For an activity as visually fascinating as sumo, there are precious few movies about the sport.
A typical day’s action in the Kokugikan often involves more drama than a whole season in some other sports.
Incredible athleticism and feats of strength, combined with elaborate ritual and costume, seem like fertile ground for anyone looking to make a film.
A major stumbling block is the overseas image of sumo wrestlers just being naked, fat and out of shape.
While it takes just one viewing of the sport for a person to be disabused of such notions, a lack of firsthand experience with sumo has prevented Japan’s national sport from making much of an impact on the silver screen.
There have been occasional low-budget European and Israeli movies but they all follow more or less the same pattern — a fat person discovers that instead of continuously trying and failing to lose weight, they can use their obesity to be a star in sumo. Some have a few funny moments but all just propagate the same tired old cliches and are quite frankly an insult to sumo.
While the quality might be better in Japan, the quantity is even worse.
Apart from a 1956 biopic of yokozuna Wakanohana, the only sumo film of note is the 1992 comedy “Shiko Funjyatta” (marketed abroad as “Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t”).
That movie, though, is a hidden gem.
From director Masayuki Suo, who four years later would release the popular “Shall We Dance,” and featuring luminaries like Masahiro Motoki and Naoto Takenaka, “Shiko Funjyatta” is a fantastic tale of students being roped into joining a university sumo team to save it from the chop. It’s not the most original idea, but deftly handled and with the perfect mix of comedy and drama — and a touch of romance.
The film is well worth seeking out.