Sumo is perhaps the most quintessentially Japanese of all sports. Centuries old, it is known around the world for its spectacle, tradition, and ceremony. Yet beneath the fanfare of professional competition is a side ofto sumo that even many Japanese are unaware of - the world of female sumo wrestling.
Although women have competed for decades, their participation in sumo has recently been thrust into the spotlight with the approach of the Tokyo Olympic gamess in 2020. Many want sumo recognised as an official sport, but the Olympic selection criteria stipulates that every sport must have equal gender representation. This clashes with the strict religious traditions of sumo that forbid women to even set foot in the professional dohyō wrestling ring, and excludes them from professional competition. So sumo is facing a choice that has long echoed across Japanese culture at large: embrace change and take a place on the world stage, or hold tight to tradition and preserve a revered way of life?
Against this backdrop, ‘Lady Sumo’ is a documentary film and photography project about two female sumo wrestlers in the lead- up to the amateur-level National Championship in Osaka, 2016. Inaba (23) is the star of her university team, and an archetypal sumo wrestler - powerful, explosive, and weighing in at over 90kgs. She is one of the favourites for the title. Shiina (38), couldn’t be more different. Lightly built at 50kg, she competes in the featherweight division (unlike for men, female sumo has different weight divisions), and after 20 years of wrestling is competing at the top of her career? in her final championship.
The filmdocumentary follows Inaba and Shiina as they train and compete in the tournament. We also view their lives away from the ring, as they balance the demands of elite competition with the everyday life of work, study, and personal relationships / social life?. The film features in-depth interviews with the two wrestlers, as well as teammates, coaches, and the head of the national? female sumo association. They discuss their love of sumo, and illuminate the complexities of the deceptively simple sport. They also explore the role of women in sumo, and the changing status of women in Japanese culture more broadly. In a society of relatively rigid gender norms and expectations, how does it feel to be running against the grain - not only with your passion, but with your body?
Overall, the film will offers a glimpse into an unexpected unknows/unexplored/hidden and fascinating world. Combining the action and spectacle of competitive sumo wrestling with unique perspectives into what it means to be a woman in modern Japan, ‘Lady Sumo’ promises to be a thoroughly engaging documentary experience.
When completed, we estimate the film will be approx. 15 minutes long, although this is flexible depending on resources or publication scope. Running parallel to the film is a photographic essay containing over 20 images, covering the same participants and events.
Ideally both the film and photographs can be presented by the same publication across multiple platforms. For example, the photographs printed in a hardcopy magazine and the film shown online. They could also be published as a single online multimedia piece, potentially with an accompanying text by a third-party writer.
To date, only the trailer of the film is complete. Additional funding would be required for interview translation, music licensing, and editing of the full film. A further 3-6 weeks would be needed for completion. Potential collaborators are already in place, and the majority of the post-production work would be completed by Jim Elson.
The photo essay is already complete.
We’d love to tell you more about the project, and to hear your ideas about how we can bring it to the world.
(contact email here)
Jim and Ryu.