Sumo Do, Sumo Don't

International Premiere | Out Of Competition | PART 2 - A/B side VIBES. Greatest Hits from ‘80s & ‘90s | acknowledgement to SUO Masayuki

 

Japan’s national sport, with a history going back thousands of years, sumo hasn’t been the subject of many Japanese movies, mostly because not many actors can convincingly play professional sumo wrestlers and hardly any professional sumo wrestlers can act.

Suo Masayuki cleverly finessed this problem by setting his 1992 sumo comedy Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, in a woeful college sumo club at the bottom of the bottom division and, when the story begins, with one member, 8th year student Aoki Tomio (Takenaka Naoto), who has yet to win a match in years of trying. So it makes sense that Tomio is pathetically weak and shrimpy.

The club is about to go out of existence since it needs more members to compete in tournaments, when the club coach, the laconic Professor Anayama, tells a perpetual noshow student, Yamamoto Shuhei (Motoki Masahiro), that he won’t be able to graduate unless he puts on a mawashi (sumo belt). Shuhei reluctantly agrees, thinking that he will have to put in only one appearance in the sumo ring. He’s wrong, but stays with the club since he has a crush on the charming manager, Kawamura Natsuko (Shimizu Misa), who is one of Anayama’s graduate students.

The club soon recruits two more fledgling wrestlers: Shuhei’s good-looking but spindly brother Haruo (Takarai) and the wimpy, pudgy Tanaka Hosaku (Taguchi Hiromasa).

Anayama, ever a realist, expects the team to win zero bouts in its first tournament. When that comes to pass, the club alumni, who take sumo seriously, are not happy. One angrily calls for the club to disband to avoid further disgrace. Clearly, they have nowhere to go but up.

And go up they do: Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a pioneering Japanese zero-to-hero sports comedy. But Suo, who wrote the original script, is mainly after laughs and gets them in large quantities, from start to finish. His biggest supplier is Takenaka Naoto as the hapless Aoki Tomio: A gifted physical comic with a genius sense of the absurd, Takenaka as Tomio loses in hilariously humiliating ways, including bouts of the runs when he gets nervous, which is often.

Though Tomio and his teammates are born losers, who can’t even beat members of a kids’ sumo club they encounter at a summer training session, the film gives them a baseline likeability. Even George Smiley (Robert Hoffman), a muscular British rugby player who joins the club but embodies every negative Japanese stereotype about Westerners – he won’t practice without a contract and won’t fight in the ring unless he can wear tights under his sumo belt – comes through for his teammates in the end and gets a warm send-off when he boards the plane back to Britain.

Also, while having fun with the sport and its participants, the film is also in love with sumo and respectful of its traditions, with the big exception being the antiquated rule that women are not allowed in the sumo ring. A plus-sized female club assistant manager (Umemoto Ritsuko) sneaks into a tournament disguised as a guy to replace an injured wrestler – and gives it her heartwarming all, though she goes down in defeat.

And Natsuko finally tries sumo’s distinctive shiko stamping exercise – and gives the film its Japanese title: Shiko Funjatta (literally, “I stamped shiko”).

A lot has changed in sumo since the film’s 1992 release – non-Japanese professional wrestlers are much more common and winning many more tournaments than three decades ago. But Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is still the best sumo movie and one of the best Japanese sports comedies ever.

Mark Schilling
Film director: SUO Masayuki
Year: 1992
Running time: 103'
Country: Japan
27/04 - 3:45 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
27-04-2024 15:45 27-04-2024 17:28Europe/Rome Sumo Do, Sumo Don't Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine cec@cecudine.org

Photogallery