The Tiger Mask: Film Review

Dull origin tale won't spread character's fame to the West.

A popular Japanese manga character returns to the big screen.

MONTREAL -- Live-action but hardly lively, Ken Ochiai's The Tiger Mask provides a by-the-numbers origin story for a Japanese hero who has been popular in manga, anime and live-action form since 1968. Stateside awareness of the character appears to be well below that of other anime properties getting the flesh-and-blood treatment (including Fantasia entrant Gatchaman), leaving domestic commercial value next to nil.

Eiji Wentz plays Naoto, who was taken from his orphanage 10 years earlier by the mysterious Mr. X (Sho Aikawa). Wielding a high-tech magic staff and a regrettable asymmetrical haircut, X trains a legion of kids as fighters in a secret boot camp where the ethos is essentially "mercy's for the weak, and only fools care about fairness."

Hard as it may be to believe with a mantra like that, this Mr. X is actually not a good guy. After rising through the ranks to become one of three fighters granted a special, strength-enhancing Tiger Mask, Naoto learns that the underground wrestling matches he enters -- weirdo events in which his opponent may be a fire-breathing salamander or a human/bull hybrid -- are actually just a means to raise money for a global crime network. When his best friend and fellow Tiger is killed after sustaining career-ending injuries, Naoto leaves the Tiger Lair to work at the orphanage that raised him. (When he resigns, X threatens to hunt him down and make him regret the choice. Why threaten to hunt down a man who's standing right in front of you?)

From Naoto's early training to his standoffs with villains, Ochiai's direction suffers from a pace so ponderous it's sleep-inducing. The story is so rudimentary one puzzles over the fact that four credited writers were needed to concoct it; though the cast is capable, there's nothing of interest for them to say or do. The pic replaces the hero's traditional leotard with a getup more closely modeled on contemporary superhero gear, but fight scenes are closer in style to a wire-work version of 1960s kaiju battles than the exploits of today's Batman and Spider-Man.

Production company: Shochiku Co.

Cast: Eiji Wentz, Sho Aikawa, Natsuna Watanabe

Director: Ken Ochiai

Screenwriters: Hidehiro Ito, Itaru Era, Ken Ochiai, Michael Welles Schock

Producers: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Hidehiro Ito, Yoshihiro Yamamoto

No rating, 90 minutes

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