The good, the bad and the sometimes ugly

by Mark Buckton

Had he been alive today, Japan’s legendary kabuki and bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) could not have written a better script for the recently completed Haru Basho in Osaka.

For thrills (Day 1 carnage with three of five ozeki and the yokozuna all losing), spills (the yokozuna losing again on Day 2), a chase scene (Asashoryu hot on the heels of eventual winner Hakuho for the remainder of the basho), romance (Hakuho’s secret marriage being leaked to the wider world), medical intrigue (worries surrounding Tochiazuma’s heart and possible resulting intai announcement) and true colors shining through (Asashoryu’s knee to the back of an already defeated and floored opponent, Kisenosato, on Day 8) — Osaka had it all and then some!

To cap it off though — the grand finale of finales — what about that double henka on the final day? Yokozuna Asashoryu on Chiyotaikai in regulation time followed by Hakuho on the yokozuna in a play-off!

Asashoryu, when faced with Chiyotaikai, the battered ozeki he had beaten 22 times in 29 meetings let the Kokonoe Beya man go face down in the dirt without a fight; all in the name of securing a play-off with fellow Mongolian Hakuho — the younger Miyagino Beya man having already defeated Bulgarian counterpart Kotooshu to either claim the yusho outright or, at worst, face a play-off.

The thing is — and it is a massive thing at that — yokozuna should not henka. They should not step aside! Yes, it’s a legal move, so of course no penalty comes with its execution, but the yokozuna should be above and beyond such cowardly “step aside and let my opposite number fly out of the ring” tactics to win a bout.

So, to then see the yokozuna himself go down to a Hakuho henka but minutes later during the yusho decider was poetic justice — a deserved slap-down if ever there was one in the eyes of many.

Hakuho’s second Emperor’s Cup on the back of a fortnight of pure theater notwithstanding, Osaka’s annual moment in the spotlight will just as long be remembered as a tale of two Tochi’s — ozeki Tochiazuma and new makunouchi youngster Tochiozan.

Tochiazuma entered the basho with the heavy label of “kadoban” hanging around his neck and putting additional weight on his already weak left knee. In need of either wins to retain his rank — and likely his career — he went unbeaten in the first week before stuttering on Days 8 and 9, finally picking up his kachikoshi winning record against South Korean Kasugao on Day 10. A few days later he pulled out, and it has since been revealed that he suffered a mild stroke — his recovery is ongoing.

New makunouchi man Tochiozan had a stunning first basho in makunouchi, more than proving his caliber by downing such experienced rikishi as Wakanosato (11-4), Tamanoshima (10-5), Kokkai (10-5) and Homasho (11-4 and Technique Prize Winner) before ending with a cracking 11-4 record himself. This youngster is well on his way to being labeled the next big thing by fans praying for a locally bred ozeki and / or yokozuna — and he might just be it. For his troubles he picked up his first Fighting Spirit Prize.

In juryo, Satoyama came out of the shadows cast by Baruto at Onoe Beya, put in a solid 12-3, beat Osaka local Goeido (11-4) on Day 15 and walked away with the division title, guaranteed promotion to makunouchi and with it the promise of a plane ticket to Hawaii in June for the all makunouchi June exhibition in the islands.

He will now be swapping places with stablemate Baruto, who chose to sit out the Haru Basho to take the unusual (in sumo) step of letting an injury fully heal before again donning a mawashi. The Estonian giant will find himself a juryo wrestler come May but could take heart from the second week visit to Osaka of his old sumo mentor: Mr. Riho Rannikmaa, head of the Estonian Sumo Association.

Heading in the opposite direction to Satoyama, out of juryo and subsequently out of the sport altogether, is Takasago Beya man Oga (5-10 in Osaka). Essentially one of the run-of-the-mill juryo men in recent basho, Oga is more famous for his ceremonial yumitori twirling of the bow at the end of a day’s action than anything else and will join the senior-most referee, Kimura Shonosuke of the same heya, on the post Haru retirees list.

A tad lower down and the makushita division has something of a promotion traffic jam but Mokonami of Mongolia (4-3) and Wakanoho of Russia (5-2), at makushita 1 east* (ms1e) and makushita 2 east (ms2e) respectively, should be returning to juryo. Exactly what will happen to Sakaizawa (5-2) at ms2w, Ichihara (5-2) at ms4e and, of course, Chiyohakuho (4-3) at ms1w will be determined with the release of the next banzuke but Hoshihikari at ms17e can expect a healthy boost on the back of his own division winning 7-0 finish.

Claiming the lower division titles were Kiozan (sandanme division), Tochihiryu (jonidan division) and Aran (jonokuchi division).

* Note: The banzuke’s division into east and west rankings is a traditional method of deciding seniority in the same rank with the east rikishi considered a touch higher than a west rikishi of the same numerical rank.