When you think of sumo wrestling, you might think of two big men explosively launching themselves at each other as they try and quickly push their opponent out of the ring. This seemingly speedy spectacle of power belies the amount of eating, effort, and training that goes into moulding the wrestlers, something indicated by the kanji in the title which means endurance. Sumo is a test of endurance for the participants and also a comment on how this sport has maintained a central place in Japanese culture since the 08th Century. Both are demonstrated in Jill Coulon’s documentary A Normal Life: Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler, which was produced for Japanese TV corporation NHK as part of its “Tokyo Modern” series. Coulon reveals a fascinating world of ancient traditions and physical dedication in a behind-the-scenes look at the early phase of one sumo wrestler’s career.
The trainee wrestler is Takuya Ogushi, an 18-year-old who is a confident judo practitioner from the small city of Asahikawa, located in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. When we first meet him, he has graduated from high school and is about to enter the world of sumo wrestling by joining the Oshima stable in Tokyo. This is at the behest of his father who gives him a stark warning, “There’s no place for you if you come back.”
“Whatever happens in Tokyo, I want to become a great wrestler,” is Takuya’s mantra and so he starts a new life as the youngest in the stable where he will share everything with the ten other athletes. Over the course of about nine months, we see his day-to-day life which consists of training, eating, doing chores, and sumo wrestling tournaments. The other wrestlers take him under their wing and share stories of their hardships, leaving home as teens and only seeing family twice a year, training hard and the injuries as they all matured and became men, a process that Takuya undergoes.
As big as his build gets (with a diet consisting of huge bowls of rice and a plenty of meat, he gains 16 kilos), Takuya is still a callow youth as revealed by his occasional narration and intimate phone calls to his sister where he talks about the ebb and flow of his life and his confidence. It is also shown in his eyes which the camera picks up on at various moments, a glaze of tears over them during his first night in his stable, the nervousness he shows as he observes the other wrestlers, the frustration over mistakes, and his eventual weariness as doing endless chores and training takes its toll. His story is not unique, and as other wrestlers come forward with their own tales, the film becomes less about Takuya’s endurance and more about the endurance needed to last in the sport. The rituals and purpose, the incessant eating and training.
Life looks hard. There aren’t any glamorous fights, it’s all gruelling physical exertion as Takuya works his way up the ranks in play-offs in Tokyo and Osaka, getting to grips with how to fight and how to interact with fans. Starting from nothing, he grows to an impressive size but is dogged by doubts all the way.
However, it isn’t all work and the film humanises the wrestlers in a touching sequence as they enjoy day-trip to the beach, these athletes striving to reach their full potential get to blow off steam looking with wonder at dolphins in an aquarium, racing go-karts and playing Super Mario Kart in an arcade. More importantly, the film also shows the camaraderie that grows between wrestlers, from the advice and support and gentle ribbing given to Takuya as he gets to grips with mastering movement in the ring to the jokes during lessons as diverse as sex education and how to handle fans. A real sense of brotherhood can be felt and it all shows how much care and attention goes into this ancient sport and why people stick to sumo. Seeing his shy pride as he earns his sumo name Kyokutaisei is gratifying.
A sensitive documentary, the film is visually interesting while it maintains a certain distance from its subject for the most part. There are no direct to camera interviews, the life of Takuya is captured discretely and sensitively and with narration and conversations interspersed. From the spacious snow-filled streets and blue skies of Asahikawa to the urban sprawl and neon of down-town Tokyo with its small stores, salons, coin laundries, the contrast in environments is simply made with a few establishing shots. A lot of action takes place indoors as Takuya trains and fights but there are shots of the Sumida river and the aforementioned beach. What must have been hours of footage and audio have been cut into a film where each sequence is seamlessly linked and gives a sense of the world of sumo wrestling. There is one caveat.
The English-language version submitted for the review runs at 55 minutes and is a shortened version of the original which lasts for 105 minutes and contains more scene-setting such Takuya’s high school graduation, farewell party, training, travelling around Tokyo, seeing the people sponsoring him (his father’s warning at the start makes more sense and sound less cruel), and, more crucially, the ending which takes him on a radically different path from potential loser to someone on the verge of success and making his home-town proud.
By making Takuya’s story less prominent the film becomes much more about the sport. If you watch the longer version you see Takuya endure the hardship of sumo wrestling to forge a career for himself and make an impact on sumo wrestling. The documentary, as is, provides an interesting insight into the world of sumo and acts as a decent primer that will show why people step in the ring and spend their lives pushing their way towards victory.
A Normal Life: Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler is part of the Icarus Films Collection and is available for streaming through Docuseek2.