For a sport thousands of years old, there is a surprising lack of sumo representation on the big screen. While there a few documentary-style films out there, such as ones following the careers of Wakanohana and Kyokutaisei, sumo tends to be relegated to the background, as a quick way to establish the Japanese-ness of a setting or location. A prime example of this can be found in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, where a sumo match is one of the first sights James Bond takes after arriving in the land of the rising sun. In most cases, when sumo is mentioned, it is typically the butt of a joke or presented in such a fashion that would make any fan of the sport roll their eyes in disgust. While fully fleshed-out representations of sumo are few and far between, when they do hit the big screen they do so with tremendous effect. A prime example of such a film is the 1992 comedy Shiko Funjatta, also known by its English title Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t.
There will be spoilers throughout this review, so if you haven’t seen the film and would like to, I have included a link to it here. For English subtitles, be sure to turn captions on.
Shiko Funjatta is set at Kyoritsu University, where protagonist Shuhei Yamamoto has decided to take the easy route and accepting a job at his uncle’s company. To do so, however, Shuheu needs Professor Anayama, his thesis supervisor, to give him the credits he is missing so that he can graduate early. Anayama agrees, but only under the condition that Shuhei helps the sumo club by participating in an upcoming tournament. Shuhei initially objects, but the club’s manager, the beautiful media student Natsuko Kawamura, convinces him to join. Shuhei quickly learns that the deal he cut with Anayama was too good to be true. Not only is the sumo club in dire straights, but’s its sole member, Aoki Tomio, has never won a match despite delaying his graduation multiple years to keep the club afloat. When asked why he would put his life on hold for the failing club, Aoki admits that he is a diehard sumo fan and has a great deal of respect for Anayama, the club’s most decorated former member.
After helping Shuhei into a mawashi (which he mistakenly called a jockstrap much to Aoki’s annoyance) the two set out to recruit new members, as they will need at least two more to compete in the tournament. It is here that the pair meet the hapless Hosaku Tanaka, a timid man who is constantly dripping with sweat. Despite his shyness, Aoki believes Tanaka to be a natural rikishi due to his sturdy, shuffling walk. Aoki and Shuhei aren’t the only ones searching for new members. Manager Natsuko is also out scouting a puroresu show put on by the school’s wrestling team, where she sees Haruo, who is reluctantly being forced to wrestle under the guise of a cross-dressing character. Haruo joins the sumo team, where it is revealed that he is Shuhei’s younger brother. With four members, the Kyoritsu club can now officially compete.
The tournament goes disastrously for the team. Shuhei and Haruo are easily out skilled, while Tanaka’s fear makes him freeze up during the match. The most embarrassing loss goes to Aoki, who gets uncontrollable bouts of diarrhea under presser that force him to forfeit his bouts. As a result, the club loses all of its matches, those to the tournament champions from Hokuto University. At a dinner following the tournament, the club is berated by Kyoritsu alumni and former teammates of Professor Anayama for their shameful effort. Despite his promise to Anayama being fulfilled, a fiery Shuhei declares that the net time they compete, they will win the tournament. To help motivate the team, Natsuko uses her media connections to arrange for the local news station to do a story on the Kyoritsu Sumo club. To further improve their chances, Aoki and Shuhei try and convince Refrigerator, the captain of the football team, to join the sumo club but he turns them down. Instead, Refrigerator points them in the direction of a foreign exchange student from Britain named Smiley. a powerful rugby player, Smily initially turns them down and derides sumo, but he changes his mind and joins the club after Aoki promises him free board and food at the club’s dormitory, though with the condition that he be allowed to wear shorts under his mawashi.
As a result of their TV appearance, the Kyoritsu sumo club has gained significant popularity, especially amongst female students who come to practices to try and catch a glimpse of Haruo. One such observer is Masako Mamiya, who leaves the practice after catching the other girls mocking her for her weight. While sitting in the university’s courtyard, she has a chance encounter with Professor Anayama, and she begs him to let her join the club as a cook and manager. After several weeks of practice, Professor Anayama takes the entire sumo team on a vacation to his hometown for a summer training camp. Despite the reputation of Anayama’s “hell camp” the team is told to do nothing but relax during their stay, which they do with the exception of Tanaka who continues to train. It is during this trip that Haruo admits to Natsuko that he bears secret feelings for her, but she turns him down. After several more days of nothing but eating and sleeping, Anayama reveals that he only brought the club to camp to make them gain weight without them knowing, as more weight will help them win their matches. He also tells them that he has arranged a practice session with Hokuto University, who are holding their training camp nearby. This turns out to be another ruse by Anayama, for instead of Hokuto University, the local children’s sumo team arrives to practice with the club. Initially overwhelmed by the children, Anayama coaches each club member on how to concur their weaknesses, and for the first time, the Kyoritsu team achieves success on the dohyo.
This success is short-lived, however, as the Hokuto club crashes the training session, leading to a brawl that ultimately leaves the Kyoritsu team banged up and mawashi-less. Fresh off another humiliation, the Kyoritsu team trains harder than ever until the day of the tournament arrives. The news crew that first covered their training sessions has returned and provided colourful mawashi for the team to wear, and while the tournament organizers have no issue with this they do have a problem with Smiley wearing shorts with his mawashi. Smiley refuses to take the shorts off, preferring to forfeit his matches rather than go bare. Even without Smiley, the new and improved Kyoritsu team lead by Shuhei, Haruo, and Tanaka, advance up the bracket until the final against Hokuto University.
In their first match, Haruo loses and breaks his arm and a distraught Masako carries him off to get medical attention. After a quick loss by Tanaka, Kyoritsu is in a tough spot and must win the final three bouts. Inspired by the hard work of his teammates, Smiley decides to fight without his shorts rather than forfeit the entire tournament and gives his team their first win. The pressure is now on Aoki to keep Kyoritsu hopes alive, and like always he is hit by a bout of diarrhea. Just as the tachiai happens, Aoki suddenly clenches his entire body, and in doing so knocks his opponent out, tying the score 2-2. It all comes down to Shuhei, who in a climactic finish, withstands the overwhelming assault of the Hokuto captain and wins the tournament for Kyoritsu University.
While the tournament may be over, the Kyoritsu team has a chance to compete for a spot in the next division of university sumo. Knowing that their opponents will field at least seven men, and with Haruo out of commission, Professor Anayama decides not to try for the next division. This prompts Masako, who despite being a woman and thus barred from the tournament, begs him to let her compete in Haruo’s place. Anayama gives in and with Refrigerator joining the team as well, Kyoritsu takes on the imposing Daitoa University. In the opening match, Masako, now going under the name Mamiya and wearing heavy bandages over her chest, fights valiantly for Haruo but ultimately loses her match. Refrigerator also loses, but Smiley, Tanaka, and Aoki win hard-fought bouts to give their team the edge. Just like in the tournament finals, everything comes down to Shuhei. Nearly half the size of his opponent, Anayama tells Shuhei that under no circumstances is he to let go of his challenger’s mawashi. Several times, Shuhei comes a hair away from losing, but he refuses to give up and continues to fight on until he is pushed right to the tawara. In a stunning, last-ditch effort, Shuhei executes a perfect izori kimarite, completely flipping his opponent over his head to win it all for his Kyoritsu University.
Following their big win, Aoki finally graduates, Tanaka decides to join professional sumo, and Smiley returns to Britain. Haruo and Masako agree to meet up with him in London, as they have decided to move there together to finish their schooling. Rather than leave for his cushy office job, Shuhei decides to remain at Kyoritsu University for another year to keep the sumo club alive. As the film ends, he and manager Natsuko practice shiko on the dohyo, hinting at a budding relationship between the two.
While the concept of a team of misfits banding together to overcome adversity and win the championship is a well-worn plot device, Shiko Funjatta adds just enough charm and quirkiness to result in a heartwarming, enjoyable movie experience. As far as a representation of sumo on the big screen, Shiko Funjatta not only highlights some of the sports most important characteristics, such as determination, hard work, and fighting spirit but also teases out some of the more humorous aspects of sumo in a way that doesn’t belittle the sport. Shiko Funjatta went on to have tremendous critical success in Japan, winning several awards such as best picture and best director at the ’92 Japan Academy Awards. Given the film’s success, it is quite surprising that there have been so few genuine representations of sumo in media. I believe that the sumo world still has many stories to tell, and hopefully one day those stories will make it to the big screen.