Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (Shiko funjatta)

Japan (1992) Dir. Masayuki Suo

One look at the above poster tells us pretty much all we need to know about this film and it certainly lives up to those perceptions story wise. As accurate as is to say Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is every zero-to-hero sports film you’ve ever seen, focusing on a sport that is a mystery to many outside of Japan and the educational value it brings makes it different.

After skipping one class too many with the end of term just a few months away, slacker student Shuhei Yamamoto (Masahiro Motoki) is bribed by Professor Anayama (Akira Emoto) with failure of all his classes unless he joins the moribund university Sumo team. Only needing to show up at a local competition Shuhei and the only existing member, mature student Aoki Tomio (Naoto Takenaka) recruit more members.

They eventually persuade chubby loner Hosaku Tanaka (Hiromasa Taguchi) and Shuehi’s younger brother Harou (Masaaki Takarai), a fugitive from the pro-wrestling club, to join for a disastrous debut. When challenged by a rival school for disrespecting Sumo, the boys decide to take it serious and compete in a major competition – but there is a lot of work to be done first.

Masayuki Suo is probably best known for his gentle rom-com Shall We Dance? yet the same endearing, working class earthiness of that film is present here too, making them cousins stylistically rather than mere polar opposites because of the subject. Both also follow the same path of people trying something en route to finding their niche in life only there is lot more sweat and exposed flesh in this film!

From the poster you’d think Suo was taking the mickey out of Sumo by placing skinny pretty boy in the mawashi (don’t call it a jockstrap!) instead of a 40-stone behemoth. As the film goes onto explain this perception is only accurate to a point – size really isn’t everything in Sumo, it is also down to technique, concentration, and self-belief. Some of the opponents Shuhei’s team face are even skinnier than he is!

One of the greatest Yokozuna of the modern era, Chiyonofuji Mitsugu, was “only” 20-stone at his peak and his physique was more toned and muscular like a pro-wrestler than most of the bulbous man-mountains he would defeat with ease. But the story here is set at the amateur university level where it is unlikely the wrestlers would already be super-duper heavyweights!

Shuhei, like most modern era kids, has no interest in Sumo, preferring western sports like baseball. Professor Anayama is revealed to be a former Sumo champion himself and doesn’t want to see the club disappear through lack of interest. Bribing Shuhei is one recruitment tactic the other, sneakier approach is relying on his pretty assistant Natsuko Kawashima (Misa Shimizu) to attract new members, successfully working on Harou.

Unfortunately for Harou, Natsuko isn’t interested in him or any boy, but after a TV report on the club, Harou finds himself with a legion of adoring fans, one them being Sumo mad Masako Mamiya (Ritsuko Umemoto). Ironically she IS the size of a Sumo wrestler but women aren’t allowed in the ring, so she joins the club as its housekeeper.

The final person to join the team is “British” rugby player George Smiley (American Robert Hoffman), but his refusal to be seen “naked” in a mawashi means he forfeits his matches. Smiley has the power, Tanaka the size, Aoki the knowledge – except he gets the runs when he is stressed – and the Yamamoto brothers the tenacity, but this team is on a hiding to nothing; they can’t even beat a team from a kids Sumo club!

Anayama’s training programme is unorthodox in that he doesn’t teach them anything, imparting useful advice based on their strengths but little else. It’s a risky game plan but like Mister Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” instructions in The Karate Kid, there is a deceptive method to his madness. Despite Aoki being the only with a passion for Sumo, the rest gradually develop their own during the course of the journey as well as understanding how it is built on respect and honour.

Perhaps Sou isn’t taking the mickey after all, and is in fact lamenting a dearth in interest of this traditional national sport at a grass roots level as it was in 1992. Sumo hasn’t died out at a professional level and it is unlikely that it will, and if Sumo isn’t your thing there is still a positive message to be heeded about finding your path in life even if it is in the least likely of places.

Some of the humour is base and predictable, like Aoki’s bowel problem and the embarrassment of falling to tiny kids, but there are more subtle laughs to be found in the background, especially during on the funniest gang brawls you’ll ever see. The tone is kept light throughout but the poignancy and gravity of the drama in the final act gives it a serious edge without resorting flat out emotional manipulation.

It is clear from close observation that the cast did most, if not all, of their own wrestling here which needs to be applauded for the commitment and determination to make this as credible as possible. Given some of their opponents are much beefier and heavier, they took some real bumps and lumps for our entertainment as well as the verisimilitude of the film.

The age of this film offers a few interesting sight to behold. First there is the perpetually saturnine Akira Emoto looking young since I’ve only seen his later works, and Masahiro Motoki 16 years before his lead role in the Oscar winning Departures. Also, Sou brings back Naoto Takenaka and Misa Shimizu for Shall We Dance? playing characters also called Aoki and Natsuko!

Despite the low budget and clichéd storyline, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is full of heart and genuine respect for its subject, making for a fun and enlightening little gem.