Sumo Style

Filmmaker Q&A

Producer/director/cinematographer/editor Ferne Pearlstein and producer/writer/editor Robert Edwards discuss Akebono versus “The Beast,” the changing traditions of sumo and massive weight gain.

What do you hope to achieve with this film?

Our film is an attempt to look at the longstanding collision of cultures between Japan and the West, using sumo as a window on that relationship. While we never set out to make a sports film per se, we would also like to expose people to the beauty of sumo, which outside of Japan is often misunderstood as nothing more than two fat guys in diapers bumping bellies.

What do you think it would take for sumo to become a popular sport in America?

Pro sumo in Japan is inextricably tied up with centuries of Japanese tradition. That can't really be exported. Amateur sumo, which is less tradition-bound, could become popular in the States—as it is in parts of Europe—but some believe that it would need to be jazzed up and commercialized…. Americanized, you might say. The purists, on the other hand, argue that such efforts undermine what makes sumo sumo in the first place. This conflict is one of the main issues in our film, and cuts to the heart of the East/West culture clash. In other words, at what point has the sport been modified so much that it ceases to be sumo any more?

With the effects of globalization on Japan increasing, what part of Japanese culture or traditions do you hope goes unchanged?

Like all cultures, Japan has innumerable traditions that would be heartbreaking to lose. But culture is always changing. Sometimes the attempt to hang on to a given tradition in its pure, anachronistic form may be a lost cause, however noble the impulse.

Do you think the sumo champion of the world could defeat the boxing champion of the world in a fight?

Funny you should ask. One of the main characters in our film, Akebono—the first non-Japanese grand champion in the history of the sport—recently shocked the sumo world by coming out of retirement to compete in K1, a new kickboxing-like sport that's very popular in Japan. He fought his first K1 match on New Year's Eve in Tokyo, where it was a huge pay-per-view event. Unfortunately, he got beaten by a K1 fighter named Bob "The Beast" Sapp, a former pro-football player who is reportedly one of the hardest punchers in the sport. Many people in Japan wondered aloud why Akebono would risk sullying his reputation by venturing into an upstart sport like K1 where he's a total novice. But Akebono is clearly a guy who's not content to rest on his laurels, a guy who's constantly searching for new challenges, even at the risk of losing his hard-won reputation as one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of sumo.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Someone once said that "independent film" is a giant misnomer: no one is more dependent than a filmmaker working outside the mainstream commercial system. And that goes double for documentary. Like the old joke says, "What's the difference between a large pizza and a documentary filmmaker? A large pizza can feed a family of four."

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

In terms of television broadcast, public TV is the premier venue for a film like ours. The broadcast networks long ago abandoned documentary, and cable is often just as commercially driven as the Big Three.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

It's easier to list what we did get done. We worked other jobs to pay the bills (Bob as an editor, and now a screenwriter, and Ferne as a cinematographer), and we also got married. That, and making this film, pretty much occupied every waking hour.

If you weren’t filmmakers, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

Wishing we were filmmakers.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Chanko nabe—the hearty, protein-rich one-pot meal of chicken, vegetables, and noodles that sumo wrestlers eat. We each gained 250 pounds in the course of making this film.

{ Try making a traditional chanko nabe stew > }

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

There are a lot of them, but one in particular is Robert Altman. Even though he's not a documentary filmmaker (and even though his influence may not necessarily be detectable in SUMO EAST AND WEST), his observational style is one that both of us have always been very enamored of.


Home | The Film | The Wrestlers | About Sumo | Filmmaker Bios | Filmmaker Q&A | Learn More | Talkback | Site Credits

Get The Video Talkback Learn More Filmmaker Bios About Sumo The Wrestlers The Film SUMO EAST AND WEST