With no tournament scheduled for another two months, all sumo related events on hold and even training sessions severely curtailed, it’s hard for the dedicated fan to get their fix these days.
A lack of old tournaments available online means going through the archives and reliving great matches of the past isn’t an option open to most either.
So, what should those who love Japan’s national sport do to fill the rikishi-shaped gap in their lives while waiting for the July meet?
Catching up on sumo-related books and movies is one idea. While, in general, there have been very few publications or films released that deal with the sport (and almost none in the past couple of decades), there are still a few worth checking out.
Arguably, the best English-language introduction to the sport ever committed to print is “Grand Sumo: Fully Illustrated,” which was released in 1998.
The 158-page book is a manga-style look at all aspects of the sport. Very clearly laid out and containing a mountain of useful — if now somewhat outdated — information, it is an easy and quick read that has the highest signal-to-noise ratio of anything on sumo committed to paper.
For those wanting a more personal look at sumo, “Takamiyama: The World of Sumo” (1973) or “Gaijin Yokozuna” (2006) fit the bill.
Both books do a decent job of explaining what sumo was like for Hawaiian trailblazers Takamiyama and Akebono. With the former man bringing the latter into the sport, the two books work best when read back to back.
Once you’ve finished those, the pickings are slim.
There are numerous books, of varying accuracy and depth, introducing sumo, but nothing of any consequence published in the past 20 years. The huge amount of information that has been made available in recent times has also exposed a lot of what was written in the past as either exaggerated or inaccurate.
To the modern fan, used to massively expanded coverage both online and in print, as well direct access through the social media accounts of rikishi themselves, the “taking you behind the scenes of a hidden world” tone of earlier books feels quaint. Several of those books, in retrospect, show the authors had little actual first-hand knowledge of what really goes on in sumo, which also diminishes their value.
In terms of what is available on screen, apart from a variety of cringe-worthy foreign efforts, your choice is basically between “Demon of the Dohyo — The Wakanohana Story,” a 1958 biopic of the famous yokozuna that is virtually impossible to find these days, and “Shiko Funjatta,” a 1992 comedy by Masayuki Suo — director of “Shall We Dance.”
Sometimes found under the title of “Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t,” Suo’s comedy is a well-crafted and at times touching tale of a ragtag band of students roped into competing for their university’s struggling sumo club. It holds up pretty well and, even if you aren’t a sumo fan, is definitely worth a watch.
NHK World’s “Grand Sumo Highlights” (for which I’m one of the presenters) and the accompanying Sumopedia segments are a good intro to the sport for newer fans as well. Although media interactions are limited and there is no May tournament, we’ll be bringing out a show as usual this month. There will be additional features there on how fans can enjoy sumo while we wait out this pandemic.
For those wanting a deeper dive into the numbers and stats, Sumo Reference remains the gold standard. Created and run by a fan in Germany, the site contains more data than you could ever need and has been an essential tool used by virtually everyone in the sumo world since its inception.
The Sumo Forum, an online message board, has been the No. 1 place to discuss the sport in English for over a decade and a half. Frequented by people from all walks of life, it has also been one of the first points of contact for several people who went on to become rikishi in Japan.
Although sometimes it can take quite a bit of digging to find the diamonds in the dirt, the Sumo Forum remains the best English-language repository of sumo knowledge. For those who have the time to trawl through its archives and older threads, all kinds of delights await.
The use of YouTube and various social media platforms to disseminate sumo information has become much more popular over the past three or four years, but as with any other kind of news on such outlets, the truth is often lost or obscured by waves of poorly researched or false information. Popularity and accuracy often seem to have little correlation, and quality control or editorial oversight is often non-existent, so the advice for people getting most of their information through those sources is to make sure that you confirm what you read or hear with more trustworthy outlets before reacting.
With even the July tournament no sure thing, sumo fans could be looking at six months or more of no new action in the ring. Availing yourself of all various sources of sumo information, and using the time to read up on the history of the sport, are good ways to pass the time while waiting and will also mean that you’ll be able to participate in the conversation in a deeper more meaningful way when sumo does return.
Who knows, you might even be able to write a book about the sport at the end of it.
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