Feb 1, 2018


We got cable tv when we moved to Portland because it was the only way to get JapanTV, and it also let us bundle our cell phones and internet into one package. We have basic cable which is say we get all the home shopping networks, plus NBC, and a couple of HBO channels tossed in. Saori is more of a TV person than I am, so she usually tunes into what's on JapanTV. JapanTV is sort of like if you condensed PBS, Discovery, and NBC into one channel and gave each of them particular time slots, broadcast to Japan. An upshot of that is right around my bedtime, there's often sumo wrestling tournaments.

There's something about it which seems to fit the late night. Before I moved to Portland, I never gave sumo much thought. I think you have to know a little about Japanese culture to even be able to crack open the door to appreciating sumo wrestling. I used to see wrestlers posing and posturing and throwing salt? sand? sugar? and it looks like they're going to face off and wrestle, but they don't. And it's ages until they throw themselves at each other and someone gets dramatically (but more often, not so dramatically) pushed out of the ring. It reminded me of golf, which I find to be so fantastically boring I used to use is a sleep aid- watching a golf tournament in my mind.

There are some similarities actually between golf and sumo wrestling, which goes back to why I was watching it in the first place. There is a lot of ritual, a lot of contemplative expectation followed by a crisp action, and then more thoughtful evaluation. The beat of golf and sumo is slow, slow, slow. I watched sumo to get my mind into the slow beat before bedtime.

But the odd thing was that more I watched Sumo, the less boring it became- I became fascinated by the striking contrast I was watching.

No question, one thing I enjoy about Sumo is the contest- a struggle of two really powerful dudes fighting against each other with a mixture of strategy and strength. If a rhino fought an elephant, who would change the channel? Beyond those short fights, mostly under 30 seconds, there is a lot more.

Architecturally, for these competitions, the sumo ring is a compacted mound of dirt in the middle of a vast, grungy functionalist arena under a meticulously constructed wooden canopy of a Shinto shrine decorated with braided silk ropes and calligraphy banners, and you would know that this whole roof assembly was created by the top traditional artisans in Japan.

The clothes people wear are equally contrasting- as an event appealing to a particular age and income group, the crowd dresses more formally, business attire when it isn't more traditional Japanese robes. Everyone involved with the wrestling has their own special uniform dictated by hundreds of years of tradition, from the guy who hands the water ladle to the wrestlers to the main referee, who is magnificently attired and accessorized to the point that he looks like a work of exquisite origami. The contrast in form and color and shape then, of this walking origami with the fleshy sculpted blobs of near-nudity of the wrestlers who join him on the wrestling mound. Crisp, mindbogglingly expensive silk and tailoring, concealing the human form within angular folds of fabric, juxtaposed with an extreme of human fleshiness. The extreme of artifice and the extreme of nature.

These three figures form immediate compositions which can be very formal, nearly symmetrical as the two wrestlers go through their rituals on either side of the referee, to a point of pure symmetry, which happens to be the breaking point: both wrestlers must touch their fists to the ground before they can attack each other. It lasts a fraction of a moment: often one will plant fists, and the other will with the lightest dip touch the ground before exploding at each other. As the wrestlers struggle around the ring, the referee lightly dances around them, keeping an eye on the rope ring and changing his angles.

What I also find fascinating is the culture of the athletes. Pro-athlete in America usually means "excess." There is a reason we use the word "baller." You struggle from a young age to make it to the big leagues because that's where the money is (and there's money too in wrestling, no mistake) and for the lifestyle. For the VIP tables at the club. For the second house. For the cars. Sumo wrestlers have to adopt a very severe lifestyle which sounds not unlike a religious novice. Communal living, early rising, service to the organization and serving senior wrestlers, severe prohibitions on what is and what is not permitted to be worn. Sumo wrestlers aren't allowed to drive and most of them can only go in public wearing special basic cotton robes. And foreigners come to Japan, learn Japanese, adopt Japanese custom and manners precisely to take part in the Sumo wrestling culture. To my eyes, there is little idiosyncracy in Sumo- you don't bring your "style" or national "way of doing things" to the sport. Even the way the hair is worn is closely prescribed: there is only one way allowed (per rank).

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