One thing I’ve always loved about sumo it’s that it’s a constant evolution. There are no arbitrary end points. While there are 15 day tournaments, and champions of those tournaments, there are no annual seasons to speak of which playoffs or teams or players who can afford to punt the season. Every match counts relative to the next tournament, and until then? There’s constantly work to be done.
Against this backdrop, it’s fairly remarkable how, when I returned to Kokugikan for Day 6 action, it was business as usual. Just three days before, we witnessed in person the last ever match of one of only 72 men in history to hold the title of Yokozuna, and then a day later the media surrounding the sport swelled with coverage of the news of his retirement. On Friday, you wouldn’t really have known. Sure, Kisenosato was on the kyujo list on the side of the scoreboard – but really, taking into account that I missed Aki last year, Kisenosato was always on the kyujo list on the side of the scoreboard for the last 6 tournaments I’d seen. Hell, I’d been to more basho than he had!
The shops were selling out of Kisenosato merchandise, and the cardboard standees were still up for fans to take photos with the Yokozuna. But there was still a tournament to be won and if he wasn’t going to win it, somebody else was. That’s how sumo works.
New and Old Staples
As I was taking in the basho with a friend who had never been to sumo before, we made a stop at the Kokugikan’s Sumo Museum. It’s a must-visit for any first time (or even multiple time!) visitor to Kokugikan, with loads of artifacts from the past hundreds of years of the sport. There’s a small shop inside that sells a very small selection of official merchandise, manned by former rikishi. I hadn’t been into the Museum actually since Harumafuji retired, so the wall featuring photos (and drawings, from before there were photos) of all of the 72 Yokozuna to date was a really nice stroll down memory lane and a great opportunity to pay tribute to Harumafuji and Kisenosato.
I can imagine that for people who have been coming to Kokugikan for years (and technically I suppose I am in that category on my third Hatsu basho), walking past the long list of greats it’s a fantastic opportunity to share stories of legends they grew up watching, with newer fans.
Apart from that, we passed ex-Satoyama in the hallway as we made another trip into the basement for another delicious bowl of Michinoku-beya’s “Variety Chanko.” Fully loaded up on snacks (including the insanely popular “Sumo Pancake,” which comes with a side of soft serve ice cream), we reached our seats just in time to see Ura claim victory.
Reckoning: Now Underway
Readers of the site will know that Bruce will usually sort the drama of a basho out into three acts. Well, when we talk about The Reckoning that’s now under way, Kisenosato’s retirement may just be the first act of a significant transition, and what we’ve been watching for the past year may just have been the prelude. It became clear when I visited for the second time this week that we will see yet more follow, and soon.
Takekaze: He’s 39 and has had a career remarkable for its longevity, but he’s been on a steep downward decline and this will certainly be his final basho as a sekitori, bar a drastic turnaround in form in the next few days or in March, should he decide to continue. But as a rikishi who has only spent two tournaments outside of the paid ranks, the last of which was sixteen and a half years ago, I fully expect like many others before him that he will retire in the next two weeks once the tournament is finished. He went down too easily to Arawashi on Day 6 and has since lost again on Day 7 and 8 and at 1-7 is now facing an almost impossible climb out of trouble.
Aminishiki: Like Takekaze, Aminishiki is now 1-7. Uncle Sumo recently made a wonderful comeback to the top division, but sadly it appears that is where the party will end as his various backwards pull down tricks are no longer working a treat. Aminishiki hasn’t been out of the top two divisions since 1999, but unlike Takekaze, he at least has the luxury of a cushioned fall should the rest of this basho continue as it has started. I wouldn’t rule out him scraping together 3 or 4 more wins by the time it’s finished, but with the number of solid graduates who have escaped the Makushita-joi recently (including the wily Daishoho, who punished him by the same means he frequently punishes others on Day 6), I question whether he has more than two or three more tournaments left in him. Still, others have bet against him before and come up on the losing end.
Both Takekaze and Aminishiki possess elder stock and would be set for (relatively truncated) coaching careers, rather unlike:
Sokokurai: I know this may seem a bit of a reach as he won the yusho in Makushita last time out, but he looked listless in person against Chiyonoumi and has for much of the basho. Obviously he will be motivated at 35 to pick up a pay packet for as long as possible, but one wonders how much of his time will be spent in the Makushita joi battling for the right to do so, as he is likely headed right back from whence he came after this basho.
One of the key moments of Day 3’s action was the overwhelming crescendo of support for Kisenosato and the comparison with the overwhelming deflation that followed. Mitakeumi’s match was a similar moment on Day 6. There was no better supported rikishi at Kokugikan that day – as has become the standard with Endo- and Abi-mania fading with their recent form – and there were cheer towels, chants, claps, shouts, screams and general mayhem inspired by 2018’s Nagoya basho winner coming from every corner of sumo’s hallowed home.
Initially I simply felt that him losing his bout to Myogiryu simply sucked the life out of the place, given the manner of the somewhat emphatic oshidashi that ended with Mitakeumi’s ejection from the raised surface in total. But when the Dewanoumi man stayed down, it was clear that the crowd was incredibly worried about the man who has become the poster boy for the potential next era of champions.
Doubly disappointing is that this came in the context of what had fast become his best best basho since Nagoya, as he was fighting with the tenacity and intention to be worthy of championship contention. While there are now whispers that he may yet make a return from an injury that is potentially not as bad as first feared, the absolute upside for him from this tournament is now trying to squeak through a kachi-koshi in the event he can make it back (whether that’s well or ill-advised at this point is anyone’s guess), and it further pushes back the start of any meaningful Ozeki run by yet another basho.
After that, apart from Takakeisho dropping his bout with Tochiozan, there weren’t any major shocks, and the day finished with Hakuho taking care of business as usual, as he steamrolls his way towards his 42nd yusho. How lucky we all are to be able to continue to watch him fight.
Overall, I am of course grateful for the opportunity to have attended a couple days at another basho – and now will sit back and look forward to more great sumo in Week 2, the Hatsu yusho champion and to sharing more stories in a couple months from Osaka!