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Friday, March 24, 2006
Sumo stew tastes good on big screen
Sumo is Japan's national sport and, for centuries, only Japanese did it. But as sumo fans everywhere know, many foreigners not only do sumo now -- and some do it quite well -- but one of them, Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu, dominates the sport. Certain Japanese fans see this foreign invasion as a threat to sumo's traditional character; director Toshiki Sato sees it as the basis for a most unusual, and unusually moving, sports comedy.
In "Chanko," his subject -- a college sumo club on the verge of oblivion -- is the same as that of Masayuki Suo's 1992 comedy "Shiko Funjatta (Sumo Do, Sumo Don't)." In Suo's club, the only foreigner is a blond Brit who embodies negative gaijin stereotypes: He insists on wearing shorts under his mawashi (sumo belt) because a bare bum isn't "dignified," and refuses to practice more than two hours at a time because "overtime is not in my contract."
Sato's film might be similar in story arc, but is quite different in treatment, reflecting changes not only in sumo, but also in Japanese society in the past decade and a half. It may be on the idealistic side -- his rainbow-colored club is still the exception of exceptions -- but it also reflects a real trend: Sumo's growth today is driven mostly by gaijin wrestlers from Mongolia and Eastern Europe. If sumo stables opened their doors wide to these outlanders (which, for various reasons, they won't) pro sumo tournaments would quickly come to look like soccer's World Cup in the skin hues, if not the sizes, of the competitors.
Meanwhile, Japanese society is less inclined to view gaijin as talking pandas or, in the case of Suo's film, logic-chopping jerks. Local fans may toss zabuton (cushions) when a Japanese rikishi (sumo wrestler) dumps Asashoryu, but they do not feel, as previous generations might have, that a Bulgarian ozeki (second highest ranked wrestler) is surpassingly weird. He is just another bigger-than-average facet of Japan's internationalizing human landscape.
Sato's hero is Andy Cabrela (Ricaya Spooner), a Brazilian exchange student who begins the film as the only member of the Higashi Hiroshima University sumo club. Under the stern-but-benevolent eye of Wakabayashi (Takahiro Azuma, one of comedy duo Take 2), a former club member, he practices diligently and comes to master sumo better than many natives (certainly better than the students who brush by him when, wearing a mawashi and nothing else, he hands out recruiting flyers). He even speaks excellent Japanese and happens to be an all-round nice guy.
What he needs, though, are practice partners, but the only one he manages to recruit is Yuka Nakata (Atsuko Sudo), a small but determined first-year student who, as Cabrela notes to her displeasure, has legs that are perfect for sumo. She is later followed by a lanky, smiling black guy (David Yano) and an eternally quarreling Pakistani and American (Mounir El Arfaqui and Troy Presley), who are somehow inseparable. This is a set-up for comedy and Sato gets his share of laughs from this crew, but he also shows how they tough it out and become more than an embarrassment to their long-suffering supporters, including the club's adviser (Naomi Nishida) and fiery founder (Atsuro Watabe).
Usually, foreigners in Japanese films are like bits of beef floating in the miso soup -- they not only stand out but don't really belong. Sato, who was once dubbed one of the "four emperors" of the pink (soft porn) film, assumes, without a lot of fuss, that his foreign characters are made of the same human stuff as his Japanese ones. So even though his gaijin actors are hardly polished pros, they at least exist as recognizable, mostly sympathetic individuals on the screen, particularly Spooner as the club's affable rock, Cabrela.
The film's narrative focus, however, is Yuka, a loner who takes up a sport her female classmates regard as the outer limit of uncool. She is both gritty and grim, this girl who slugs it out with the guys in the sumo ring, giving no sign, through word or gesture, that she is anything but deadly serious. Japanese women often say they have to work three or 10 times harder than men to get anywhere in this male-dominated society, and Yuka, bruised, battered, but undaunted, is the extreme living proof. A beauty-contest winner turned actress, Sudo ("Nagori Yuki," 2002) throws herself into this demanding role with a thoroughness that verges on the masochistic, but she also gives the film its climatic emotional punch -- or rather push.
Yuka and her odd-squad teammates show us that sumo is less the property of one sex or people than a sport and a spirit that anyone with the right sort of attitude can understand, even if they say "gottsuan desu" with a Brazilian accent. The title says it all: Chanko stew has been the mainstay of the sumo diet forever, but it is also a mix of ingredients, some traditional and, these days, some not. And you don't have to carry a Japanese passport to enjoy it.