If one of Peelander-Z’s superfans is insisting you go to their Brooklyn Bowl show next Sunday and you’re wondering what to expect, start by imagining a cross between GWAR and Shonen Knife. Like GWAR, the self-described “Japanese action comic punk band” claims to be from another realm (the Z area of Planet Peelander, to be exact) and each of its costumed, color-coordinated members has a distinct identity: Peelander-Purple, for instance, hails from the planet’s “dark side.” And like Shonen Knife, they sing Ramones-esque pop-punk ditties about silly things like tacos and star bowling.
Okay, the GWAR comparison might be a stretch: there are no NSFW mutilations of Hillary Clinton or geysers of fake blood at a Peelander-Z show. Instead, there is human bowling. Or frontman Peelander-Yellow might take the stage dressed in a giant tiger helmet, hand out doggie bowls and drumsticks to everyone in the front row so they can add a tribal beat to the song “Mad Tiger,” and then go into the audience with a giant rope in order to transform the mosh pit into a limbo party. Once he’s back on stage, he’ll invite someone up to jump rope. Heck, he’ll even get fans to commandeer the guitar, drums, and bass in the middle of a song before sending them crowd-surfing. The results are delightful— or, at least, they were when I saw Peelander-Z at the Marquis Theater in Denver this past weekend.
At this point I should probably mention that Peelander-Yellow looks like Beard Papa on acid: The gap-toothed, bald-headed Japanese expat is in his late 40s and has an electric-yellow beard, but he can still pull off day-glo sunglasses, full-body fishnets and spaceman/superhero outfits. He might look like the dude who invented kawaii, but Mad Tiger, a film opening next week at IFC Center, makes it clear that not all is “happy happy” in Peelander-Z’s world.
If you’ve seen behind-the-music/behind-the-mask documentaries like The Weird World of Blowfly, you probably know where filmmakers Jonathan Yi (executive producer and director of photography on the Death by Audio doc) and Michael Haertlein are going with this. After the requisite footage of the band delighting hometown audiences at Brooklyn venues like the Knitting Factory, we discover Kengo Hioki, the band’s leader, is not Yellow so much as he’s kind of blue: “I always say to people ‘happy happy,’” he tells the camera. “But I don’t know the meaning of happiness, to tell the truth.”
Hioki came to New York to make it as an artist, but after years of painting he decided the gallery game was “ridiculous,” put all 300 of his works on a wall, and painted them white in an act of symbolic self-immolation. He clearly prefers his alterego, Yellow, to his actual identity as Hioki, the shy worrywart whose father, back in Japan, believes he needs to find Jesus.
The problem is that his bandmates have just about had it with Hioki and his Power Rangers-esque fantasy world. Bassist Kotaro Tsukada (aka Peelander-Red) has decided that he wants to settle down with his fiancée and try to open a bar and music venue in the East Williamsburg space that will eventually become Sunnyvale.
Red has been in the band since it formed in New York City in 1998, and serves as its acrobatic showman, with a penchant for hanging from the ceiling while he plays bass. Yellow might be the mastermind who writes songs about going to Ninja High School, but Red is the guy he turns to when he needs someone to ride a unicycle in a full-body squid costume. After Red’s goodbye show in late 2012, Yellow tries to cope with the departure by summoning from Japan a new bassist who is admittedly a 41-year-old “heavy boy” (people call him Eatman, because he likes his breakfasts fried). But even before the band can relaunch with Peelander-Purple on bass, drummer Peelander-Green announces he’s quitting too. Like Red, he doesn’t see a future in continuing to play 100 gigs across America every year, and he’s a little irked by Yellow’s bossiness.
It’s clear that Yellow doesn’t want the documentary to delve into such things— after head-butting Red in anger, he insists the scene be cut and replaced with his own cartoon recreation. That kind of guardedness might explain why Mad Tiger barely delves into the fact that Yellow and Pink are married (their fellow band members aren’t even sure if they should mention it on camera). Instead, the doc focuses on the end of Yellow’s bromance with Red.
Luckily, that’s a compelling enough story on its own, even if it does take some of the fun out of one of world’s wackiest bands. Would I have enjoyed Peelander-Z’s ska/sludge cover of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” quite so much if I had seen it after watching this somewhat sobering documentary? I’m not sure. But it’s worth finding out, so make sure to catch Mad Tiger when it opens at IFC Center on May 6 and then see Peelander-Z (sans Red) at Brooklyn Bowl on May 8.