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Sumo is an ancient sport that now thrives in a modern media age.

Public broadcaster NHK airs sumo’s six annual tournaments nationwide, while offering English-speaking fans access to the bouts via its live bilingual broadcasts and programs on its NHK World service. (Disclosure: I have been a commentator on the bilingual tournament broadcasts since their debut in 1992.)

Even so, non-NHK directors and producers with sumo-themed projects have long faced a formidable wall in the form of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, the body that governs the professional sport. The permissions required by the Kyokai to film inside the arena or interview individual wrestlers have long been hard-to-impossible to come by, as I know from personal experience.

But the makers of “Sumodo: The Successors of Samurai,” a feature documentary that opens in Japan starting Oct. 30, managed this feat, winning the cooperation of not only the Kyokai but also the Sakaigawa and Takadagawa stables, where director Eiji Sakata and his crew filmed for about six months, conducting in-depth interviews with the stables’ oyakata (coaches) and rikishi (wrestlers).

The result is an inside look at sumo of the sort rarely seen on the NHK broadcasts, where reporters typically ask wrestlers the same questions and get the same answers again and again. (Question: “How do you feel about winning this big bout?” Answer: “I’m happy.”)

Director Eiji Sakata | © 2020 'SUMODO: THE SUCCESSORS OF SAMURAI' FILM PARTNERS
Director Eiji Sakata | © 2020 ‘SUMODO: THE SUCCESSORS OF SAMURAI’ FILM PARTNERS

“The Kyokai was really tough,” says Sakata, a veteran director of variety shows for the TBS network. “There haven’t been any previous examples. We’re the first sumo documentary to use the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena as our stage. But once the Kyokai gave us permission, they were extremely cooperative.”

Sakata cleared the Kyokai hurdle with the aid of Junya Kototsurugi, a former wrestler who now works as a manga artist and maintains extensive contacts in the sumo world.

“He makes goods with the Kyokai’s approval and sells them at the Kokugikan,” Sakata explains. “He approached people he knows there and laid the groundwork for us.” (Kototsurugi also appears in the film, but as an interviewee, not a fixer.)

Out of the 44 sumo stables currently in existence, Sakata chose to focus on the Sakaigawa stable as it is one of the more successful ones. When filming for the documentary began in late-2018, Sakaigawa’s top wrestler was Goeido — an ozeki, sumo’s second-highest rank. The stable also had two maegashira, rank-and-file wrestlers in the top division, Sadanoumi and Myogiryu.

“Sagaikawa is strict,” says Sakata. “The message in the air is ‘put that camera away.’ It’s kind of tense and scary.” But the unfriendly atmosphere made Sakata want to film there all the more.

“I thought I could make something no one had ever seen before,” he explains. “The wrestlers looked unapproachable, so it was motivating to try to shoot them up close.”

At the top of the “unapproachable” list was the now-retired Goeido, a close-mouthed stoic who Kototsurugi describes as a “samurai.”

“If you don’t endure hardships you never become strong,” Goeido tells Sakata early on. True to his word, when Sakata was filming him prior to the January 2019 tournament, Goeido was struggling with an injured bicep but refused to use a supporter. “I’m afraid to reveal my weak point to opponents,” he says.

Goeido could not hide his loss of power, however, and four days into the tournament, was still winless. Then, stunningly, he came from behind to finish with a 9-6 record. “I thought it was all over for me,” he confesses to Sakata midway through the tournament. “But it’s OK to lose if you give it your whole effort.” With that, the stoic reveals a human side.

Sakata’s other interviewees at the stable are even more forthcoming. Myogiryu, who went to the same high school at Goeido and joined the same sumo club there, smilingly describes professional sumo as like “being in a traffic accident every day.” To keep from becoming roadkill, he flips a giant truck tire down a field and lifts weights to develop tree-trunk-like thighs that Sakata shoots in close-up.

Also, Sadanoumi, whose father was a top-division wrestler in the 1980s, grew up in the sumo world and thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps to Dewanoumi Stable. ”But Dad told me that, if I wanted to build character, I should go to Sakaigawa,” he says.

Sadanoumi reveals something of that character when he splits his forehead open banging heads with an opponent in a tournament bout and refuses to get stitches. “It doesn’t bother me much,” he shrugs, explaining that he has split his skin, not his skull. Goeido, we see, is not the only stoic.

Sakata got close to the stable’s wrestlers, even treating them to an all-you-can-eat yakiniku (grilled beef) meal that cost him ¥800,000. (His expression when he sees the bill is one of the film’s comedic highlights.) But he didn’t want to confine his film to Sakaigawa, which is why he also focuses on the Takadagawa Stable.

One attraction was the oyakata who wrestled under the name Akinoshima but is now called Takadagawa.

“He said things that really impressed me,” Sakata explains. Articulate and frank, Takadagawa admits that the brutal training regime once standard at his stable, as at many other stables, had to change. “Today it would be power harassment,” he says.

Instead of issuing commands and admonishments from the sidelines, as many other coaches do, Takedagawa puts on a mawashi (sumo belt) and gets down in the ring with his wrestlers. “You have to train with them or they won’t follow you,” he explains.

One of the stable’s highest-ranking wrestlers is Ryuden, who is friendly, open and enjoys a laugh. But he also made a miraculous comeback after injuring his hip and falling to the second-lowest jonidan division. “I love sumo,” he says, “I realized that after my comeback.”

“When you talk to Ryuden, you realize he’s completely different from (the wrestlers) at Sakaigawa,” says Sakata. “Sumo is like that — it’s not just one thing. A news item appears about something scandalous one stable did and the media covers it as though all stables do it. In this film I wanted to show that that’s not the case. That there are wrestlers who are doing the right thing.”

Another reason for making the film, Sakata adds, is to “overturn stereotypes about the wrestlers.” One is that they are men of few words. “Ryuden is not like that — he loves to talk,” Sakata says. “He was interesting to me for that reason — he’s totally not the image people have of sumo wrestlers.”

Another stereotype shattered in the film is that the wrestlers are fat men posing as athletes. “There’s muscle underneath that fat,” says Sakata. “People are generally not aware of how much weight training (the wrestlers) do.” Thus the scenes of Myogiryu pumping iron.

“As a Japanese I wanted to do something for Japan in this year of the Olympics — and I thought the best way was sumo,” Sakata continues. “Japanese watch sumo, but there are a lot of things they don’t know. And non-Japanese just equate sumo with fat guys who die young. I want people all around the world to know that these wrestlers are supermen.”

“Sumodo: The Successors of Samurai” is now showing in theaters nationwide. For more information, visit sumodo-movie.jp (Japanese only).

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