The Mike Toole Show Mainstream Anime
Jul 13th 2014
I'm writing this column at the kitchen table of a lovely little house in Sao Paulo, which, after two days of wandering around, comes off like a mixture of every megalopolis I've ever visited-- New York, Toronto, Tokyo, Shanghai, Los Angeles, there's a little of all of them happening at once in Sao Paolo. The place is a riot of high-end department stores, low-end bodegas, fine eateries, street meat vendors, upscale malls, weird flea markets, and traffic of all sorts, and the entire damn country is ablaze in green and yellow, the national colors. If my twitter feed hasn't made it clear: Brazil is cool, the World Cup is cool, traveling is cool.
Of course, this column is about anime and manga, so let's try talking about that. I have turned up some of the good stuff here in Brazil-- while in Manaus I spied an episode of Toriko being played right next to one of the World Cup matches in a department store, and a trip out to the rainforest that involved the wife and I visiting a native family living on the banks of the Amazon culminated in me walking into their house and seeing the kids watching Dragonball Z on the tube. Once we fought our way to the bigger cities, I turned up DVD copies of fare like Groizer X (sold!) and prototypical tokusatsu series National Kid. Sadly, I fly home next week, and so won't be sticking around long enough to experience Anime Friends (http://www.animefriends.com.br/), so let's get down to business.
Originally, this column was going to be about one particular thing. But then the Summer Preview Guide (or as I've dubbed it, the Great Outdoor Fight, since no Preview Guide ever seems to slide past without at least one or two spectacular forum or twitter-fueled flamewars) kicked off, and I found myself reflecting a bit on last season's impressions. Several weeks back, I actually scraped the data from the Spring guide and dropped it into Excel. A few interesting details about the guide made themselves apparent-- the voting readership tends to agree with the panel of writers, for one, so the "Fight" part of the Great Outdoor Fight largely involves outyling opinions. Also, the show with the most votes certainly isn't necessarily the most popular; Mahouka drew the most votes, but readers scored it just slightly on the low end of the scale-- not a broad dismissal, but still far from the praise heaped on the likes of Mushishi and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. But one particular show brought up the rear this past season, and amazingly, it wasn't Dai Shogun-- it was Abarenbou Rikishi!! Matsutaro, or as we call it, Rowdy Sumo Matsutaro.
ANN's panel of experts cited mediocre animation and the title character's abhorrent personality as strikes against the show. The thing is, their summaries were still effective, because they specified the show's fart jokes and the hero's actual theft of candy from a baby. I read these details and right away, I knew I had to watch. The first thing that jumped out at me? Owing to the opening song, a surprisingly tuneful enka number, and the main character sporting a voice that, ultimately, just didn't sound like a seiyuu (I can't explain it, but watch an episode and you'll hear it, too), I realized that this series, a redux of a popular manga from the 70s and 80s, is in no small part a vehicle for this handsome fella.
Ken Matsudaira here (they call him "Matsuken") is somewhere in the middle ranks of Japan's crazy panoply of media celebrities, a tier or two above TV chefs and working comedians, but not quite on the level of the agency actors and sports stars who show up on magazine covers literally every damn week for years on end. He embedded himself in the pop culture landscape with his decades-spanning role as the gruff, formidable Shogun Yoshimune Tokugawa in the TV series Abarenbo Shogun. (Notice how Tetsuya Chiba's original manga, Notari Matsutaro, has been retitled Abarenbo Rikishi Matsutaro?) He then scored an unlikely pop hit with 2004's "Matsuken Samba," which is where he put on the crazy getup you see above. And for some strange reason, he plays the title character of Rowdy Sumo Matsutaro.
Actually, it's not that strange-- Matsudaira's got this weirdly flat, befuddled tone that brings to mind Alan Reed, the original Fred Flintstone, who was also a working TV actor. Matsudaira's delivery really works for the character of Matsutaro, a brash idiot with tremendous natural strength and the kind of outsized ego that happens when you go through life with literally every person around afraid to say "no" to you, including your own mom. Here's how the jokes in Rowdy Sumo Matsutaro usually work:
Matsutaro sees Yamada reading manga.
Matsutaro yanks the magazine out of his colleague's hands and starts idly reading it himself.
With an obviously irritated Yamada looking on, Matsutaro laughs at the funny comics. Incidentally, this particular sequence happened immediately after Matsutaro deployed a Dad-level bad pun involving fish sausage. Are the jokes in this show dumb? Absolutely. Unsophisticated? You bet. And do they make me laugh every single time, no matter how telegraphed the punchline? Indubitably. It's a challenge to explain the appeal of a show that's rough and ugly, but there's got to be appeal there-- Tetsuya Chiba's original comics ran for over a decade, and then resumed to tie up loose ends a few years later on. Other critics might look at a guy like Matsutaro and bristle at his rudeness, his lousy temper, and his obvious lack of redeeming characteristics-- but if you ask me, his total lack of good qualities is what makes him such a perfect target for redemption.
So the story follows Matsutaro as he rises through the ranks of the sumo world, offending as many people as possible along the way. His outsized ego and comically daft disregard for sumo tradition rankles his colleagues and bosses at his sumo stable, but his winning record is hard to argue with. He has a penchant for wearing a hilariously ugly suit with a humongous dragon necktie, and pines hopelessly for Reiko, his old schoolteacher who's only a bit older than him (he didn't actually finish middle school until he was 19, you see-- he had to repeat a couple of grades several times). One of my favorite moments in the new TV series involves Matsutaro daydreaming about a hot date with Reiko at the conveyer belt sushi joint. Naturally, in his wildest dreams, she's delighted to be there, and eats 100 plates of the stuff.
Still scratching your head? Well, Matsutaro's a period piece, so there are no cell phones or computers. Watching the series is an exercise in spotting older train and bus models, and looking for other weird 70s artifacts in the background-- it's kinda like Chibi Maruko-chan, in that respect. To humanize the character of Matsutaro a bit, Chiba pairs him up with Yamada, a hayseed from Akita who's got the muscle to be a sumo champ but lacks Matsutaro's often-misplaced confidence. Yamada, with his obvious flaws and gentler nature, becomes a bizarre kind of role model for Matsutaro, who slowly becomes fascinated with his nicer bunkmate's habits and mannerisms. Hopefully they rub off at some point.
I can't let this bit about Matsutaro pass without also pointing out that the franchise involves yet another bit of "lost" anime, in this case a 10-part series of Mushi Production OVAs from the early 90s published under the original manga's title, Notari Matsutaro. The affair was one of those VHS-rental-only deals--check out that buried treasure pictured above!-- and was directed by Yoshio Takeuchi, one of Osamu Dezaki's merry men, which means that I have to somehow find and watch this thing. On its face, it's not an easy task-- the show was never fansubbed, and my cursory, stumbling searches for raw video have also turned up bupkis. It fascinates me to see that, in a firmly digital era, old stuff like this continues to slowly slip out of sight. The series is a regular on Yahoo Auctions Japan, which is where I'll probably end up getting it. VHS will never die, you see, because hopeless old guys like me won't let it.
One of the things I'm trying to reveal about Rowdy Sumo Matsutaro, both by pointing out its celebrity stunt-casting and nostalgic period setting, is that it isn't something made for anime fan sensibilities, but for regular old mainstream Japanese folks to watch on Sunday mornings. (Prior to the show starting, regular old Japanese folks apparently liked watching Saint Seiya Omega on Sunday mornings.) It's important for anime nerds to recognize this, and nowadays, I think most of us do understand that your typical TV watcher in Japan is going to be able to tell you more about Doraemon and Detective Conan than Encouragement of Climb. Mainstream Japanese animation like this is an important part of a balanced anime breakfast. My favorite mainstream piece of toast is a show called Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen-mae Hashutsujo, which translates to "This is Kamaeri Park's Police Box in Katsushika Ward." At some point, someone must've pointed out that it was an inconveniently long title, because nowadays most folks just call it KochiKame.
KochiKame's hero is a regular old patrolman named Ryotsu Kankichi. He's kind of an old school dude-- he often wears geta, those clacky wooden sandals, and rolls around his sleepy, old-fashioned neighborhood on a bicycle. He's got a snub nose, bushy, beetling eyebrows, (in Japanese manga, what's common shorthand for an unrefined working stiff? The unibrow.) and a voice like a goddamn foghorn. For all intents and purposes, Ryotsu is the Japanese Homer Simpson, right down to the cheerfully nonsensical inner monologues, fixation on simple pleasures like junk food and beer, and propensity for saying dumb stuff and launching absurd, hopeless schemes. The only things missing are the wife and kids.
Ryotsu doesn't have a big family, but he's still got a cast of regulars on his patrol route, including sexy lady cop Akimoto (you can tell by her bright pink outfit), and swanky rich guy cop Nakagawa, who wears a specially made Armani police uniform. They're headed up by police chief Ohara, a shouty, high-strung type. (comic shorthand for an overbearing boss? The toothbrush mustache. Hey, just look at Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson!)
Somehow, mangaka Osamu Akimoto has kept KochiKame going in the pages of Shonen Jump for nearly as long as I've been alive, beginning in 1976. While it's essentially a sitcom, Akimoto keeps the material fresh by using Ryotsu's dumb moneymaking schemes as a lens to look at the latest news and trends-- pick up an issue from the 80s and he'll be trying to make his own hit Famicom (NES) game, get a little more current and he's all about smartphones. Movies, fashion, video games, politics, none are safe from Ryotsu's dumb plans. One thing that Ryotsu never seems to worry about much is being an actual cop, which is pretty funny-- it's explained regularly in the pages of the comic that, when it comes to actually catching bad guys and making those key arrests, nobody can top Ryotsu, which is probably what keeps the slob from getting fired. Chalk it up to preposterously good luck, the occasional bit of honestly good police work, and a dash of intuition.
The KochiKame manga is kind of unwieldy, but the anime is a bit more accessible. But only a bit more accessible, because while the manga clocks in at 190 volumes and counting, which makes it the fourth-longest ever made (of course it's still going!), the TV anime is still a formidable 373 episodes, plus a handful of specials. How do you get into a show that long? Like, where do new One Piece fans come from? I've seen a smattering of KochiKame TV episodes, from good ol' Studio Gallop, and while they're funny (my favorite: an entire episode involving Ryotsu trying to cure his colleague Honda's fleeting propensity for laughing uproariously at the worst possible moments. Hint: it ends at a funeral.), they don't provide an attractive point of entry. But hey, that's why they make movies for big franchises like this.
The first KochiKame movie is how I discovered the franchise-- back in the early days of DVD, it was one of the first Japanese anime discs to ship with English subtitles. Plus, since KochiKame is a broad hit and not some nerd-only affair like most of our weird cartoons, it was priced attractively to boot! The KochiKame movie is a splendid capsule of pretty much everything that makes KochiKame fun-- it starts with Ryotsu behaving like an idiot but still expertly thwarting a high-stakes bank robbery, continues with him squaring off against a state-of-the-art bomb disposal robot by challenging it to a BattleBots-style robot sumo contest, and climaxes with him and his new FBI bomb squad buddy thwarting a nefarious real estate tycoon. There's an absolute stunner of a false ending, too-- don't leave when the credits start rolling! The subtitles are oddly simple and sparse, though they communicate enough to keep the viewer engaged.
Someday we might see the KochiKame TV series hit one of the streaming services, but for now we'll have to tide ourselves over with the movie, Ryotu's occasional appearances in Shonen Jump video games, and the live-action series. Why yes, of course there's a KochiKame TV drama! It's over the top even by dumb sitcom standards, but it does a surprisingly good job of porting some of the manga stories to live-action. The show stars an actor named Shingo Katori as Ryotsu, and he's awfully fun to watch-- he really works hard to sell himself as a dumb cop. He's loud, boisterous, nutty, has a gift for slapstick, is handsome-- wait, handsome?! Man, that takes me right out of it. But really, just take a gander:
That's the poster for the movie continuation of the TV series, which stars the same cast. Right there you can see how hard Katori works to be a good Ryotsu, but in the end he's still a highly-polished ex-SMAP dude. They're making a movie of Kengo Hanazawa's superb I AM A HERO manga, and casting like what we see above has me worried that they're not gonna ugly the actors up enough. If you're also worried, you can join me in the hunt for the original KochiKame movie, which dropped in 1977 and looks like this:
Ahhh, that's more like it! A lot of the most compelling anime is stuff created for the otaku audience, but if you ask me, it's worth keeping shows like Matsutaro and KochiKame in mind as well. Periodically, some Japanese magazine or another will hold a "best anime" poll for its adult readership, and while anime fan darlings like Evangelion and Space Battleship Yamato chart well, they're always equaled or surpassed by fare like Sazae-san and Heidi. One particular mainstream anime, Doraemon, is heading to Disney XD as we speak. Will your kids get on board with some mainstream anime of their own? It's more likely than you think!
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