It begins and ends well, but I think it's a poor show.
Matsutaro is a violent, abhorrent lout. He's got the brains of a child, the self-control of a toddler and the social conscience of a piranha. His reaction to almost any situation will be the most selfish, rude, intolerable behaviour you can imagine. The only reason he's not starting fights 24 hours a day is because he's a monster of a man, capable of flattening any opponent without even thinking about it. Potential foes will thus flee at the sight of him.
As the show's title suggests, he's going to become a sumo wrestler. Sounds perfect, right? Well, no, because sumo wrestling is steeped in tradition, respect and deferential behaviour. There's about to be an almighty culture clash.
This was not a popular anime. It's based on an award-winning Tetsuya Chiba manga that approximately ran for 25 years, but the anime gained a reputation for being one of the worst shows of the Spring 2014 season. I don't agree with some of the most common reasons. Firstly, Matsutaro himself is an industrial-scale arsehole. (True, but that's not in itself the problem.) Secondly, the animation is cheap and/or unfashionable. (Is that even a reason? Well, I suppose it can be, but I don't think it is here.)
Admittedly I don't like the show either, but it's not because Matsutaro is unlikeable. He's not meant to be likeable. He's an abomination. This is fun. Even the narrator calls him pathetic. The opening episode sees him stealing candy from babies and then later on driving trucks at them. It's only blind luck that makes the baby pass between the truck's wheels instead of becoming pavement pizza. I loved that opening episode, which ends with Matsutaro in police custody.
No, the problem is that for most of the show, Matsutaro has no opposition. Drama is about struggle, but there's little of that here. Matsutaro steamrollers everyone and everything. It takes a few episodes to get him established at a sumo stable, but once he's there, the show grinds to a halt. No one can control our anti-hero. No one can slow him down. Even in the ring, almost everyone we see him fight gets sent to hospital. Admittedly he has a couple of friends and one semi-girlfriend who can influence him a bit, but basically the formula for most of this show's episodes is "Matsutaro behaves badly with no opposition". Not only can no one stop him, but it's almost unknown even to see a plausible attempt being made. There are also no consequences. Matsutaro just does whatever he wants. Then he does it again. Then he does it some more. This continues for twenty-odd episodes.
I think it's worth looking at the times when the show works. The early episodes are good, while Matsutaro's life is still up in the air. His early clashes with the other wrestlers are funny, before they've basically given up on trying to sort him out. After that the show ends with two strong episodes, hitting Matsutaro hard and then pulling out an ending I hadn't expected at all.
I also liked his return to his hometown as a local superstar. His relationship with his family and former neighbours is paradoxically emotional, despite Matsutaro's callousness.
Otherwise, though, we're just watching a twat being a twat. A further problem with the character is that he doesn't really have dramatic goals. He's in love with Reiko, but otherwise his objective in any given episode will be whatever happens to be in front of him. He's a Random Bad Behaviour Generator.
Having knocked the show down, I'm now going to defend it.
Firstly, Matsutaro himself is often quite entertaining. The show's pulling no punches in how oafish it's prepared to paint him. If there were a sequel to this series with Matsutaro getting himself in serious trouble against opponents who could hurt him, I'd watch the hell out of it.
Secondly, I love the aesthetic. It's old school. It's a throwback to the 1970s, with crude lines that are perfect for Matsutaro. He looks as if he's been hewn, not drawn. Reiko looks like a Go Nagai heroine. The (magnificent) theme song is an enka duet, of all things. Enka! Fantastic. If ever a song was born for karaoke, it's that one. (It's called "Dosukoi Jinsei" and it's sung by Ken Matsudaira and Mika Hino, if you're interested.) This is a show that's proudly refusing to update itself, be it its Showa era setting or its animation. It doesn't look like modern anime and personally I think that's one of the best and most distinctive things about it.
Thirdly, the show's often funny. I'd be laughing at things I probably shouldn't have been laughing at. It has titanic fart jokes, for instance. Matsutaro's behaviour is capable of crossing the Funny Line several times in a single scene, even when you don't actually like the scene and can't stand what he's doing.
This show is at once splendid and tedious. It's interesting to think and talk about, with subtler writing than you'd think. I've already praised the ending, while Matsutaro has clear character development underneath the boorishness. I like the idea of the show. I think Matsutaro is an explosively iconic character just waiting for the right vehicle... but this isn't that vehicle. I don't think the show works. It's nothing to do with whether or not you like sports anime, because there's surprisingly little sumo in it. (Bouts are usually over in next to no time, especially when one of the wrestlers is Matsutaro.) The main character's going to stay with me, I think. I'm fond of him. It's just a shame about the show.