Abarenbou Rikishi!! Matsutarou is a show about a big jerk partaking in big jerk activities. Bullying kids (and teachers!) at school, cheating on tests, and, uhhh… casually kidnapping a cute teacher and almost running a baby over with a truck while on a drunken rampage. There’s no skirting around it: Matsutarou is an awful person. Not the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with, but possibly the kind of guy you want to watch… from a distance… behind the safety of a computer monitor.
This show is bound to get a lot of flack for this thoroughly unlikable character marauding the entirety of its runtime, playing his crimes up as a joke. But me? I had a lot of fun. Largely thanks to the degree in which it is played up as a joke. Matsutarou isn’t a simple delinquent. He’s a larger than life caricature. He’s the kind of guy the quite literally steals candy from a baby. He’s a monolith single handedly capable carrying mine carts filled with tons of coal. His piss even has rainbows! Matsutarou’s antics are so over the top, the chaos engulfing his direct perimeter so uncompromisingly absurd, that it’s hard to really take it seriously. Like, when taking the candy from the baby, he swiftly turns the baby around by the head with only his ginormous fingers and yoinks the candy from behind his back in a visual gag practically straight out of Looney Toons. The show is just really goofy in its belligerence. I mean, it’s okay to hate the guy—in fact, I think the show expects you to—but to dismiss the show just because of some preconceived notions on what makes a good protagonist would be a fairly myopic way to approach fiction.
I’ve had many, many arguments over stuff like this. Some people think Grave of the Fireflies was bad because the main character isn’t a hero. Others think that Miu Matsuoka from Ichigo Mashimaro is a sociopath comparable to Alex from A Clockwork Orange… This isn’t really fair though and limits what should be a nearly limitless medium.
Let’s explore the Grave of the Fireflies example. The gist of the story is: During a WWII bombing, 14 year old boy named Seita is put into a position where he has to take care of his 4 year old sister after their parents die. I want to avoid spoilers, so let’s just say he makes some questionable decisions that cause bad things to happen. Seita is extremely far from being a heroic character. He’s merely an average kid, with all the personal shortcomings that entails. But that’s exactly the point. It’s not a tale of triumph. It’s a tale of soul crushing victimhood, of a kid being forced to make decisions he simply isn’t mature enough to handle yet, of a kid that for all intents and purposes has nothing to do with the war other than existing in its vicinity. Seita isn’t necessarily bad, he’s just a victim of circumstance. Grave of the Fireflies ia more about the war and its effects on people than anything. The story is meaningful and couldn’t have been told any other way.
But that’s a serious example, and Matsutarou is a joke. Much like Miu from Ichigo Mashimaro!!! (check that segue, yo). Miu’s depiction is fair in that she is always treated as ‘that annoying friend’. An easy to relate to archetype in comedy, she is that friend that everyone loves to hate. Half of the appeal lies in her mischief—the comical situations she instigates—but the other lies in justice being served after the fact: those moments when pranker is turned prankee and the other girls uphold Miu’s strong-arm mischief twofold is immensely satisfying, both karmically and comedically. Sure Miu’s pranks are funny on their own, but that moment of comic culmination is what really gets me. At the end of the day, she is the catalyst for much of what makes the show special, despite being a deplorable little brat.
There are other example of ““bad”” character being good for their respective stories (like Anne from Anne of Green Gables, whose deficiencies leave ample room for great character growth; or Han Solo, who’s tsundere as fuck and shoots first and stuff), but this’ll quickly become excessive if I have to run down examples for every way this is true. The point I’m getting at is that this silly fiction stuff is super broad and all sorts of characters can serve all sorts of purposes. Limiting what fiction can entail is regressive, and dissing the show on the faulty basis of “jerk protagonist, therefore bad” would be beyond shallow. Matsutarou is an unforgivable nut job—and the characters in the show rightfully treat him as such—but god dammit he’s a wildly entertaining nut job. The chaos is far removed from reality and fun to get sucked into. He doesn’t even come close to reaching the lofty heights of characters like Seita and Miu, but he’s more than serviceable in his role. I even found myself slightly endeared to the lumbering dolt by the end of the episode, for whatever that’s worth.
Of course, I can acknowledge that this line becomes more difficult to toe when a character like Matsutarou and his atrocities are presented as a joke. The show comes dangerously close to taking the joke too far (if not outright doing so) during the kidnapping scene at the end of the first episode. Let’s just say it gets a little too forceful with the teacher for my liking. It isn’t nearly as bad as some other shows out there, but it does sort of drift towards being more uncomfortable than fun. While scenes like this do truly harm my impression of the guy, at the end of the day, like Miu, justice is served. It’s not nearly as satisfying as in Ichigo Mashimaro, but it’ll do. I thought the rest of the episode was fun enough to make up for it. Your mileage may vary. And who knows, the guy might actually grow as a character later on. The mangaka also penned the hugely successful Ashita no Joe, and that followed a similar trajectory. It’s too soon to say, really. As for now… it’s just a fun romp, and I’m cool with that.
Anyway, I don’t want to belabor the point too much. Unlikable people can be entertaining. Unlikable people can be depicted well in fiction. Bad people aren’t all that bad!
Oh yeah, this show is pretty good. Give it a shot.