How a Gonzo Japanese Punk Band Became Rock-Doc Superstars
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.”