May 6, 2004

Clash of the Titans

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My conceptions of what an athlete is have always been confined to the Western ideal of the adonis. Ours is a society that computes percent body fat, whose training programs sculpt men like the chiseled marble of mythic Greek statues.

Perhaps that is why I, and everyone I know, have cynically dismissed the sport of Sumo as fat men wrestling in diapers. Ever since Commodore Perry opened up the island to the West 150 years ago, Japan has remained enigmatic to the rest of the world. With its dramatic landscapes, Zen architecture, and neon-glossed cities, it continues to seem mysterious, even in an age of global integration. Sumo, Japan’s most honored and sacred sport, has likewise remained equivocal. Fortunately, for the sake of the sport and the world, its mysteries are unwound in Sumo East and West, the latest film from producer, director, and cinematographer Ferne Pearlstein (winner Best Cinematography for Documentary at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for her work on the documentary Imelda). A project in the works since 1998 (it took two years just to gain permission from the Sumo Association), Sumo has been on the film festival circuit ever since premiering at the Tribeca Festival last year, and is set to air on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Sumo observes the sport from an outsider’s perspective, detailing the struggles of foreigners, particularly Hawaiians and Polynesians, to make in-roads and achieve success in a sport dominated for centuries by the Japanese. Through this approach it reveals the idiosyncrasies of a sport whose traditions are guarded with a near religious fervor. A former still photographer for Japanese magazines, Pearlstein had early exposure to the sport. “Sumo as a visual subject was a great vehicle to show off my shooting,” she explains. “From the beginning, we decided that our subject matter would be largely about foreigners. These guys had to completely embrace everything Japanese just to make it.”

It is in this approach that the tension of the film is revealed. Focussing on Hawaiian-born former professional Wayne Vierra, Sumo serves both as a reflection on sport’s past and an analysis of its current direction. Sumo has retained the religious and cultural customs of its origins. Before every match, the ring, or dohyo, must be built from scratch and blessed. Since the advent of the sport, no woman has ever touched the dohyo, as it is believed it would become impure.

“That was sort of a problem,” says Pearlstein, referring to the strict masculine hierarchy of professional Sumo. “Since I was the cinematographer, I was getting as close as I could to the dohyo. Had I touched it, even just brushed the piles of dirt, they would have had to break down the rink and start all over again.”

The film also features interviews with Yokozuna Akebona, the first non-Japanese grand champion, and Manny Yarborough, a charismatic, 750-pound former amateur champion. But Wayne Vierra remains most compelling. Since Vierra, whose wife Maxine was also an amateur wrestler, has had a foot in both the professional and amateur circuits, using him as the focal point allowed a deeper exploration of Sumo’s resistance to the changing trends of society. In stark contrast to the professional level, amateur Sumo has opened itself up to mass audiences, women, and commercialization.

“That’s sort of the crux,” says Robert Edwards, Pearlstein’s husband, and also producer, editor, and writer of the film. “The Sumo Association wants to keep the sport very traditional. They want to emphasize Sumo’s traditional roots. But Sumo has to compete with modernizing Western culture. Sumo’s fan base is aging, and unless they can attract younger fans, the sport will die.” One scene in the film illustrates this best. On the side of a building, a jumbo-tron displaying a Sumo match vies for prominence against a fa