Eiji Sataka’s sports documentary Sumodo show a lot of interviews. But in fairness, those talking heads put these some wrestlers in perspective within their culture. One of the interview subjects make it seem like he enters the profession during his adult life, putting him on the certain percentage of wrestlers who do so. The rest start as children or teenagers and join the schools or ‘stables’ where they learn how to wrestle and maybe gain their own style. These interviews reveal enough of the physical toll of being a wrestler. The camera catches body parts changed because of their work.
This documentary also shows these wrestlers in the ring. It tabulates their wins and losses during a tournament that takes place during most Januarys. One of Sumodo‘s main subjects is Goeido, who belongs to one of the schools or stables that the movie focuses on. An injury makes his uphill climb to a higher rank of wrestler more difficult. It shows him starting out the year with zero wins and four losses. But this does what most sports films do in depicting these matches. It valorizes these athletes, which is difficult since they don’t fit Western athletic standards.
That valorization almost makes viewers classify this as one kind of sports documentary. That’s the kind that justifies the athletes’ sacrifices. Another takes a step back to show that these people have limits. I prefer the former than the latter, but it’s as if Sumodo swings from one ethos to the other. That swing also takes place when the movie abandons one stable and focuses on another. But despite that wild swing, the film manages to stick that landing with its other choices. Mainly, it chooses to humanize athletes who commit their lives to a sport Westerners still don’t understand.