Netflix’s sumo epic Sanctuary offers relief from the streaming networks’ insipid domestic fare

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Netflix’s sumo epic Sanctuary offers relief from the streaming networks’ insipid domestic fare

Like Japanese society itself, the Japan Sumo Association maintains a carefully ranked hierarchy, consisting of six divisions and hundreds of athletes — a level of organization unparalleled in boxing, kickboxing, or mixed martial arts. Also like Japanese society, a vast level of accepted corruption and violence lurks just under this placid surface, occasionally erupting into major scandals, which demand face-saving retirements and suspensions from key figures but leave the fundamentals of the sport undisturbed: athlete abuse, match-fixing, and the mistreatment of the foreigners who now dominate the upper ranks of the sport have all attracted media scrutiny in the past two decades.

The Netflix-produced series Sanctuary attempts the challenging task of bringing this intricate world of sumo wrestling to the international stage. Directed by Kan Eguchi (The Fable) and written by Tomoki Kanazawa (Sabakan), the show explores the ideological struggles inherent in sumo wrestling, most notably the balance between individual ambition and the maintenance of tradition in a venerable sport that occupies a prominent place in the country’s Shinto religious culture. Though laden with a cast of cliched characters, this central conflict nearly elevates the plot to the level of profound intensity found in grand Greek epics — something surprisingly common in Japanese popular media, where cartoon shows and role-playing games directed at teenagers and populated by walking stereotypes nevertheless occasionally manage to evoke the grandest human themes.

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Count Sanctuary among them. There is no good reason that a 37-year-old actor like Wataru Ichinose, playing juvenile delinquent and judo prodigy-turned-sumo wrestler Kiyoshi Oze, should be the least bit convincing in this starring role. Yet he is, using raw physicality and brooding charisma to animate the story of an angry rule-breaker who, unlike America’s great individualist boxing hero Rocky Balboa, is mercilessly beaten into shape by his superiors, succeeding only after he embraces the history and tradition of a sport that demands fealty.

The essence of sumo wrestling, a sport steeped in tradition and complexity yet often caricatured in the West as a comical collision between two morbidly obese men, is not easily captured in cinematic form. The series doesn’t shy away from showcasing the intense training and brutal discipline meted out in sumo stables. Scenes depicting intense sparring sessions, relentless physical punishment, headbutts from his stable master, and grueling training routines illustrate the harsh realities of the sport and the stringent discipline required to mold a successful wrestler.

Sanctuary utilizes violence not merely as a plot device but as a crucial element in illustrating the transformative journey of its protagonist, Kiyoshi Oze. Oze’s metamorphosis from a rebellious youth to a disciplined sumo loyalist is steeped in violence, both inflicted upon him and provoked by him. Yet this violence is not, at least as staged by the show’s creators, gratuitous. Instead, it serves to emphasize the grueling physical demands and the harsh realities of sumo wrestling. Simultaneously, the show at least superficially highlights the problematic aspects of violence in sumo wrestling, an issue that has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Instances of abuse and exploitation are woven into the narrative, shedding some light on the darker side of the sport. The story told here is that while some violence is excessive, other acts of violence, such as the headbutts delivered to Oze by former yokozuna and all-around good guy Ensho, can have a salutary, man-molding purpose.

Sanctuary, despite its intricate narrative and vivid portrayal of the violent masculine world of sumo wrestling, falls short in a few ways that are related. While it portrays the brutality, it romanticizes it. In real life, we find stories such as those of Satoshi Ishii, the judoka whose ear was severely damaged by his coach and who decided he would later gladly exchange his Japanese citizenship for Croatian citizenship, where he felt welcomed by his training partners.

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And Sanctuary also omits the significant contribution of foreign-born athletes to the sport — indeed to all Japanese sports, from baseball to professional wrestling, where foreigners occupy large swaths of the record books far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. That the series neglects to even mention foreign-born athletes, particularly those who have achieved the revered rank of yokozuna, is a startling oversight. Though Japan is a country where only 2.2% of the country’s 126 million residents are foreigners and “Japanese-only” signs are common at clubs, restaurants, and hotels wherever the past three decades, sumo wrestling’s highest rank has been dominated by foreign-born athletes. Akebono Tarō, Musashimaru Kōyō, Asashōryū Akinori, Hakuhō Shō, Harumafuji Kōhei, Kakuryū Rikisaburō, and the still-active Terunofuji Haruo all hail from outside Japan, yet their monumental achievements are glossed over in Sanctuary. In fact, Hakuhō, a Mongolian yokozuna, is arguably the greatest sumo in the sport’s long history — with the rest of that top 10 gradually filling with other Mongolians. This deletion of foreigners from the narrative seems to extend from a pattern of “sanitizing” prevalent in the series, where certain aspects of the sport are downplayed or ignored.

The omission of foreign athletes and the sanitizing of violence within the sport can be seen as attempts to preserve a certain image of sumo wrestling — namely, sumo as a durable national institution. Netflix presents a version of the sport that is palatable to the series’s primary Japanese audience yet also contributes to a narrative that is incomplete and somewhat misleading. In the end, a more nuanced depiction of sumo wrestling, one that acknowledges the sport’s global reach and addresses the darker aspects of its traditions, would offer a more authentic portrayal of its essence, which remains the transformative power of short bursts of violence. Perhaps Sanctuary, which is still far superior to Netflix’s insipid domestic fare with its focus group-mandated corporate diversity, will give safe harbor to such ambitious future efforts.

Oliver Bateman is a journalist, historian, and co-host of the What’s Left? podcast.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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