Shinjuku Tiger (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2019]

Shinjuku Tiger is a return to the world of documentary filmmaking for director Yoshinori Sato. Although he has a background in television documentaries, he will probably be best known for his sophomore feature Her Mother (2016), an intense film about capital punishment and guilt wherein the mother of a murder victim seeks to prevent the execution of the murderer. It won plaudits for the acting at various festivals including Busan 2016 and the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017. After a fairly bleak and heavy drama about coming to terms with murder, Sato steps back into documentaries with a film about a flamboyant guy who is all about spreading love and happiness.

Tokyo has many colourful characters who have become internet sensations but the Shinjuku Tiger (aka Tiger Mask) is one that many international audiences may not have heard of. Tokyoites are more familiar with the chap because he has been a feature of Shinjuku since he found his tiger mask at Kabukicho’s Inari Kiou Shrine in 1972 and decided to wear it every day to bring some joy to the world.

His ethos is “love and peace” and his method in spreading these feelings is to dress in bright colours and wear accessories like a pink-feather headdress, fake flowers, stuffed animals and his distinctive yellow tiger mask. He does so whenever in public, whether while doing his newspaper delivery job or while partying it up with pretty women in one of the many bars of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district. This man is also a film fan who often goes to the cinema even while dressed as a Tiger. He has spent decades doing this and has built a network of friends and acquaintances, especially amongst the bar owners and film creatives who hang out at the same spots he does, some of whom appear in this film. His efforts have caught the attention of onlookers and advertising execs alike and he has become a fondly thought-of person. Audiences will be wondering just who he is and why he does these things and while the film offers a peek behind the man’s mask to give some answers, it resists being anything like an expose as Sato chooses to celebrate the Tiger as a character and what he means to the area and the city.

Shot over the course of a year and sculpted into form from 200 hours of footage, the film displays Shinjuku Tiger’s four core passions: films, beautiful women, sake and romance. These passions become themes that allow the film to have structure as it becomes segmented through showing the Tiger pursuing these things as Sato and crew track him and the people he encounters with handheld cameras during his delivery job as well as when he goes to a variety of Shinjuku’s cinemas to watch the latest blockbusters or classics, performs epic bar crawls that last well into the morning with plenty of karaoke and drinking, and talks romantically to beautiful women. Why he performs as this character remains something of an enigma and could be troubling to some audience members who take exception to the way he behaves but it is clear that the people who Shinjuku Tiger interacts with are on easy terms with the man and the people who pass him by during their everyday routines take delight in his presence, although some do look at him suspiciously.

Audiences may initially be suspicious too but should enjoy listening to him as he talks love, life and films and by focusing on that, the filmmakers fulfill their intention not to reveal the truth behind the persona. It is clear that he has established relationships with everyone and everything on screen as seen in numerous interviews with celebrities and bar owners and the fact that Tiger leads audiences into a variety of bars, cinemas, theaters and other entertainment places in Shinjuku and Asakusa. This gives an interesting insight into the nightlife of Tokyo and the entertainment world, although one gets the sense that with 200 hours of footage, what isn’t shown may have been equally fascinating. The film also uses his character to approach the history of Shinjuku from a unique angle.

Shinjuku Tiger’s reminiscences of Tokyo’s social history gives the film an air of historical document and Sato laces it with culturally and politically important moments. Tiger, alongside other interviewees, express sufficient thoughts on these aspects to give a fuller sense of the changes. Far from being convoluted, the documentary remains sleek and interesting thanks to having Tiger as the lead character. Indeed, delving into different decades facilitates the film’s cool jazz music score by Osaka-based musicians Riku Horimoto and Misaki Umase, which allows it to slide along smoothly. It also matches Tiger’s character as does the delightful tone of Shinobu Terajima’s narration.

Overall, Sato and his team have assembled an easy to follow documentary through perfectly captured moments as well as interviews with a variety of people from filmmakers like Noboru Iguchi to JR Shinjuku Station workers. Their opinions help to explain the appeal of the man so even if we don’t understand every aspect of his character, we can still enjoy his full persona. The abiding image of the film will be of a man who clearly enjoys life and films and seeing the unadorned joy on his face as he watches Roman Holiday (1953) is truly moving and seeing his joy upon randomly meeting famous is charming.

Sato’s desire to celebrate Tiger as a persona captures the subject at his most energetic whilst also ensuring he remains enigmatic because to lift the mask would spoil the magic.

Shinjuku Tiger was shown on March 10 and 14 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.