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Allegra McCormack | February 25, 2022

Despite being the national sport of Japan, sumo remains relatively unknown to the western world. Director Eiji Sakata seems to have taken this lack of familiarity as a challenge, with Sumodo – The Successors of the Samurai offering an intricate introduction to sumo through its history and place within modern Japanese culture. The opening monologue offers a rapid introduction to the sport; the one thing that matters: “how to stay in the ring.” Sumodo considers what this deceptively simple task truly requires from the men who live, train and work in the world of sumo.

The film documents the lives of sumo wrestlers, called ‘rikishi’, living within two Tokyo-based ‘stables’ over the course of six months. Unlike other sport-centric documentaries that emphasise individual achievement, Sumodo takes a slice-of-life approach in its depiction of sumo. While the film loosely explores the journey of two senior rikishi, ‘Goeido of the Sakaigawa Stable’ and ‘Ryuden of the Takadagawa Stable’, no true protagonist emerges. While the absence of a key figure does make it somewhat challenging to forge an early connection with the film, it enables the unfamiliar world of sumo to slowly ufurl.

While much of the film is focused on training, highlighting the raw strength and athletic ability of the rikishi, Sumodo shines in its capacity to capture their human side. By choosing to show stables going out for group dinners, giving tours of their shared rooms and participating in community events, Sakata is able to capture a holistic depiction of the world of sumo. The rikishi’s dedication shines through their personal interviews as they speak with a genuine passion for their sport through both injury and recovery, loss and victory.   

Perhaps a weak point of the documentary is its relatively slow pace. Despite the explosive, high-speed nature of sumo wrestling, Sumodo takes its time to tell its story carefully. Sakata does presume a lack of familiarity with sumo, carefully explaining the rules and regulations of the sport. In spite of this slow pacing, the care taken to establish familiarity ensures that when the January Tournament begins at the halfway point of the film, the stakes for the rikishi are made clear and the tension is palpable. 

At its core, Sumodo is a love letter to sumo. Sakata emphasises the sheer joy of the sport, from fans and competitors alike. The resulting depiction is warm, eagerly offering the audience a chance to share in the excitement and to experience what makes sumo great.

Sumodo ~ The Successors of Samurai ~ (JFF 2021) | 2020 | Director: Eiji Sakata
An eye-opening and rare behind-the-scenes exploration of the lives of famous sumo wrestlers.

From a futuristic existential animation about androids to a culturally rich documentary delving into the art of ramen-making, the Japanese Film Festival: Online returns from 14-27 February 2022 with a free streamed Festival featuring the best in Japanese cinema.

Full program and streaming details available at: www.japanesefilmfestival.net 

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Allegra McCormack

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