Look, let’s not bury the lede: I think Hatsu was one of the poorest honbasho in recent memory. And the recent worrying events around Coronavirus and the “will it/won’t it happen” predicament of future tournaments (imminent or otherwise) are somewhat detracting from the sport’s actual issues.
Most storylines entering the Hatsu basho were reduced either to non-events (Hakuho defending the Emperor’s Cup entering the final year of his career), or damp squibs (Takayasu’s ozekiwake challenge, Goeido in kadoban, Tochinoshin and Mitakeumi’s rebound attempts). Furthermore, the top division is worse for the injury-inspired losses of recent (Wakatakakage, Tomokaze) and less recent (Ichinojo) talents.
The best sumo of the last tournament may have been displayed early doors by Endo, a thoroughly enthralling victory over Hakuho that led to the dai-Yokozuna’s early exit from the tournament. While I joked with the other Tachiais on Sumo Twitter™ that an Endo yusho would be the worst thing for those of us who like to buy tickets to sumo (owing to the revelation in our recent interview with BuySumoTickets that it was Endo’s top division promotion that inspired the dearth of recent years’ ticket availability to begin with), the sumo world would have been better for a sustained title challenge from the Oitekaze pinup. Instead, the wily technician’s trademark inconsistency reared its head and a string of losses knocked him from the race.
Are there silver linings? Yes. But until Tokushoryu burst into tears on the dohyo on Senshuraku, it was a struggle to conjure them up. Takakeisho’s consistency at the thick end of the yusho arasoi bodes well for at least one san’yaku man’s longterm standing in the game. Those who thought Enho would struggle against top division opposition have been proven wrong – not only is he adding excitement but racking up scalps against san’yaku rikishi and consistently challenging for a kachi-koshi. And down in Juryo? I’ll hold my hand up and admit I never saw Terunofuji coming back, at least not like this. You can argue with the sumo, but it’s hard to find fault in the results.
As for Shodai, his delight at winning matches flies in the face of the stoicism that the game demands. He’s worked hard over the years at making himself difficult to love, so it is good to see him loosening up. Can it continue? I hope so.
The problem we now face is that, in an era of transition, the transition can’t actually take place if the new stars aren’t able or willing to take the place of those they are charged with deposing. The ozeki corps as we knew it have now been almost completely destroyed. At least one if not both Yokozuna are ready to mount up for their final sunset.
Andy recently covered some potential Ozeki runs, but at the moment, while I respect and am quite honestly jealous of his boundless optimism, it’s looking like a grim year. I’d love to be proved wrong, but while Asanoyama is technically on an Ozeki run now, I think it will require a another tremendous improvement from him in Osaka off the back of his OK performance in the Hatsu basho, and Natsu may be the earliest that he can realistically punch his ticket to sumo’s penultimate rank. As for the other candidates, I think we’re looking at 2021 as the moment when wheat will be separated from chaff.
In the meantime, the maturity of Takakeisho will be tested – because the spotlight will be firmly on him. Whatever we get from the two Yokozuna is great, but we know now not to expect anything. Takakeisho has to deliver. His fitness has proven to be a bit of a question mark since his Ozeki promotion, and he has at times had to grind out results. It’s been four years now since we had a truly great (or even good) Ozeki worthy of the rank, so the Chiganoura beya man’s cementing of his position with a steady succession of 10 or even 12+ win tournaments would be a much needed victory for the sport as a whole.
With sumo being a zero sum game, there has to be a light at the end of this transitionary tunnel. That light should signify a new emerging star. At times, it’s felt that that light is in fact a train coming to blast a Tomokaze or Murata into a devastating period of kyujo and that at the end of the tunnel there’s only another tunnel. Promising prospects like Naya and Hoshoryu haven’t been able to get it together yet, Yago lost it, and Mitoryu may not have had it. Somewhere in one of these waves there has to be hope: the smart money is on Kiribayama and Kotonowaka to make serious inroads in 2020.
People have different reasons to follow sports. I’m interested in the stories and the narrative. I’ll be in Osaka whether or not there’s a basho, and where Hatsu fell short, I’m hoping – if not expecting – to see a return to the story arc that makes sumo so compelling.