We practice song, but we don't care about song," says Peelander Yellow (a.k.a Kengo Hioki), in the opening moments of Mad Tiger, a new documentary about Japanese punk rockers Peelander-Z. "[Our] music is kind of 10 percent — and 90 percent is kind of theater style."
Since 1998, these NYC-based ex-pats have been utilizing a mondo bizarro formula to the delight of their rabid fans, delivering an insanely entertaining live show that's like a low-budget cross between GWAR and the Power Rangers. Pro wrestling, "human bowling," animal costumes, color-coded stage outfits, and breakneck odes to their fictional home planet Peelander are all part of their shtick, and the performers never break character — not even offstage or in interviews.
But in 2012, when longtime bassist Peelander Red (a.k.a. Kotaro Tsukada) announced via YouTube that he was leaving the band to become a full-time instructor at the (fictional) Ninja High School, filmmakers Jonathan Yi and Michael Haertlein felt that it was time to peek behind the band's cartoonish personae.
"We've known Peelander-Z for a long time, as fans and as friends, and I've been doing music videos for them for a while," Yi explains. "If you watch any interview with the band online, it's always the same kind of thing: 'I'm from Space!' It's like, 'I know you're not from space, I know you're Japanese!' There's no information about who they really are. It took me a year of doing their videos before I even learned their true human names, and where they're actually from. We wanted to tell their real story. It was really important to me and Michael that we not make a movie that adhered to their script."
It was initially difficult, however, to convince Yellow — the band's leader and guitarist, and the control-freak behind every single aesthetic decision — to deviate from the Peelander-Z party line, or reveal any of the harsh economic circumstances that the band members have had to endure in order to focus on their creative vision. "He's a very controlling figure," says Haertlein. "In the beginning, he would try to hold band meetings before we'd arrive, in order to shape what we would be shooting. As soon as we heard about this, we started showing up earlier than we agreed, in order to pre-empt this. It took several months of us basically wearing them down, being there every day, to begin to get to their real personalities."
"We wanted to know, 'What is it like to live this lifestyle, to be this person?'" adds Yi. "There are so many bands out there who are financially sound and can pursue the arts, but they pretend to be struggling and poor. Peelander-Z are the most punk rock people we've ever met, but they're acting like Japanese pop stars. They're living these true artist lifestyles, and we respected that so much."
Originally, the filmmakers thought Red's transition from punk rocker to working stiff would be the obvious focal point of Mad Tiger. [The doc takes its name from a Peelander-Z song.] "Here's a guy who has been in a band for all of his adult life," explains Yi, "and then he's going to enter society and not be this guy anymore. How does that feel?"
But as their footage piled up, they realized that that Yellow's struggle to adjust to the departure of his closest friend and musical collaborator — as well as the surprise resignation of drummer Peelander Green — was actually a stronger and more compelling narrative. "Our editor Hisayo [Kushida] said we should really pursue Yellow's story, because he was clearly going through much more emotional turmoil," Yi recalls. "When Purple [Akiteru Ito] joins the band as Red's replacement, you can see that he's an incredible bassist. But you can also see that it isn't enough for Yellow; it's like getting a new girlfriend and constantly going, 'You're not as good as my ex-girlfriend!'"
Indeed, Mad Tiger — which is currently being shown in limited screenings around the country, and which will be available via Video On Demand on July 5th (and in a dual-DVD release on July 12th) — is more of a buddy film than your typical music doc. Outside of some concert and practice scenes, little of Peelander-Z's music is actually featured in the film; nor does the documentary offer any sort of chronological rundown of the band's history. And that, according to the filmmakers, was completely intentional.
"This is a story about two guys, a story about two best friends going through a really insane transition with their friendship," says Yi. "It's a story that non-musicians can relate to, something that you can relate to even if you're not into the band's music or scene." "We didn't want to make the movie just for Peelander-Z fans," adds Haertlein. "The true focus of the movie is about the search for happiness, and learning how to be good to the people you love in order to find it."
According to Yi, Yellow — who is now back on the road with a re-vamped Peelander-Z lineup — was initially cool about the finished product. "When he first saw the movie, he just left me a message saying, 'Jon, I liked the movie.' And then he hung up, so I had no idea if he actually liked it," he laughs.