There is a lot of misconceptions about the world of sumo. To some, sumo wrestling might look like a sport about fat sweaty dudes in g-sting's beating the crap out of each other, and you know what? They are right! Well, sort of. You see, they are not wearing exotic underwear, and no it’s not a diaper either. It’s what the Japanese call, “mawashi” a heavy fabric loincloth that opposing wrestlers use various maneuvers to grab and hold onto to gain an advantage during matches. This martial art is definitely not for the faint-hearted as it requires courage, determination, discipline, hard work, and dedication. Sumo is a lifestyle, a holy pursuit of the single goal of one day achieving the rank of Yokozuna—the greatest. It’s much akin to a religious practice with so many ancient rituals and rich history behind it that you need undying passion to walk the path of sumo.
Based on Kawada’s manga of the same name, Hinomaru Zumou is an underdog tale following our protagonist of the story, Hinomaru Ushio. He strived mightily against fierce odds for years of his life just on the off-chance that one day he might have the opportunity to win at the high school national tournament which will give him his only realistic chance of achieving his dream. Hinomaru is an undersized phenom, a prodigy but a product of extremely hard work and sacrifice. He is a genuinely nice guy, passionate, confident and competitive. His love and passion for sumo are infectious, he simply wants to prove to the world that his chosen sport is truly second to none. And Hinomaru’s own challenges are explored here too—to wit, that one must be 167 cm tall to become a pro. While being one of a few National Treasures (someone who has the potential to become a Yokozuna), our hero does not meet the height requirement. He does, however, have another path—through winning the high school Yokozuna title and thus entering the All-Japan amateur tournament, whose winner is seeded into the pro ranks regardless of the height restriction.
To help Hinomaru reach his goal are his fellow club members of the Oodachi High School sumo club: The club captain, Shinya Ozeki. The strongest of Oodachi High, Yuuma Gojou. The wrestling champion, Chihiro Kunisaki. “Hotaru” Mitsuhashi Kei, and the coach in Kirihito Tsuji. Also, can’t forget the club managers in Chizuko Hori and Reina Gojou, who happens to be the vice president of the student council, as well as Yuuma’s younger sister. Throughout this journey, the characters grow from strength to strength after going through a lot of challenges through the training camps and in their personal lives. They have great chemistry together, the conversations between them are not just in service of the plot, they all have strong personalities and feel like real people. They all have their own dreams but share a common goal of winning together as a team. Hinomaru Zumou explores the social aspect of sumo—as in, making pariahs out of boys with the impunity to actually practice it. There are also a lot of emotional stories with these characters covering various themes from courage and heroism, death, love, coming of age, prejudice, and individual vs society.
There are different ways to go about making a positive impression in anime, to be certain. The one shows as Hinomaru Zumou choose certainly isn’t the flashiest, and as a result, they tend to be undersold by most viewers. It simply put one foot in front of the other, does things the right way, and make sure every development is earned and every decision is in-character. While the story follows a formulaic sports shonen template to that of “Haikyuu!!” and “Koroko no Basket”, such as tournament arcs, it’s able to execute it as well as possible with an unusual sport as the vehicle. The training arcs are more about refining their techniques than learning new moves, and this decision makes it all the better. We know each character’s weaknesses, we know what they have to do in order to overcome them and turn them into a strength—which reinforces the idea of the characters having to work for everything instead of having plot conveniences and power-ups. Even rival characters from other schools are given ample screen time, enough to see their personalities, development etc., and it’s done in such a way that you also can’t help but connect with them.
Hinomaru Zumou is definitely one of the best sports shonen series I’ve seen to date, it does everything well, pretty much without exception. And while its devotion to genre tradition and how it makes the series’ appeal more tied into sasuga than surprise, it’s not exactly predictable. Some of that comes down to the nature of best-of-five team competition, even if you know whom precedent says should win, there are myriad ways to get there and also to the scenarios that the story sets up. The Gonzo production team understood this well and made it a fine adaptation. Hinomaru Zumou features a 90’s style to its art and character designs, which are all distinctive and given unique traits and accessories. Despite the obvious low budget, for the most part, the visuals and animations have been consistently good. At its best, it is nothing short of excellence. The depictions of certain bouts are given some extra flair with dynamic illustrations and grand effects that make the action a lot more grandiose. At its worst, you can notice some of the inconsistencies in character-models and the fluidity in animation.
In general, the art design is expressive and appealing, succeeding in its aesthetic goals and more than enough, impressing through style flourishes. The soundtrack is very important when it comes to the sumo bouts as they go hand-in-hand to complete the sense of tension, atmosphere, and excitement. It’s really hype-inducing and James Shimoji is a name I hope to see a little bit more as he is definitely a talented composer. Yasutaka Yamamoto and Kounosuke Uda have done a superb job in directing with a small budget and also offering a lesson on how to rush through a source material the right way, to the extent such a thing is possible. They knew they only have 24 episodes to work with so they knew there is no time to waste. You can rush without giving the impression that you’re rushing, and Hinomaru Zumou has managed to accomplish that almost every week. Surprisingly enough, this anime has both great OP’s and ED’s. To pick a personal favorite, it definitely has to be "FIRE GROUND" by Official HIGE DANdism, the perfect theme song to get you pumped. Gonzo did get talented voice actors and all had stellar performances as well as adding some funny short segments at the end of episodes, a testament to their dedication for entertainment value.
I can’t help but be impressed by the consistency, solidity and sheer effectiveness of Hinomaru Zumou. The personality of the series perfectly matches that of the sport it depicts—there’s no flash or elegance to this show, it just plants both feet and pushes until the job is done, with the occasional slap, too. Rarely have I seen a sports anime so faithful to the tenets of the genre without feeling mundane. The series is criminally underrated and a gem of the 2018 Fall season, fantastic characters, thrilling action, and wholesome comedy. It’s so straight and true, so meticulous and emotionally accurate—as so many of the best sports anime are. You do have to get past the inherently comic visual of sumo. Not everyone is going to be able to do that or want to. But if you can you’ll be amply rewarded, whether sports anime is your thing or not.