There is a relatively standard model to most sports documentaries: introduce the players, showcase their training process and get to know what achievement is at stake, and then play out the tournament to reveal whether or not they succeed. It is a standard model because, by-and-large, it is a winning formula. Find the right combination of sport and player, and the viewer does not even need to be a fan of sport at all: the entertainment will come from watching a human story.
Filmmaker Eiji Sakata definitely seems to be onto a winner with Sumodo: The Successors of Samurai (2020), which is playing across Australia in this year’s Japanese Film Festival. The traditional wrestling sport of sumo provides all of the ambition, tension, and physical skill that one expects from a sports documentary, but it also brings along a strong side-line in Japanese culture, history, and spirituality.
Sumodo captures seven months – December 2018 to June 2019 – in the lives of two sumo wrestlers in a Tokyo academy. Goiedo Gotaro is already an accomplished champion fighting to maintain his status; Ryuden Goshi is a younger competitor looking to make a name for himself. Over the half-year, audiences see them train, compete, and talk intimately about their vocation and their lives. It is a great combination of people on which to focus. The film’s first half leans toward the older wrestler, although as the narrative goes on it tends to swing back gradually to focus on Ryuden instead. He is an upbeat and ambitious individual, looking forward not only to winning a tournament but also to marrying his fiancee by the middle of the year.
The human drama makes for a strong framework. Onto that frame the film explores multiple aspects of sumo history, tradition, and life. The game’s origins are addressed, as are its enthused Japanese fans who loudly barrack for their favourites from the floor of the legendary Ryogoku Kokugikan. One particularly memorable scene sees the entire class of sumo trainees get treated to a barbeque dinner: with a diet designed to maintain their enormous size, they eat the restaurant out of all the meat it has.
Sakata maintains an even balance between ‘fly on the wall’ and ‘talking heads’ techniques, and ensures that the film’s final third in particular is packed with actual sumo contests. Having met the competitors and learned the rules of the game, it makes for an engaging climax. This is a long-overdue profile into a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, with characters interesting enough to appeal well beyond the narrow audiences of sports enthusiasts and Japan-obsessives. It is more than enough to make one a fan of the game itself.
Sumodo: The Successors of Samurai is screening across Australia at this year’s Japanese Film Festival. Click here for more information.