What Makes Rowdy Sumo-Wrestler Matsutaro Work?

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There is much to like about 2014 animé Rowdy Sumo-Wrestler Matsutaro; its first episode is a frenetically-paced, rude comedy about an immature lout leaving a trail of wreckage behind him as he chases his childish goals, which ends, reassuringly, with the authorities catching up to his procession of crimes. There is not specifically a moral to this beyond “don’t commit crimes” – that he is ultimately held accountable for all his mistakes is punchline enough. The opening recap of the second episode makes this very clear – it calls the protagonist a lout, pathetic and criticises him for “doing what he wants, when he wants.” As a comic setup, this works; the humour is in how the rest of the world, people trying to get by in what is implied to be a fairly poor town, deal with a local bumpkin who causes mayhem because he is, apparently, bored.

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Trying to make light of a lout is a difficult proposition for a comedy; there is a kind of tension between laughing at the miscreant himself and laughing at his victims. The climax of episode 1 of Matsutaro could easily have been such a misstep; as he steals a builder’s van, spirits away a school-teacher he is madly in love with and goes on a trail of chaos through the town, the humour could easily have been making light of those affected by it – the woman who is grabbed by him and dragged away for a “romantic drive” in a stolen truck. Had it ended with them all laughing it off – and there had not been the coda of the police turning up to arrest Matsu and his partner in crime, an eccentric old coal-miner, it would have been far less funny. This is where some comedies centred around abrasive personalities fail – they fail to communicate how what the protagonists are doing is wrong and make the joke about how hilarious it is that other people don’t appreciate their efforts. I mentioned in a past post the romantic comedy The Monster Next Door, a recent animé about a studious girl’s emerging friendship with a Matsu-esque delinquent – and how it failed to make him reasonable as a character, or their friendship logical, by making his actions too extreme and too easily laughed off.

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Bullies are only funny if they fail or end up being reformed. Matsutaro episode 2 focuses on this – the emphasis is on Matsutaro’s family and teachers trying to get him a job and make him a “member of society”, and crucially it continues to show how the madcap events of the first episode have ruined things for him. Minami, the teacher he is in love with, ends up giving up her job and leaving town following Matsu’s actions. Consequences – especially in a comedy where the humour comes from people acting selfishly – are a good kind of punchline to remind the viewer of what they have really seen. A good comparison with Matsutaro in many ways is the animated series Archer – a parody of spy films about an inept secret agent whose efforts to emulate James Bond and other action heroes invariably make situations worse. Sterling Archer, its protagonist, is a reckless, selfish lout like Matsu – and he is equally unsuccessful, which is where the humour lies. As Matsutaro’s long past of mistakes sabotage everyone’s efforts to help him improve as a person, Archer’s insistence on acting absurdly make him a figure whose antics are amusing but whose character is not at all admirable. Comedy about the inept and the selfish is at its best when the tone of the joke focuses on others’ efforts to deal with it, not the depiction of consequence-free offence and self-interest.

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Here, Matsutaro works well; as episode 2 ends with Matsu trying to pick a fight with a group of sumo-wrestlers and losing, the emphasis of the humour has been on his continued undermining of his teacher’s efforts to avoid a fight. His roughness is a source of embarrassment and continued failure, not a way of solving situations, and the emptiness of his strength is always shown. Matsu’s way of doing things is not the right or desirable one – it is funny because he fails, not because his idiosyncrasies end up convincing others he has done nothing wrong. Any successes he does score, much like Archer’s eventual completion of a mission, are entirely incidental to the episode and do nothing to justify his actions. This makes his first “success” – inadvertantly getting the crowd’s approval in a test of strength he winds up in while pursuing his foolish argument with a sumo-wrestler, even more ridiculous. As a victory – the first time people see Matsu as remotely sympathetic – it is a pathetic one. He is only popular because he is a bellowing, clumsy buffoon being danced around by a sumo-wrestler in a comic display for an audience – and finally this turns into genuine success as he is rewarded for fighting. Consequence in the form of punishment has followed his misbehaviour, and now, finally, the consequence has become the chance to improve as a person. It is somewhat thematic that his popularity – his genuine chance for success – should come in sumo, a very codified spectator sport where exaggerated displays of strength please the crowd, and a simple-minded, larger than life persona can be a kind of socially acceptable take on his usual self-interest. But it is, after all, a sport with rules, a uniform and expectations; while it is arguably the “ideal job” he talks about looking for were there not those rules, their existence is the barrier. When the time comes to convert momentary popularity through a misconstrued show of strength (for Matsu’s “celebrity” comes as he takes a personal dispute into the public sphere) into a way of life, he is unwilling to do so until the potential for furthering his own interests arises. This is via his pursuit of Minami, and quite undermines the potential the the scenes preceding have built up. Once again any hope of him improving is undermined by himself, and his pathetic single-mindedness is the punchline.

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Thus what, if any, is the moral of these opening episodes? Matsu leaves the third episode apparently en route to a new start in Tokyo, a job, potential wealth and success within his grasp. This has come, it is shown, through finding respect for who he is – a strong-willed big personality who can win fights and put on a good show, entering a world of professional, codified fighting. Crime has been shown not to pay, and rebellion gets you nowhere. Yet Matsu is delightfully oblivious to this, much like Archer; the series shows the constant chaos and disappointment he creates, but also shows what must be done for him to improve. Thus if anything there is a moral, but one also for the audience. Chaos and selfishness are amusing, but they are stagnant things. Without self-awareness, without any kind of structure, nobody will ever go anywhere and the same mistakes will be made again and again. This is shown in the punchlines of episodes 1,2 and 3; 1 and 2, before Matsu accidentally works out what he is good at, end with him punished. Episode 3 has him come out on top, albeit in a way that suggests unless he changes further there will be a steady decline back to mayhem.

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