Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The "Greatest" Sumo Characters in Video Games (They All Suck)

This is Eric from and this here YouTube channel you're watching and this is the first in what I'm planning on being a series of longform videos and essays on video games. They're going to be comprehensive looks at game series and concepts and other things that interest me and I already have a lot of ideas to cover topics that you probably aren't going to see on other channels. I'm excited to make stuff for the first time in a while. Our first project was to look at sumo wrestlers in video games. There aren't that many, and they all kind of suck ... Read more after the jump.

This first video isn't quite how I planned on starting this series, and isn't necessarily representative of how things will go in the future, but kind of got spun out into it's own video when my original concept sort went off the rails and didn't go how I expected. 

Anyway. During the great pandemic of 2020 a lot of folks discovered new hobbies and interests like learning to bake bread or paint or leveling up their cooking or gardening skills. As for me, I found out I really like watching sumo wrestling. 

It was by a happy accident that I caught the last couple of days of the July 2020 tournament when I randomly opened the NHK World app on my Roku one night and from there I was hooked and I've watched every day of every tournament since then. Takakeisho is my favorite, by the way. Love that stumpy sack of potatoes ...

Naturally, after getting so invested in my new love of sumo I started looking into its connections to my other passion - video games. Surprisingly, despite being the national sport of Japan and seeing growing popularity around the world, sumo video games haven't really ever been a "thing". I mean, there were a handful of games that got released only in Japan back in the day, but there haven't been any new ones since the PS2 days. I have some theories on why sumo games never really took off, but that will have to wait for a different video - this is what I meant earlier when I said my original concept didn't go how I expected.

Instead we sumo fans have to be satisfied with the brief glimpses of the sport we get when a rikishi appears in other games but even these appearances are surprisingly few. I have noticed some interesting patterns, though, such as a deliberate tip-toeing around the yokozuna ranking and these characters' fighting style only barely resembling sumo with the open palm tsuppari strikes and, maybe, a throw animation being anything close to the real thing. For a group of characters whose common goal is to spread the sport of sumo around the world, they sure don't do very much actual sumo in their fighting. These sumo characters also have a fairly common trait of not being especially popular in their series for various reasons. 

Edmond Honda from Street Fighter is the most recognizable sumo wrestler in video games. The English localization of the early Street Fighter II ports state that E. Honda is a yokozuna - the highest rank in sumo, but this is later changed in the canon to state that he is an ozeki - the second highest rank. This is significant because yokozuna have a totally different set of standards compared to other rikishi, part of which is representing yourself and sumo in general with "hinkaku", which means dignity and grace. Violating this nebulous concept of hinkaku is a serious offense and can keep a rikishi from ever being promoted to yokozuna in the first place, or they can be forced to retire early in disgrace such as what happened with Asashoryu. Using violence outside the sumo ring, and especially participating in back alley street fights, would absolutely be frowned upon and would put your yokozuna promotion, and possibly your sumo career, in jeopardy. This is why E. Honda wears the red kabuki makeup on his face - to hide his true identity of the ozeki known as Fujinoyama. Kind of the Clark Kent hide in plain sight effect or maybe no one in the Japanese Sumo Association watches the World Warrior tournaments. Despite being around since the first version of Street Fighter II and appearing in most of the other games in the series, E. Honda regularly lands in the middle of the pack in Street Fighter character popularity polls and is always dead last among the original 8 World Warriors.   

Another interesting fighting game sumo character is Hinako Shijou from King of Fighters. Yes, she's a tiny 93 pound high school girl that uses sumo techniques. She made her first appearance in King of Fighters 2000 but, unfortunately, didn't prove to be very popular and only appeared in a handful of games - KOF 2000, 2001, 2002 Ultimate Match, and 2003. No, she doesn't just wear a mawashi.  She's mostly noteworthy because sumo is such a male dominated sport, though there are certainly real world women sumo wrestlers and competitions. Honestly, it's kind of fun seeing a tiny girl doing powerful tsuppari and throwing guys 4x her size around. It has to be noted, however, that in Japan women aren't allowed on the professional dohyo at all because of, pardon my language, ancient Shinto religious bullshit that says women are impure. This stigma is likely why Hinako Shijou never attained much popularity and was ultimately relegated to being a background character. She's also, uh, kinda not fun to play as, which might have also had something to do with it ... but I don't like King of Fighters at all so what do I know?

Next up has to start with a Confession - I've played a lot of Tekken in my day. Like, a LOT, a lot. But it wasn't until researching for these videos that I realized there is a sumo Tekken fighter named Ganryu. And not only that, but he's been around since the first Tekken game and has appeared in almost every other game in the series except Tekken 3 and 4. I guess the fact he isn't a cute girl (or Yoshimitsu) meant we always ignored him. Of course, it turns out that most other people seem to ignore Ganryu as well as he often appears towards the bottom, if not the outright last position, in character popularity lists. His story is sort of interesting, at least, in that he was a talented rikishi who reached the rank of ozeki but was forced out of the sport due to his arrogant attitude and illegal gambling habit (there's that hinkaku thing again) so he enters the King of the Iron Fist tournament in order to prove he was still a badass fighter. That was the original story, at least, but in later games his character trait changes to "wants to bang Michelle Chang" and then "wants to bang Julia Chang" and little else. 

Confession #2 - The inspiration for this entire video was that I was playing Virtua Fighter 5 and was surprised to see a sumo wrestler on the roster, which got me thinking about sumo in other video games. Similar to Ganryu in Tekken, I had just never noticed Virtua Fighter's Taka Arashi before. Also similar to Ganryu, Taka-Arashi is wildly unpopular, so much so that he is the only character in the series to be officially "retired" after his first appearance in Virtua Fighter 3, though he did make a return several entries in the series later in Virtua Fighter 5R. The official reason for his long absence from the series is that his fighting style and massive body was too hard to implement into the game. Interestingly, he is the only video game sumo character to actually be a yokozuna, which is denoted in-game by the massive white rope he wears (which, by the way, is totally dumb and impractical to wear in a fight because those ceremonial ropes weigh about 40 pounds ...). Unlike the other characters mentioned in this list, however, the Virtua Fighter series doesn't seem to have quite the reverence for the yokozuna rank as the other games do as Taka-Arashi's behavior probably would have violated hinkaku. The story is that he initially leaves sumo for the Virtua Fighter 3 tournament after he got into a bar fight against a world renowned underground fighter and easily beat him. Despite being humiliated in the tournament he is welcomed back to sumo. Taking everything we know about hinkaku and yokozuna, somehow I doubt that would have been the case in real life. One additional note I'll make about Taka-Arashi is that his moveset is the closest to actual sumo of anyone on this list.

And that's kind of it, surprisingly enough. There are shockingly few sumo characters in games and even the ones we have are kind of ... not great. I know, I know. People love E. Honda and he's iconic, but in actual popularity and character usage data he's remarkably low on the list, just like the other characters covered in this video.  

We'll just have to be content with watching sumo instead of playing video games, but that isn't so bad. If you're interested in watching sumo there are six tournaments every year taking place in the odd numbered months - January, March, May, July, September, and November. Each tournament lasts 15 days and it's worth watching every day to see how things play out. You can watch the tournaments live online in a few places, but I recommend watching NHK's Grand Sumo Highlights instead. They condense all of the top division matches each day into a 27-minute episode, which is greatly preferable to watching it live since there is a LOT of ceremonial traditional pageantry between every match. Seriously, there's ten minutes of ceremony between matches but the matches themselves can literally last a second each. You can watch Grand Sumo Highlights on NHK's website or via the NHK World app on your favorite streaming device (I use a Roku). 

And that was our look at sumo characters in video games. Thanks for watching. Please like and subscribe and keep an eye on the channel because we're planning on having more long form video essays just like this one.