiger Mask, is reared in the orphanage of the Chibiko House (ちびっこハウス). One day, the children’s home is about to be closed down, Naoto runs off with the words:
“I will become as strong as a Tiger and then I will show it to you adults.”
Maybe the sentiment that showed through from the author Kajiwara himself, who must have similarly felt being sent off to stay at a juvenile reformatory by his parents. During a fight when he knocks down some other kids, young Naoto was scouted by the Tiger’s Den (虎の穴・とらのあな), an evil organization that gathers young talents to turn them into brutal fighting machines. While going through gruesome trainings of life-or-death drills at this organization, he grows a young strong man. Innumerable atrocities have to be endured and compassion has no room in this world, where only the strongest fighters would survive. After the “graduation” of his training education, he makes his debut in the ring as a villainous wrestler in North America. Under the name of Yellow Devil (黄色い悪魔・きいろいあくま; イエロー・デビル) he lets the wrestling world tremble and shake down to the bone marrow!
However, a shift in attitude takes place when returning to fight back in his homeland, where he first leaves the audience speechless with his succession of inhuman and illegal moves unseen before in the ring. Not wanting to be idolized a villain any longer, he moves away from strength and brutality based style to a dynamic style of that of a virtuous fighter. The head smashing Ultra-Tiger-Drop (ウルトラ・タイガー・ドロップ), the back-breaking Ultra-Tiger-Breaker (ウルトラ・タイガー・ブリーカー) and the combination of the same become his trademark moves. In wrestling terms you call this a transition from heel (bad guy) to face (good guy) – because there is always a story of good and bad behind the show. He also begins to use half of the fighting money for the support of his old foster home the Chibiko House and other children homes around the country. Tiger Mask realizes though that this is not enough to help the children and the needy, whereby breaks completely with his “parent” organization, spending the entire fighting prize money for his cause.
“You became to earn big money thanks to the Tiger’s Den, if you don’t know gratitude, then die!”
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you – that even goes for a tiger! Naturally this brings him the wrath of his former boss and training school, then the price for betrayers can only be made up by death. To punish the ungrateful “tiger cub” for its obstreperous Oedipus complex behavior, Tiger Mask becomes a relentlessly hunted man by the Tiger’s Den. It is tantamount to public execution – the life-or-death struggle for our brave heart begins till the bitter end!
Other villain wrestlers and assassins alike are released one after the other in an attempt to eliminate the betrayer. Especially the so-called “Instructor Squad”, a gang of members with The Lion Man (ザ・ライオン・マン), Mister No (ミスター・ノー), The Golden Mask (ザ・ゴールデンマスク), The Egyptian Mummy (ザ・エジプトミイラ), but also foes like Scarster (スカルスター) & Mister Shadow (ミスターシャドー) or The Piranihan (ザ・ピラニアン) are particularly wicked characters with a queer range of illegal moves and lethal weaponry. While he initially struggles to refrain from illegal moves during his deathmatches, with the help of other pro wrestlers like the ones mentioned further up above or mentors such as Toranosuke Arashi (嵐 虎之助・あらし とらのすけ), he gradually succeeds to adopt an orthodox style of fair-play fighting ideology, by which he conveys his biggest fans, the cheering children, the righteous way of living from out the ring.
On occasion the masked hero himself, but usually his alter ego of the sports car-driving, clumsy big-brother figure Kiza (キザ兄ちゃん; Kiza-anichan) pays visits to the children’s home, which in a way becomes his own irreplaceable refuge. Concealing his wrestling identity, he can freely be around the children he loves and supports as his true-life self. His the champion of the hearts, not at least of that of the caring home mother, Ruriko Wakatsuki (若月 ルリ子・わかつき るりこ). To rescue the children and to destroy the evil doings of the Tiger’s Den, his bloodstained struggles continuous in and outside the ring. Tiger Mask, a role model and folklore hero of modern times enwrapped in full of nostalgia 🤗
As part of my popcultural article series, I like to introduce this anime character and as I have habit, talk about what connects me with the character. Although I could never call myself a serious wrestling fan, the sports always followed me around of some sorts. Whether it was in the first WWF video game titles of Nintendo or the TV live broadcast matches in the later 80’s and early 90’s, I have been in touch with wrestling more than I realized before doing this article. Knowing nothing of Japanese pro wrestling back then, less so of Tiger Mask, the names I grew up with consisted of influential Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Earthquake, Vader, Tatanka, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Lex Luger, Yokozuna, Undertaker, Sting. Just some names that come to mind immediately. Did I forget someone?! – Of course! How could I miss the strange Papa Shango, my favorite!
The well-sounding names, the striking dresses and outfits, the schemed gimmicks, not at last the masks. There is a lot in wrestling to capture a child’s heart. However, the Tiger Mask series is not whether you are an actual wrestling fan or not – although I understand much more on the topic now that I have submerged in Japanese wrestling history, making it all the more exciting – Tiger Mask stands for universal themes of having hope, exhibiting courage, fighting for justice and, personally speaking, of staying human. For it is all too easy, to pay it back in kind or with the same coin, as we have an expression. What I mean by that, I will illustrate on the example of the final boss fight of the Tiger Mask anime series.
The gong of fate to ring out one last time! That dramatic finale is set with Tiger Mask against Tiger The Great (タイガー・ザ・グレイト) – Tiger vs. Tiger – probably the bloodiest, most violent fight in anime history – ya maybe together with Kenshiro’s fight against Roah in Fist of the North Star. Both together epic and tragic, you don’t go untouched so much sure! – Finally his longstanding desire of crushing the Tiger’s Den in a decisive battle has come, as he climbs into the ring with readiness to die. “Waaahh, that hurt!“, you inevitably exclaim when watching the cruelty on stage!
It doesn’t look good for the hero. Tiger The Great is yet his strongest enemy of all, combining the abilities of the Three Phantom Tigers in strength, technique and foul play. At a glimpse, it just looks like Tiger The Great lets his rage take over and causing pain, but then, what else can you expect from the founder of Tiger’s Den himself?! Backed by his brute force, his rational and effective illegal moves stand no comparison to any wrestler thus far. Moreover, attacking with a brimming intend to kill, leaves any outcome beyond control!
Finding himself mostly in the defense, Tiger Mask is incapable to get out of the strings of unfair moves. Tiger The Great aims to choke out the last of life of him with the Missile Headbutt, but because Tiger Mask somehow manages to dodge this attack by a hair’s breadth, the opponent inflicts self-damage by crushing into a wooden table outside the ring. A splinter protruding the shoulder, Tiger The Great flies into fury and attacks anew with a piece of broken wood as his weapon.
Strangled with the rope, electro shocked by cable, eyes poked bursting, kicked hard and disgraced of his signature move, only by a breath Tiger Mask escapes the deadly strike to his head with the ragged wooden board. Yet stripping away his bloodstained mask and revealing of his true face, it means the defacto death of the beloved masked tiger hero. That second of the removed mask, the defining scene of the anime!
With the mask in tatters and identity exposed comes the moment of realization. Floods of tears run down his face. Knowing that he will never be able again to enter the ring as Tiger Mask nor to meet with the smiling children of the orphanage as brother Kiza, the pain must have been unbearable. He has no longer a place to return to, he has lost it all in a blink of an eye. Only how much must have been his sadness in that very moment?! – And sadness turns rage. Nothing more to loose and released of all his shackles, unmasked Naoto Date resorts one last time to foul play to pay it all back to the Tiger’s Den. No more holding back and so the destruction of Tiger The Great takes its course:
“All the things I received from the Tiger’s Den, I will beat it back to you in revenge! With it, I will return to as Naoto Date.”
Together with these words, Tiger Mask ceases to exist. For so long, his life was done with as the Tiger’s Den pleased, but now Naoto Date’s revenge tragedy raises its curtains! The unleashed illegal moves that should clear away his longstanding grudge are so fierce that they let all the previous attacks of Tiger The Great look like mere child’s play. Not even the attempts of spectating Inoki and Baba to intervene can stop the insanity of the attacks of enraged Naoto. The tragedy in the ring, can no longer be called representative to a wrestling match – it’s a slaughter!
Hold your breaths! The kids can’t believe what their eyes see there on screen and not even hard-boiled wrestlers like Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki find words for the brutality Tiger Mask exhibits on stage! Because of Kenta (健太・けんた; the boy in the blue shirt in the top right) he was determined to stop using illegal moves and stick to clean fighting instead, but he just couldn’t help himself anymore as inhumanity breaks loose inside him.
With the brutal defeat of the Tiger’s Den final boss, he puts an end to his long fight against this wicked organization and its members. Naoto runs off from the ring without a word. He lost his face as a childhood hero and virtuous wrestler! There is nothing more that remains for him in Japan and he departs to overseas, leaving the children and Ruriko heavy-hearted behind … but a fighter by his trait, the fighter still remains – will remain!
ONE LAST TIME – STAY HUMAN
All this time he fought so well for himself and the vulnerable, this hero of justice. He was almost there to reach his heart’s desire by fair means and clean fight, only to loose it all in the last moment. Cornered to the utmost and exposed in broad daylight, inside this heroic wrestler the ugly face of inhumanity breaks loose one last time!
For behind each mask is always again a human being. Surely no one, who can’t relate to the hero avenging himself in this manner on the villains that caused him so much hardships and put his life on the line over and over again, yet this last chapter of Tiger Mask exemplifies vital lessons for life.
Maybe it was the just price this hero wrestler had to pay in compensation for his violent acts as he rampaged the ring as Yellow Devil in his early years, causing pains beyond recovery onto others. For life is always taking back what it deems necessary to equal out the order of things. All will be uncovered – or unmasked you may say – it is only a matter of time! It makes the tally at the end and then we have to stand accountable for our doings, have to take it on the chin so to speak.
This means, no matter how foul it is played out there, it is about staying human in dignity and conduct to the very last. Regardless if you are honest to a fault, how much you will be ridiculed and taken advantage of – there are plentiful such daily life situations -, it doesn’t matter. Don’t abandon your human qualities in this rough world – not in your darkest hour – because in the end you will stand victorious – victorious over yourself.
This world was, is and will always be surviving of the fittest. Out there is elbowing, low punching, eye scratching, bullying, mobbing, criticizing and me-first attitude, but important is that despite of these foul playing methods, one keeps one’s human qualities. Don’t ever resort to hiding things or cheating in the tempting promise of an advantage or benefit. They are all just short-term and eventually everything comes to light. True victory is to persist with fair means in all walks of life. It is not winning against others, they just make us stronger along the path, but the ultimate achievement is winning over self.
The fight should always be directed at our limited self and it alone. It is self that prevents and restricts us. If that is the primary motive of every human, then fighting against others renders unnecessary. Fighting each other is a thing of the past, now we have to overcome ourselves individually, ascend to higher spheres. Once self has been overcome, we are humbled enough that we can recognize what our purpose in life must be. Now we can finally descend that throne of self and make ourselves truly useful in this world – for fellow humans and the children of tomorrow 🌍
It makes me realize that there will always be a Tiger Mask rushing to my rescue as long as I remember this and uphold my human qualities.
GOING THE ROUNDS – HAPPY 2022!
Now here we stand at the dawn of a new year with the Tiger Year 🐯! Also this year, the violent storm of our existence will sweep the ring we find us in and echoes the gong of fate. Another 12 rounds are on in the match called life. Are you ready to take the blows and to go the distance? What are the revelations of this new year going to be?
2022 will be filled with tones of chances and even more so with challenges that we got to tackle heads-on. I know sometimes those challenges are giant, nearly invincible, so intense the bring us down on our knees, other times the sweep us short and nasty, just to return for a next assault. But like Tiger Mask we have to grope around for new techniques and styles to master certain phases, hone our instincts and skills for the next clash. Even when Tiger Mask’s most powerful move leaked at one point, he just had to reinvent himself and come up with a better version of his moves and himself. He fought against beasts, monsters and other terrible opponents, he was several times defeated and scarred, lost companions along the way, but Tiger Mask always fought his way back and through. This is what we can learn from Tiger Mask, too. Without improving yourself, you just be as a tiger with broken fangs. Easy prey!
In that sense, I hope you got some inspiration for the start of this new year, may come what want. Welcome a fine year, stay well, prosper in your daily life and don’t forget to wake the tiger in you (roarrr)!
To bring you Tiger Mask into the limelight, this one-of-a-kind folk hero, and with what I associate this character with, this is my first post for the year. Thank you for reading my posts and following my blog project at MyLittle Dejima. It is my hope to provide interesting contents that makes readers think oh “They’re Gr-r-reat!” – to express it in Tiger terms 😉 – and give some different viewpoints. If you like the article or have some feedback, please let me know in the comments below. Looking forward to seeing you around also this year!
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- Words in vivid red color link to other articles/pages on MyLittle Dejima
- Words in luminous vivid amber color link to external references/pages
- Words in simple bold or vivid purple color, titles and article relevant information without external reference
For Japanese related words Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ) and Kanji (漢字) are added for those interested in Japanese terminology.
- First published: January 1st, 2022
- Posted on Twitter: January 1st, 2022
- Minor revisions & additions: February 3rd, 2022