Remembering Chiyonofuji, my childhood hero (1955-2016)

Contrary to the perception of many westerners, sumo is a game of speed and strategy, in which wrestlers assess their opponent’s weaknesses — psychological as much as physical — and attempt to outmaneuver quickly in order to get the upper hand. All sumo wrestlers are incredibly strong, but many also bulk up in order to give themselves an advantage in the ring. Not so with Chiyonofuji (千代の富士), who began his career in the early 1970s and retired in 1991 — spanning all the years I spent in Japan as a child. Some of the first foreign wrestlers came to prominence during that same time, Takamiyama (from Hawaii) and Konishiki (a Hawaiian born Samoan), but I always identified more with the little guy in the black mawashi.

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The month before my family left for the States, I watched my last sumo tournament in Japan, during which Konishiki handily defeated Chiyonofuji by shoving him out of the ring with an “oshidashi.”

And it was hard not to root for the American-born Konishiki when he beat the already legendary Yokozuna during their first match in 1984.

But it was all the smart moves he had made during the previous 15 years that left such an impression on me, often employing his much-feared “uwatenage” (literally “upper hand throw”).

As an American kid attending a local Japanese school, I was different from my Japanese classmates in both obvious and less-obvious ways. Children all over the world can be incredibly cruel to anybody who’s different, and I was the frequent victim of schoolyard bullies. Chiyonofuji proved that being bigger and stronger did not always result in victory — outthinking your adversary is far more important.

The poetry of Thien Pham’s Sumo [Review]

As I wrote when reviewing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the graphic novel form enables the writer and artist to explore structure in ways that are more overt than the purely written word. In fact, I would argue that the techniques I’ve observed in great graphic novels — the way sections echo each other, how the artist alludes to things beyond the immediate page, and even the layout of the panels — shift graphic novels along the spectrum of literary genres away from “regular” novels and more toward poetry.

The structural similarity between graphic novels and poetry is, for me, most evident in Sumo, the first solo work by Thien Pham, published last year by First Second.

Sumo tells the story of Scott, an American who moves to Japan to pursue a career as a professional sumo wrestler after his girlfriend dumps him and his NFL dreams have been dashed.

But first, a few words about the greatest sport on earth.

I grew up following sumo in the era of Chiyonofuji and Konishiki. Back in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s, my classmates and I marked off a ring in the dirt of the schoolyard, stamped our feet, slapped our hands, and then slammed into each other until one of us fell over or stepped out of the ring. My hero was not, as you might expect, the American-born Konishiki, but Chiyonofuji — smart, and light on his feet. A chorus of 「ずるい!」 (“Not fair!”) would erupt when I’d side-step a much-larger boy and propel him stumbling from the ring with a shove between his shoulder blades. In my defense, I’d just mention Chiyonofuji’s most recent win against the likes of the monumental Konishiki and they would fall into grumbling acceptance.

I love sumo, from its ancient Shinto traditions to the way the modern sport has begun to open its doors to American, Russian, Bulgarian, and — most successfully of late — Mongolian wrestlers. It’s beautiful in ways that I can’t explain to someone who didn’t grow up watching it on NHK and mimicking the previous night’s bouts with your friends in a dirt ring you marked off yourself.

I don’t know anything about Sumo author Thien Pham beyond what appears on the book jacket — “Thien Pham is a comic book and visual artist based in the Bay Area. He is also a high school teacher.” Somehow, Pham manages in this small graphic novel — barely breaking a hundred pages — to encapsulate all that is wonderful about sumo.

Like the sport itself, Sumo is a minimalist work of art — as sumo is to ballet, Sumo is to poetry. Pham eschews both sound effects and thought bubbles. Everything you learn about Scott and his journey happens through action and dialogue. The beauty of some of that action lies in stillness and simplicity, with long sequences in Sumo showing nothing on the page but single-color illustrations.

Sumo is a story whose power lies in the convergence of three story threads — Scott as he prepares to leave for Japan; his early days there and friendship with the sumo stable master’s daughter; and his life as a wrestler rising through the ranks of professional sumo. Pham uses three separate colors to highlight each story, and intertwines them throughout the novel.

When Pham ties all three threads together at the end, the real emotional impact of Scott’s story becomes apparent. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but the hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck.

Such a deep effect is something I encounter rarely, even in the best poetry. I heartily recommend Thien Pham’s Sumo and eagerly anticipate his next work.

Naps

I didn’t take naps. I don’t think I’d ever taken naps.

Father had church business with church elders next door, and he left me to play with the kindergarteners. At first, they stared at me, even though I wore the same clothes they all wore — blue shorts, white shirt, and round red hat.

Sapporo, 1978

The oldest boy called me a gaijin and then laughed.

“I was born in Tokyo,” I corrected him, “I’m a Child of Edo, you Son of the Soil.” Some of the girls laughed.

I played on the swing. The toes of all the other children had scooped the dry sand from under the seats, leaving furrows beneath my feet. At the top of each arc, I could see our blue Subaru over the concrete wall, parked in the church driveway. I played hopscotch with the girls who were nice earlier. I let them win.

A bell rang and we all went inside to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” When we sang “The Elephant Song,” I waved my arm from my face just like everyone else. The others were learning to count, but I already knew all ten of them so I was bored.

A lady in glasses and a green dress brought rice balls wrapped in seaweed and we each took one. I loved the saltiness of the black seaweed and the tang of the pickled plum in the center of the rice. The taste reminded me of staying over at Aunt Kiwako’s.

The teacher and the lady in green took mats from a closet and laid them on the floor. The others lay down quietly, some on their sides, some on their backs, some on their stomachs with an arm cradling their face. I told them I didn’t take naps but they didn’t care. They told me to lie down quietly and close my eyes.

I watched the red and green swirls behind my eyelids. I practiced counting to ten. I thought about the day before, when mother and I went to the park to meet father after work. I jumped over ditches and didn’t fall in. My favorite slide snaked down the hill, and I raced mother, me sliding in my corduroys, she running in her plaid skirt. I always won. Father came swinging his black briefcase.

When I woke up, we were on the highway home. I opened my eyes and pretended I hadn’t been sleeping. Some old ladies were planting shoots of rice in a field that we passed. They were probably singing.

Father said, “Did you sleep well? You must have had a lot of fun with all your new friends.”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” I said. “I don’t take naps. And they weren’t my friends.”

Rain began to streak the windows. Father flicked a knob and the windshield wipers started playing sumo. The one on the left always won. I turned to watch the power lines dip down, and then up, and then down again.