Visually, Tiger Mask W is not like other sports shows–especially in how it conveys a real sense of weight in combat.
For example, take a look at Yuri!!! On ICE. It’s probably the exact opposite! (As it should be, too.) Whereas Yuri!!! On ICE is designed to make the ice skating sequences seem as realistic, glamorous and, beautiful as possible, Tiger Mask W is about clashing heavyweights feeling the impact of every smackdown. Yuri!!! must move around light as a feather, with effeminate class, while Tiger Mask must be a rock-hard wall of bricks, oozing testosterone. Naturally, the animation is going to make all the difference here. Namely, it is how the animators convey weight in these characters. While skaters must look light as a feather, wrestlers must be like tanks.
So let us pick a brief fight scene from a recent episode and analyze it as an example.
It is the impromptu fight between Mr. Question and Wagner, from episode nine. Mr. Question made short work of Wagner, despite his relatively thin appearance. The fight is very brief and simple, here is a quick run-down: Wagner is upset that Mr. Question has basically just crashed the party so he can challenge Tiger Mask to a fight, undermining Wagner’s turn. So Wagner kicks him in the back, throws him over his back, kicks him backwards into the ropes, pins him against them and continues to pummel him. At this point, Mr. Question asks, “Are you done?” The fight then turns around, with Mr. Question using his knees and elbows in a series of blows to knock Wagner back slowly, until he grabs him and takes him out with a suplex. Thus, Wagner is done for.
Now, that description is enough to summarize the basic moves, but it does not aptly describe the feeling of each blow, and why we are excited to see the spectacle. The key is in the timing and framing of the shots, and the impression it leaves us with. In other words, the illusion of weight.
Take a look at the episode in question here. (The scene begins at around 18:20)
Firstly, how many shots make up the first strike? Well, it’s really a quick succession of jump cuts. First we have an extreme close-up of Wagner’s foot, complete with speed lines and motion-blur, jumping off from the side and supposedly into the ring, which is off-screen. Next, we are in the ring, but very low off the ground, seeing Wagner slide on the floor towards us at a Dutch angle, coming very close to the camera, but then the shot ends with him, again jumping off screen in a blur of speed lines. The next shot is the actual kick. However… there is no movement at all. Or rather, there are no individual frames sequenced together in the traditional sense of “animation.” That is, unless you include the cape that is floating off to the side. Instead, we have one image, which is held on the screen for the entire shot, but the camera starts from another extreme closeup of his foot, zooms out quickly while twisting a full ninety degrees to reveal that Wagner had in fact kicked Mr. Question in the back. It is a classic Japanese technique: The build-up, the tension, and the release. It’s quick, sharp, and effective.
After a brief close up of Wagner’s face to convey his anger, we have the throw. The shot itself is very short, perhaps only one second. I count four frames from when we see him lift up Mr. Question, and six after he is launched into the air. But the important thing to note here is that we now have a completely new angle: It is very, very low to the ground, to the extent that we can see the ceiling in the background. He is almost being thrown towards us. The next shot is the impact. It’s, again, very short, but now we are higher off the ground, perhaps regular eye-level, looking down at the floor as Mr. Question lands on it briefly and bounces back on his feet. There are only five individual drawings that depict the fall and they are filmed twice each, given extra impact with the aid of a “shaky camera.” When the whole screen shakes, it makes the impact feel so much more real, even with the frame economy. The bounce back up and Mr. Question’s quick flip-around is still part of the same shot, and the camera pans from the ground upwards to show his face. This gives us the impression that it didn’t faze him at all.
After the pinning down onto the ropes, and the “Are you done?” line, it’s time for Mr. Question’s comeback: Though this is all one continuous shot, the jabs are again a pattern of build-up and release of tension. We can tell because we barely see the blows themselves: only the pulling back (which are usually four or five frames), and then one single “contact” drawing which is loaded with speed lines and is held while the camera shakes for a couple of frames, after which the cycle repeats again, using different moves.
The finishing suplex is spaced out over three shots, a simple side-on view showing the basic positions of each character where we see the pick-up, which takes quite a number of frames, all the way to the drop-down, which is only made up of three, again, with speed lines. The following shot is very, very short briefly showing Wagner’s head hitting the ground, but from a top-down angle, and the next is another very low-angle shot from the ground up as Wagner rebounds off into the air, off-screen for a brief moment and, as the camera pulls back, re-enters as he comes crashing down right in front of the camera, while Mr. Question looks on in the distance. The camera pulling back to allow for his re-entry accentuates the crash onto the mat far more than a steady position would have done, because now we know he ended up even further than anyone expected.
The direction in this sequence very cleverly invokes some very hard knocks indeed, and it is all done through clever manipulation of little details. It is certainly not an example of smooth, fluid animation. But that is not the point.
Some readers may have heard of the “nine old men” of Walt Disney Studios. They put forward and popularized the notion of “The illusion of life,” which is the basic philosophy by which Disney animation still operates. Among the various techniques which bring about this concept of giving life and personality to objects by making them move in certain ways, is a technique known as “squash and stretch.” It is necessary to employ a high number of frames to give a sense of weight in this way.
Japanese animation through a culmination of techniques developed over fifty-odd years, does it in a wholly different way, in particular in Tiger Mask W, taking advantage of clever cinematography and control over where to use frames and where to economize them.
Tiger Mask W can be viewed with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.