Sometimes a product is made to not follow the crowd. Sometimes a product is made precisely to be different from what's around it. And when that product is released into the wild it gets ravaged & hated because it's so different from the norm. Oddly enough, I've enjoyed some of these products that are generally considered "horrible" or even "one of the worst". One of my favorite RPGs is UNLIMTED SaGa on the PlayStation 2, a game that has collectively been ravaged horribly & has even been called one of "the worst RPGs ever". Granted, I can understand why people hate that game, but at the same time some of the complaints (like the Reel System being completely "random") are downright incorrect. The subject of this review is much like that game, because to most people it's one of the worst anime of recent memory... Yet I've enjoyed it from episode 1. Not in an ironic, "so bad it's good", way, mind you; I honestly really enjoyed Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro & feel it's been unfairly ridiculed.
Notari Matsutaro debuted back in mid-1973 in Big Comic Magazine & was created by Tetsuya Chiba, the artist behind the iconic Ashita no Joe. Though it told a similar story in some ways, it wound up running longer than it's boxing cousin, lasting 36 volumes & running until 2000 (there were two multi-year breaks, though). In 1991 the manga was adapted into a 10-episode OVA series by Mushi Production, or at least the company that came to be after the death of Osamu Tezuka's original studio in the early 70s. In fact, I think Notari was the last anime Mushi ever made on their own; they now only do assistance work & rights licensing. This OVA series was apparently only available via rental, which meant that it was VHS only, & has never seen a re-release since, so it's really damn rare. This past Spring, with Saint Seiya Omega coming to an end, Toei decided to fill in their 6:30 A.M. Sunday morning slot with a new adaptation of Chiba's manga, renaming it Abarenbou Rikiishi!! Matsutaro. CrunchyRoll got the simulcasting rights to the show, with their translated title being accurate to the new name, and when it debuted it got torn apart by just about anyone who saw the first episode; it notably was one of the two lowest-rated shows on ANN's Spring 2014 Preview Guide by both writers & viewers (the other was Kenzen Robo Daimidaler). Yet why did I enjoy it? Did this early hatred have any merit? Let's find out...
It's the Showa Era & life is generally simple for most Japanese citizens. This is especially true for Matsutaro Sakaguchi: He lives with his mother & younger siblings, is built like a tank, & gets to do whatever he wants. Unfortunately, this means that he's in his late-teens yet hasn't passed Middle School, is absolutely self-centered & egotistical, and there's really no one that can stop him due to his sheer strength. Unfortunately for him, one night he gets drunk, commandeers a truck, & steals away Reiko Minami, a teacher he has a crush on, only to crash into a public bath & gets arrested. He's given a special "graduation" from school (i.e. he gets kicked out) & is forced to find a job, but even with his homeroom teacher helping him out no job matches his impossible requirements. After a rough encounter with a sumo wrestler ends up with him taking out the sumo in an actual ring in front of tons of people, though, every stable in the region wants to have Matsutaro join them. After some thought Matsutaro decides on Raijin Stable... Simply because it's literally around the block from where Reiko now lives with her parents. Matsutaro's dream is to marry Reiko & become a made man by becoming yokozuna, and with his freakish strength it's going to be hard to find many who can stop him.
There are two things about Matsutaro that truly showcase how it's a Tetsuya Chiba work. The first is that, for something about sumo wrestlers, it sure takes its time to get to any actual sumo. For example, the synopsis I gave just now covers the first four episodes of the show. In episode 5 Matsutaro has some "special training" at the stable against Inokawa-zeki, the highest-ranked sumo at Raijin, and our lead doesn't actually debut in a professional ring until the end of episode 7. That's not to say that taking it's dear sweet time is a negative, though, as Ashita no Joe was much, much "worse" about actually having Joe compete in a boxing match of any sort (and even when he fought in his first match, it was at the juvenile center he was sent to; his pro debut would come a good bit later). That's honestly one of Chiba's strong points when it comes to story: It's all about the characters in the end. Even after Matsutaro debuts in the ring, not every episode afterwards is about his matches. In fact, his debut season at the makushita level, which required special permission since newcomers don't normally start there, only lasts until episode 13, which has an excellent match against rising newcomer Kondo. After that we don't get any actual sumo matches until the final two episodes. Much like Joe, Matsutaro is very much a character-focused work, with the sports theme being more of a means to an end.
The second thing is actually part of the reason this show received so much hatred from anime critics & fans alike: Matsutaro is an absolutely unabashed, pompous, self-absorbed louse of a man. There's no denying it, and even people who enjoy the show will admit that the main character is bunghole; in fact, that's why the show's sometimes (lovingly) referred to as "Sumo Asshole". See that image right above? That's the from the first episode, which has a moment where Matsutaro literally steals candy from his own baby brother. Hell, even the narrator brings up how selfish Matsutaro is in just about every previous-episode recap that's done in the show! It's very easy to see how people who saw only the first episode or two instantly hated the lead character, though I do wonder why many came to the conclusion that the show was glorifying being a smug asshole to everyone because it gets you everything you want; the show never goes in that direction.
Here's the thing about this guy, though: He's absolutely magnetic by way of his asshole personality. Whenever Matsutaro's on screen you know he'll be taking full control of the scene, and there's always some sense of wonder about what insanely egocentric thing he'll do next. How is this an example of it being a Chiba's work, you might wonder? Well, Joe Yabuki was also a jerk & asshole, especially in the beginning of his story. Hell, he was even worse than Matsutaro because of his slyness; only Joe Yabuki could (& did) hustle an entire small town's residents of their money for his own selfish needs. At the very least, Matsutaro is completely open about what he wants, much to the chagrin to everyone around him. He's also pretty much a giant kid, having absolutely no shame in behaving like a child when he wants & thinking that everything is going to go his way, especially when it comes to his crush with Reiko. Simply put, Matsutaro doesn't know any better because he was never taught it.
Still, that's not to say that Matsutaro doesn't see any sort of character development throughout the show, because he does; it's just extremely subtle. Right from the start there are indications that Matsutaro does have an acknowledgement of authority. He calls his teacher "Sensei", immediately adjusts to calling Rajin Stable's owner "Master" once asked, and though he initially shows some disrespect with regards to the sumo ring & its customs he quickly changes & behaves (mostly) proper. Also, while he lacks any sense of humility after being completely decimated by Inokawa in episode 5 by crying like its his very first time, and he continually complains about not getting any respect, he never tries to actually take on Inokawa afterwards, almost silently admitting that he's not quite ready to face him yet. Okay, near the end the two do clash shortly, but there weren't in the ring at the time & circumstances behind that moment give Matsutaro the edge there.
Also, there are moments where he does show his more altruistic side. The best showcase of this is in episode 15, which sees Matsutaro come back home after the season ends. He gives his mother some of his earnings & worries about her nonstop working to feed the family and gives his old classmates & teachers a showcase of his sumo training, showing that he still values his origins (even though he acts like he can ditch it at any time). He even befriends another Raijin newcomer named Tanaka, mainly because Tanaka is too timid to say "No" to his fellow sumos when needed. Still, Matsutaro keeps telling Tanaka to man up & not worry when it comes to his matches, and even when he uses up an entire episode to try to encourage Tanaka to retire & become a chanko chef you can tell that he does mean well; Tanaka's win-loss record is pretty crappy, honestly. Finally, Matsutaro's sheer existence does help people out in a sense. Late in the show Inokawa admits to Master Raijin that everyone's become stronger & tougher because of how hectic stable life is with Matsutaro, and when he heads back home Matsutaro is welcomed like a town hero instead of being treated like the nuisance he had always been portrayed as. In fact, the return to town actually makes him feel uncomfortable, because he's never been treated with so much honest love & respect. There's a bit more to the man than what the beginning showcases, honestly.
The rest of the recurring cast is also very memorable, too. Old Man Nishio is a mine worker from Matsutaro's hometown that ends up moving to Tokyo not long after Matsu does & eventually works at the stable as a chef. If there's anyone you can blame for Matsutaro's behavior, it's this man, due to this general embracing of such bad behavior for the sheer joy it gives the two of them. Still, Nishio does have limits, which is something his younger friend still has to learn. Tanaka is a simple country boy who takes up sumo to support his family, though his general hesitation & shyness makes it hard for him to earn a win. Hidden within, though, is a man that can be rowdy & rude if the rare situation calls for it; near the end Nishio admits that Tanaka is a pretty "dark" person on the inside. Inokawa is your traditional high-rank sumo, dedicated to the sport & its traditions; any showing of rudeness or disrespect he shows to the newcomers comes off more as teaching them about life than anything. Still, even he has his sillier moments, like an episode showing his superstitious beliefs by feeding a stray cat that he think gives him good luck.
Usually alongside Inokawa is Tatsunokakwa-zeki, another high-rank sumo, but Tatsu's tendency to get easily agitated by Matsutaro's antics usually leave him knocked out; it doesn't hurt that he's also a bit of an instigator. Master Raijin tries to be a father figure to everyone, but when it comes to Matsutaro's loose cannon nature he usually ends up with nothing more than a headache & high blood pressure that conks him out. Finally, there's Reiko Minami, the target of Matsutaro's affection. She always looks for the good in people, but knows that her former student needs special measures to keep him calm & controlled. One could call her a bit naive, especially when nearly everyone knows about Matsutaro's love for her, but it's easy to see that she still looks at him like a student, nothing more. There's a slight love triangle going on between Matsutaro, Reiko, & Tanaka, but it's more or less a way to keep Tanaka involved in the story during moments where he might not necessarily be needed; it does give an amusing "Tortoise vs. Hare" vibe, though. Finally, there is Kondo, who is built up as Matsutaro's rival in sumo. In your traditional sports anime Kondo would be the main character, with his dedication to the sport & the like, while Matsutaro would be the asshole rival that needs to be defeated, but it's the opposite here, which I actually find pretty interesting.
So what exactly is the other thing that brought about so much hatred for the show? The animation. Right from the first episode it's very easy to see that this show was made on a limited budget, with relatively simple animation being used & a big lack of visual flair or even much polish. It's a pretty simple production in general, and those early opinions on the show deducted points partially for that simple fact. I'm not going to say that putting something down solely because of looks is wrong, but I've generally tried to avoid that, barring moments when something just looks problematic. Seriously, as low-budget as Matsutaro is, it still is nowhere near as poorly done as something like Gundoh Musashi, the Panzer Dragoon OVA, or Legend of DUO. Also, and this may just be a personal feeling, but the limited animation seems to fit the old-school nature of the series. Everything, from it's casual pace to it's limited animation to even the time period it takes place in, is just very much an antithesis of how anime is usually made now. This was definitely a product not aimed at modern-day otaku, but rather a more mainstream audience, and that's even more obvious when you consider that the man who plays Matsutaro himself isn't one that otaku would care about.
Though Ken Matsudaira had been in Gisaburo Sugii's 2011 anime movie Tofuu Kozou, he never had any actual voice acting roles. In fact, in Japan he's known for the role of Tokugawa Yoshimune in the jidaigeki TV series Abarenbou Shogun, which ran for roughly 25 years until 2008. It's likely that this anime was partially made because of possible similarities between Matsutaro & Tokugawa's characters, and the anime's name change in Japan to Abarenbou Rikiishi!! was obviously to attract fans of Matsudaira's previous show. In the opening credits he gets top billing, being credited even before the title splash appears, so how does Matsudaira do as Matsutaro? Well, it must be said that he definitely doesn't sound like a traditional anime seiyuu by any means. While he gets all of the inflections & emotions down very well, he gives the character's voice a cadence that showcases that he's a stage actor & not a voice actor. There's a bit of a causal feel to Matsudaira's performance, which actually does work well for his role & fits Matsutaro's general means of operation. Still, Matsudaira knows when to be silly, when to be serious, & when to be angry, and overall he does a great job with the role; it's just not "traditional" in an anime sense.
The show was directed by Yukio Kaizawa (Bimbou Shimai Monogatari, Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen), who was probably the best fit for the old-school & casual nature of the show. It's never boring, even when it's being simple in execution, and even the downright odd moments (like when Tanaka is able to hear Matsutaro's thought after hitting his head) don't detract from the show, but rather feel like an old-school ideal that nowadays seems awkward. The series composition by Akatsuki Yamatoya (Gintama, Heroman) really does embrace this older mentality as well, giving it a real family-friendly feel, almost sitcom-ish at times. To be fair, the anime supposedly tones down some of the violence from the manga & ages Matsutaro a few years forward to make his alcohol drinking legal, but that's more due to the change in times than anything. The character designs by Noboru Koizumi (B't X, episodes 1-402 of One Piece) do maintain Tetsuya Chiba's original designs, mainly by staying true to Chiba's relatively simple style; don't go expecting Akio Sugino-like flair like in Ashita no Joe. Finally, the music by Tatsumi Yano (the City Hunter anime franchise) is very fitting for the Showa Era's laid-back nature while also sticking very strongly to traditional Japanese instruments; you might be surprised to have a few songs get stuck in your head here & there. The big attraction for the music, though, is the opening theme, "Dosukoi Jinsei" by Ken Matsudaira & Mika Hino. Arranged by Yano, the opening also fits the mainstream nature of the show by being a full-on modern day enka duet, and it's way better than most would probably think. It's intensely addictive in its simplicity & you'll quickly be singing along to it for every single episode. If YouTube & NicoNico are any indication, it's also a semi-popular karaoke song right now in Japan, too. Like some of Toei's weekend morning products, there is no ending theme to be found.
Since I got Ken Matsudaira out of the way already, how does the rest of the major cast fare? Well, let's start with Tanaka, who is voiced by Kozo Shioya (Majin Buu in Dragon Ball Z, Mochizuki in Zaizen Jotaro) in what is the sole reprisal from Mushi's original OVA series. It's easy to see that Shioya is pretty typecast as the big, fat character, and I guess he's fine with that because he always does a good job with those types. What's nice about Tanaka is that Shioya is able to stay nice & subdued for most of the show, but in the rare instances of big emotion he does a great job, too. It probably also helps that he probably rewatched the OVA & saw how he did back then, knowing what to fix & what to maintain. Yuko Mizutani (Sora in Digimon Adventure, Excellen Browning in Super Robot Wars OG) plays Reiko, who actually might surprise some people if they aren't familiar with the way her voice sounds. It isn't exactly a "beautiful woman", stereotypical voice, but it really does work for the well-meaning teacher. Nishio is performed by Bin Shimada (Broly in Dragon Ball Z movies, Rock-san in Ring ni Kakero 1), who plays to his older voice now by sticking with a high-pitched yet gravely voice that works really well. Tetsu Inada lends his usual deep voice for Inokawa, which matches just fine & helps give Inokawa that extra likability. Shin Aomori (Don Chinjao in One Piece) does a good job as Master Raijin, and the same can be said of Kenji Hirai as Tatsunokawa. While most don't quite become as memorable as Matsudaira's Matsutaro, it's still a really good cast.
Still, no matter what I say here, I'm sure Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro will likely go down by the collective fandom as one of the worst shows of the Spring 2014 season, which I really find sad. Throughout all 23 episodes I found a show that, while I understand why people hated it from episode 1, was filled with a lot of charm in how against the grain it operated. I'm sure that, even in the 70s, this was a pretty different type of sports story, and that's all the more true now. Yes, Matsutaro Sakaguchi is an absolute asshole, the animation is very much done on the cheap, and I'll admit that the show ends somewhat suddenly (and I doubt we'll ever get a second season), but I really do want to call this show possibly the most underrated of the year (the opening is at least most underrated theme of the year). If you check CrunchyRoll's page for the show you'll see that those who stuck through the entire show wound up really enjoying it, too, for a lot of the same reasons. It's especially sad because people always complain about how "everything" is the same kind of production, over & over again, yet when something is made that goes against the grain it's hated upon because it's too much of a difference. Therefore, I'll end with this: If you're one of those people who get tired of the same old thing being made, then definitely check this show out, but just know that you wanted something different, so don't hate it simply because it's doing what you asked for.