July 15, 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.

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 film is the latest project from producer, director, and cinematographer Ferne Pearlstein, who won Best Cinematography for a Documentary at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for her work on the documentary Imelda).

A project in the works since 1998, Sumo has been on the film festival circuit ever since premiering at the Tribeca Festival last year.

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. “From the beginning, we decided that our subject matter would be largely about foreigners,” she explains. “These guys had to completely embrace everything Japanese just to make it.”

Focusing on Hawaiian-born former professional Wayne Vierra, Sumo serves both as a reflection on sport’s past and an analysis of its current direction. Before every match, the ring, or dohyo, must be built from scratch and blessed. 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.”

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 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