The great thing about there being six sumo basho a year? It’s never that long between tournaments.
[Waiting for fresh Japanese movie reviews? Check back tomorrow when my review of Koji Fukuda’s Harmonium will go live]
Summer is in full swing and it’s already time for the Summer Basho in Nagoya. Thankfully the devastating rains further west haven’t affected the event, and we get to enjoy Tochinoshin’s first tournament as a newly-minted ozeki. We’re only a few days in so it’s too early to realistically start picking out contenders for the leaderboard but with the overwhelmingly successful Hakuho out of the tournament from a knee injury sustained outside the ring, the most likely competitors are Georgian Tochinoshin and the other Mongolian yokozuna, Kakuryu, who will be looking to get his third straight win of the year.
As always, sumo isn’t the easiest sport to follow if you aren’t living in Japan. Unlike the current World Cup, it’s not exactly broadcast on every channel. The simplest source for all your sumo needs is NHK World Japan which broadcasts highlights for each day of the tournament at 17:30 and 23:30 BST (as well as putting out the highlight reels on demand the following day). NHK cuts down the approximately two hour makuuchi, or top division, events to around 25 minutes so it does skip a lot of the day’s action, but it has English language commentary and tends to pick up the most exciting match ups. Alternatively, with a suitable connection and some ingenuity you can watch it either live or later in the day on repeat at Abema.tv.
Interestingly, I either never noticed or perhaps they’ve only just started covering it, but Abema broadcasts not just the top makuuchi bouts but also every other bout from the lowest-ranking rookie on up. It looks like these lower-ranked matches, starting at the lowest jonokuchi division, aren’t repeated through the day so you’ll have to watch or record them live.
It seems that sumo has similar dynamics to other sports: lower division bouts don’t get the same attention as the top division, but the wrestlers can be more unpredictable and the techniques less rigidly stuck to. Plus, because there are no weight categories or age limits in sumo, you can see some truly incredible match ups between young, up and coming wrestlers who are 15-20 years old and maybe only 80 – 120kg, against much older wrestlers who are in the process of being relegated due to injury or age. I watched a bout between a 104kg teenager and a 235 kilo twenty-something that should have been a wipeout, but the kid held his own for several minutes in a sport that often lasts just a few seconds between the opening charge and one wrestler hitting the floor or being thrown from the ring.
It’s also great having access to these lower-ranked bouts because one of my favourite wrestlers, Aminishiki, has dropped out of the top division again. The way each tournament works is that every wrestler – aside from chasing the outright victory of having the most wins and taking the Emperor’s Cup – is aiming to get kachikoshi or more wins than losses (i.e. at least an 8-7 win-loss record). If they get makekoshi, or a losing record of 7 wins-8 losses or worse, they can potentially be demoted within their division or even relegated to a lower one entirely.
That’s what’s happened to Aminishiki, one of the oldest currently active wrestlers at 39. While he now struggles a bit at makuuchi, he seems to dominate at the next division down, juryo, which consists of a real mix of wrestlers who’re either climbing the ranks for the first time or dropping back through them having been relegated from the top. As such, it’s a total mix of rookies and veterans. If he does well again this tournament – and he generally does well in juryo – he might break his own record as the oldest wrestler to be promoted back to the top.
Going back to the top ranks, though, while Tochinoshin is freshly promoted to ozeki and is safe at that rank even if he somehow fumbles the entire rest of the tournament, his two fellow ozeki are now kadoban or in danger of demotion. Ozeki are allowed to get a losing record for one tournament without immediate demotion but need to get a winning record next time in order to maintain their elite rank. Both Goeido and Takayasu are in danger of demotion after withdrawing from the previous tournament due to injuries. I’m a big fan of Takayasu, though Goeido has always struck me as somewhat unsportsmanlike and I’m not exactly rooting for him.
In any case, it’s now Day 5 of 15 and I’m waiting on the NHK highlights to roll around to see how everyone did. Personally, I’m displaying some Eastern European solidarity and hoping for Tochinoshin to start his yokozuna run: an ozeki generally needs to win two tournaments back-to-back to be considered for promotion to sumo’s highest rank. He’ll face stiff competition from Kakuryu, who not only won the last two tournaments but defeated Tochinoshin last time around to clinch it in May. I find it hard to cheer for the yokozuna though and prefer to support the underdogs. In January, Tochinoshin started his rapid ascent to the highest ranks when he got a tournament win as a maegashira, the lowest rank within the top division. It’s pretty rare for a maegashira to win a tournament, but I’d love to see another surprise victory-from-nowhere like that. Unlikely? Sure. Exciting? Yes.