Review by Justin Goodman
Unknowingly, one of Peelander-Z’s fans accurately describes the nature of their existence: “If you want to call it a religion, I’ll agree.” That is the premise, in any case, of the surprisingly sleek and touching documentary about the New York punk band’s fraught existence, Mad Tiger. For the band’s forceful leader, Peelander Yellow, Kengo, there is a clear sublimation of a life’s worth of suicidal depression into this 4-piece community. This makes him something of a purist and, because of that, diffiult to assuage when change comes around. Which it idoes. Judging by Jonathan Yi and Michael Haenlein’s directing style (Haeinlein describes his style as fostering “an empathetic connection between the subject and the audience”), and despite being a documentary about the costumed punk band’s internal divisions, it’s this clean, story-driven, and demon-ridden force that the two attempt to capture.
Regardless of whether you like punk music or have even been to New York, there’s little to see musically. The few of their songs that contribute to the ambiance of the film are short and absurd–the titular “Mad Tiger” is about “a couple shopping on the street of Shinjuku/Suddenly attacked by a tiger.” This is an accurate presentation of the band itself, it turns out, as Kengo, in the self-conscious and pragmatic way that defines his thinking, admits that the band is 90% theater because of the stiff musical competition. The reality of Mad Tiger begins only once it begins to crumble though: in 2008 Peelander Blue left, in 2012 Peelander Red left, and the following year Peelander Green left. Although mentioned only once, Blue’s retirement is foreboding. And although passing, Yi and Haenlein recognize the off-putting tension captured in his grainy farewell delivered flamboyantly and enthusiastically. While this doesn’t explain why so little of Kengo’s wife, the sole female Peelander, Yumiko, that can be chalked up to a sacrifice made on behalf of their carefully crafted story about Kengo and Kotaro Tsukada, known as Peelander Red.
Kotaro comes to see the future as ill-fitting for a zany musician, dressed as a knock-off Super Sentai (Power Ranger), who hangs from lightfixtures and is thrown into bowling pins wearing a squid costume. Yes, this is real. With this realization firmly set in place (as well as a wife), Red announced his plans. This is will come to define the film itself since Kengo, a fatherly authoritarian by some definitions, friend tortured by a percieved betrayal in other definitions, comes back time and again to decipher his feelings. It’s a mix of frustration and denial that leads him to bring a friend to New York to play the new role of Peelander Purple –a 5 minute period is given to the peculiar way he decides his backstory–literally butt heads with Kotaro over last minute grunt work, and ultimately, act dissappointed when Kotaro “doesn’t pass the test” of his last show with the band. Red’s move was presaged, however, by continual suggestions that Kengo is feeling his 45 years heavily: he’s missing his front tooth because whenever he would replace it, it would be knocked out during one stunt or another.
Their relationship to each other, oddly more relevant to the film than either of the wives, is dominated by a parasitic codependence. Yet, while it’s easy to point out the generic story band documentaries tend to follow, from rise to near-fall (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster for instance), this is precisely what Mad Tiger flaunts and knowingly passes by. There hasn’t been a reunon between the members and likely won’t be. Peelander Green is portrayed as mercenary, joining the band for the possibility of income which, for the storyline of the documentary, is portrayed as petulant, if not outright bad. And perhaps this is the only real flaw in Yi and Haenlein’s sympathetic technique. They become purists for the sake of Kengo and at the expense of anyone who is not as obsessively l’art por l’art as the manic band leader himself. This is not any less the case when they include sequences where Kengo himself requests that material be removed from the final film.
Oddly Mad Tiger ends as an odyssey. After the tour is over and everyone has gone their separate ways, Kengo returns to Japan to see his family (apparently without his wife, but I’ll stop harping on that). In a montage of church and family, Kengo’s father explains that he hadn’t become a Christian until he was 48. Before that, he was just like Kengo. It’s as foreboding as Peelander Blue’s farewell video. And as Kengo sits in church with his parents, and as the pastor reads 1 John 4:18–“But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment”–there’s an overwhelming feeling of guilt that runs through Kengo’s expressions, and which concludes with the reuiniting of Red and Yellow, together in an orange forgiveness.