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I recently had a chance to see a few episodes of the old Toei TV series Tiger Mask. It was very interesting viewing in many ways. Besides being quite entertaining in spite of its age, this show features some of the most dynamic and exciting animation I've seen in any TV show of that period - or this one, for that matter - making it of considerable historical interest from an animation standpoint.
In spite of the show's relatively low profile over here, Tiger Mask is in fact at the root of a number of currents in anime, having been a training ground for a number of major animators and an influence on many others. It's something of a key show in anime history, surprisingly. This period in the latter half of the 1960s produced a handful of classic sports anime that were hugely popular among TV viewers, as well as influential on the rest of the industry, such as Kyojin no Hoshi and Ashita no Joe, and Tiger Mask ranks right alongside them as one of the most important sports anime of the period - the defining wrestling anime to the defining baseball/boxing anime of the former two shows. Nonetheless it, like most of these other sports anime classics, remains very little known over here in the west. These shows have admittedly aged a bit after some 40 years, and probably appear at first sight quite lame and cheesy to prospective viewers today. But in the best cases they hold up surprisingly well in many respects, far more than other shows of the period, thanks to good directing/drama and surprisingly strong animation, so they merit rediscovery.
Prior to watching a few episodes of Tiger Mask just recently, I was already familiar with the classic opening, the dynamic and sketchy style of which gave a clear indication just how unique this show was in terms of the animation, and got me curious to see more. Basically, it just moves far more than many shows from that period. Drawing after drawing passes by as the wrestlers run around, jump from the cords, grapple with one another, lunge at one another. Sports is all about athletes and physical motion, but anime by definition seems to impose limits on how much a character can move, so prior to seeing this, the whole idea of 'sports anime' struck me as something of an oxymoron. But the Tiger Mask opening seemed like the exception to that rule. It was one of the few anime I'd seen that put the considerable effort required into the animation to recreate that most basic thrill in sports - seeing the athlete vigorously moving around doing his thing. Besides that, there was the sheer rawness of the animation, which I personally found very appealing as a fan of the latter-day proponents of rough-styled animation like Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. This was sketchy, spontaneous stuff full of flying lines and quickly drawn poses, certainly like nothing else I'd seen from this period.
I'd heard good things about Tiger Mask the show itself, but I probably would never have bothered to seek it out beyond the opening had some tapes not been bestowed upon me, so I'm grateful for having been given the opportunity to finally experience the show. I'm quite fond of several of Toei's earliest TV series like Ken the Wolf Boy and Hustle Punch, which I originally explored as missing links between Toei's feature period and TV period, and wound up finding to be quite excellent on their own merits, but for some reason I've never bothered exploring the TV work Toei did over the next few years.
Tiger Mask comes along right at that period in the late 1960s when we start to see a major surge in the number of subcontracting studios, many of which were being formed by people who had just quit either Mushi Pro or Toei. Usually those new subcontracting studios would go on to do subcontracting for the same big studios the founder had just left. (Tokyo Movie was another big contractor of the day) Such is precisely the case with the main figure behind Tiger Mask: Keiichiro Kimura. As I mentioned in the post on A Production, Keiichiro Kimura had trained at Toei Doga under Daikichiro Kusube. He did his first animation work as an inbetweener on the two 1963 films (Sinbad and Little Prince), before shifting course and moving to work on the TV shows, which he did from there on out. His first big job was working under Kusube on Fujimaru in 1964 alongside Yoichi Kotabe. Afterwards, he was abruptly bumped up to working as character designer/animation director, in which capacity he worked for two more years at Toei, first on Rainbow Sentai Robin and then on the first Cyborg 009 film. After then working on a number of other shows, Kimura was finally appointed character designer of Tiger Mask, which wound up being his last job at Toei. He quit mid-way to form his own studio, Neo Media, although he continued working on the show from his new studio.
Keiichiro Kimura is a one-of-a-kind character. No geeky nerd as a youth, Kimura was a burly tower of power enrolled in all of the sports clubs, who cowed not only his classmates, but also his teachers with his fearsome, never-smiling facade and his hit-first-ask-later attitude. After graduating from high school, family friends suspected he had become a yakuza. But he just loved to paint. Having spent much of his time during high school behind the easel painting, by the end of his studies he had honed his skills enough that he was able to win a competition hosted by the Mainichi newspaper, even getting his name in the paper. After graduating, this helped motivate him to try his hand at getting into an art school. However, he was unable to pass the entrance exams. It was then that he ran across an ad in the newspaper from Toei Doga looking for animators, and he decided to apply. He contacted Daikichiro Kusube, who had grown up in the same town and graduated from the same high school a few years ahead of Kimura, and the rest is history.
Daikichiro Kusube was known at the studio as the guy under whom all of the misfits assembled, and it was under him that Keiichiro Kimura learned the ropes. Yasuo Otsuka would occasionally drop by Kimura's desk to give him tips, answer questions, show him how to do things, and otherwise be tremendously generous with his knowledge, for which Kimura was very grateful. Whereas Kusube was Kimura's teacher, Otsuka was probably his greatest influence, stylistically speaking. It can be assumed that Otsuka's influence is at least partly one of the elements leading to the style we find in Tiger Mask.
Besides this, Keiichiro Kimura mentions that the one explicit influence behind the style he adopted for Tiger Mask was the work of Bob Peak, an illustrator who created a number of famous Hollywood posters and sports illustrations in the 1960s. Peak smeared the paint across the canvas expressively, heightening the feeling of exertion in the athletes he painted. Kimura works with only pencil in his work, so it's hard to see any direct influence. It's more of a spiritual hint that Kimura seems to have taken from Peak's work, in terms of the sort of freedoms he could allow himself with the drawings and timing in order to achieve a more dynamic and exciting piece of animation.
Kimura had always had an aggressively go-getter attitude when it came to his animation. Perhaps influenced by the teaching of Otsuka, as an inbetweener, he had always pushed himself to draw as many inbetweens as he could, driven by the conviction that skill came as a result of hard hours of practice, and if you wanted to become a great animator, the more you could draw, the faster you'd get there. Toei Doga had recently switched to a piecemeal system of payment, where animators were paid by the sheet rather than by the hour, which was certainly another motivating factor behind the very speed-oriented style of drawing that Kimura had acquired by the time he began working on Tiger Mask. Combine stylistic inclination with a speedy drawing hand acquired through years of work, and the result is the hard-edged and freewheeling approach to action that makes Tiger Mask so memorable.
Kimura came up with a variety of tricks and inventions to pump up the excitement on the animation of the wrestling matches, which were, after all, the centerpiece of the show. He told his animators, "Imagine the ring is as big as a football field." What he meant by this is, exaggerate the length of the actions. Allow your character to run for ten meters before taking a flying leap and soaring through the air for five seconds before he lands on the other side. The action in Tiger Mask is full of breathtaking, space- and gravity-defying aerial acrobatics that are tremendously fun to watch, even while they gleefully stretch plausibility.
Rather than planning out a wrestler's move in a particular shot in detail prior to sitting down to animate it, he sat right down and came up with the moves on the spur of the moment. You can see very clearly in the opening how this approach to his task shows up in the animation on the screen. Rather than a fluid, predictable motion, we have a series of choppy and jumpy but spontaneous and very expressive poses fluidly flowing in one unprecedentedly long arc for a single shot, incorporating extravagantly long camera moves that reportedly resulted in the background painters having to create some of the longest backgrounds ever painted for a TV show in Japan. He varied the frame rate dynamically, something he learned from Otsuka, going from spare threes to twos or even ones at unexpected moments.
But most of all, those aggressive lines! It seems like he nearly cuts through the paper, he presses down so hard with his pencil to create these incredibly powerful and jagged lines that criss-cross the characters and give them an immediacy beyond any other show of the period. Every little jagged notch is kept alive in the final product thanks to the Xerox method that was used back then. Inbetweeners reportedly had a challenge adapting to his demands. The result of Kimura's long years spent learning how to draw large quantities of inbetweens as good and quickly as possible can be seen in Tiger Mask, which seems to be the culmination of a young animator's long incubation period. Kimura would even extend his action sequences by adding shots not in the storyboard, which halfway into the show wound up leading to disputes with the directors that eventually led to him quitting Toei. He was determined to create the most exciting animation he could. He just had his own brash way of going about it.
Kimura handled episodes in alternation with a handful of other animation directors, and their work is interesting in that it shows a number of different interpretations of the style presented by Kimura. A number of these figures went on to become famous for their work elsewhere, making this show also interesting as a showcase of the early work of a few other greats. These include Oh Production founders Kazuo Komatsubara and Koichi Murata, and soon-to-be Topcraft animators Tsuguyuki Kubo and Yoshinori Kanemori. Another soon-to-be Topcraft animator, Tadakatsu Yoshida, can be seen among the animators on Kubo's episode. Each of these animators went on to develop his own unique graphic touch that seems to have taken in a little something of what Kimura was doing here.
Of the few episodes I've been able to sample, I was particularly taken by Kubo's work here, as I was not familiar with his pre-Topcraft style. Hidekazu Ohara has mentioned that Kubo's painterly drawing skill was one of the things that convinced him to join Topcraft, and that skill was clearly in evidence here. Kubo shows a brilliant eye for drawing faces with distinctly and pleasantly rendered features that sets itself apart from the look of the rest of the animation directors, almost with a more western look to it. You can see one of his drawings above - he did the third drawing, of the guy with the smashed-in face. Kimura's own drawings can be seen in the top two drawings, as well as the opening. Each animation director exhibits a distinct touch of line, which only magnifies the pleasure of watching the show, giving it a variety of styles that huddle together comfortably under the overarching umbrella of Kimura's rough 'n dirty approach.
The show is rather watchable besides, in a sort of comic book-melodramatic way, with its lovably convoluted and heart-tugging story about an unfortunate wrestler blackmailed by a mysterious international school of assassins into wrestling one opponent after another in order to pay off his debts to the school, which taught him everything he knows. All the while, he's forced to wear a tiger mask in the ring to protect his identity so that the orphans at the orphanage - for whom he also happens to be fighting to earn money, having been an orphan there himself in his youth - will not discover his identity. The recurring theme of how powerlessness drives the characters to seek the power to overcome seems very much of its time for Japan, which was presumably well on its way to recovery by 1970. The show has a decidedly 'showa' atmosphere about it that is very warm and inviting, with its reassuringly humanistic tone and themes, which is a huge contrast with the bulk of anime made today. The fights get quite bloody and violent, almost certainly more than any other show by that point, so it is easy to see how the show might have shocked audiences in its day.
The animation directors who worked on the show would go on to do more work for Toei and other studios, retaining something of the rough touch of line of Tiger Mask, in the process establishing a kind of a tradition for this kind of roughly drawn TV animation in Japan. Tiger Mask has been cited as an influence by any number of animators, and latter-day echoes of the style pioneered by Kimura here continue to found heard in various places, ranging from Shinji Hashimoto's work to Kemonozume.
After Tiger Mask ended, Kimura continued doing subcontract work for other studios from his new studio, Neo Media, where he had several other animators working under him. He and Yasuhiro Yamaguchi were the first at the studio, working on Lupin together in 1971, with Yoshiyuki Momose and Masayuki Uchiyama coming in right afterwards and working on Dokonjo Gaeru. In the latter half of the 1970s, two other animators joined the studio who would go on to make a name for themselves in the 1980s and beyond: Yuji Moriyama and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. For a small subcontractor, Keiichiro Kimura's Neo Media put out an impressive number of great animators.