Spend enough time on the streets of Shinjuku, and you’ll eventually spot a flamboyantly dressed figure in a tiger mask carrying fake flowers, stuffed animals and a boombox. This is Shinjuku Tiger, the subject of a documentary of the same name out this week.

Tiger-san, as friends call him, has been a Shinjuku fixture since the early 1970s, donning his outfit whenever he leaves the house, even while at work as a newspaper deliveryman. It’s almost unbelievable his employer allows him to wear his getup while on the job, but this is Shinjuku, after all, which underneath its shiny 21st century exterior, remains a refuge for artists, thespians and other misfits.

The most obvious question is “why?” But despite repeated questioning, the otherwise loquacious Tiger remains tight-lipped about what led him, in 1972, to don a plastic tiger mask and never look back. In one conversation, he insists that it was simply instinct. In another, he mentions with a shrug that he’s doing it to save the world. No big deal.

Shinjuku Tiger
Run Time 83 mins.
Opens MARCH 22

The gregarious Tiger has more to say when it comes to his three obsessions: cinema, actresses and “manly spirit.” After his newspaper rounds, he spends his afternoons in Shinjuku’s many movie theaters and his nights in Golden Gai, Shinjuku’s famous cramped, ramshackle collection of bars. Many of his Golden Gai drinking companions are actresses with whom he’s cultivated relationships (always platonic, it seems). More than one admits to the camera they only understand about half of what the rambling Tiger is saying at any given moment (the audience doesn’t fare much better, incidentally).

Surprisingly, Tiger seems to have no qualms about showing his face. As he pulls off his mask during one Golden Gai evening, his companion asks whether he minds being revealed on camera. He responds, matter-of-factly, “I can’t drink with it on, can I?”

Shinjuku seems like one of the few places in the world where a man dressed like Tiger can simply go about his business — in fact, it’s remarkable how few people seem to bat an eye as he walks by.

Still, not everyone is a fan. A Golden Gai proprietor mentions that some other bars in the area refuse to let him in. Drinking sessions with him last long into the night. At 69, he’s still so full of energy that keeping up with him seems exhausting.

As if suffering from that exhaustion himself, the filmmaker behind “Shinjuku Tiger,” Yoshinori Sato, sometimes branches off from Tiger into Shinjuku’s larger misfit community. Subplots feature some of the folks who run his favorite bars, including a woman who moved back to her Tohoku hometown after the 2011 earthquake to help revive its fortunes, but who occasionally returns to Golden Gai. Another thread reminds us that Shinjuku was once a center of student protest and bohemian activity before Japan’s far left fell into infighting and disarray in the ’70s.

This is the era in which Tiger decided to don the mask and outfit, and while he reminisces about those days having a sense of freedom, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly political about his decision.

Maybe that’s not the point. Tiger is like the Shinjuku version of a religious ascetic, with movie theaters and Golden Gai as the sites of his pilgrimages. Tokyo is large enough that its denizens can change their career, appearance, friends and even identity almost at will. The fact that Shinjuku Tiger hasn’t veered from his path since 1972 is a strange but compelling testament to the power of perseverance.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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