‘Sanctuary’ (2023) Review: Netflix’s Attempt At Presenting Sumo Wrestling World In Japanese Series

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The new Japanese series on Netflix, “Sanctuary,” is mostly a drama with elements of the sports genre strewn across eight episodes, each around an hour long. In the very words of the official introduction on Netflix’s page for the series, the show offers a serious look into the “underbelly of professional sumo.” It is the dramatic plot here that takes precedence over visual or narrative style, unlike many other sports drama films and shows, with a balance of humor and themes of harsh reality. Overall, “Sanctuary” is a good presentation of the world of sumo wrestling, a subject that is not much covered in global content, but it does tend to meander at times and lack the most convincing of motivations.

The plot is centered around a young man named Kiyoshi, hailing from the Fukuoka region of Japan. Kiyoshi’s memories of his childhood days are of happiness and warmth, protected by his parents, who ran a family sushi restaurant, in stark contrast to his life at present. Having to shut down the shop due to business failures, his father now works odd jobs as a traffic guard on construction sites, even at a senior age. Kiyoshi’s mother goes to extreme measures to earn money for herself by borrowing large sums recklessly and then getting intimate with men for her livelihood. Despite being trained in judo in his childhood days, Kiyoshi does not do much straight work either and instead puts his strength to the wrong use by fighting and looting people. Amidst such a difficult and demoralized life, Kiyoshi meets Ensho, a man he had known from his judo days and who had been trying to get Kiyoshi into sumo wrestling. Kiyoshi has no interest in the traditional wrestling form but is finally convinced by the supposedly large amounts of money he can earn in the sport. With a burning desire to only earn money, which would also bring him a lavish lifestyle and women, Kiyoshi leaves home to go to Tokyo and join the Ensho stable of sumo. But the young, brash man has to learn a lot before finally taking on the role of a sumo rikishi in the sacred dohyo under his wrestling name, Enno.

As promised, “Sanctuary” does truly delve into the depths of not just the wrestling part of the sport but also the various other aspects of it that are influenced by the money and powers of egoistic individuals. Sumo is an extremely popular sport in Japan that is also taken very seriously owing to its long traditional roots, which have existed for almost 1500 years. In the world of “Sanctuary,” former wrestlers with past grievances against each other now play the crucial role of trainer and master at stables, where new sumo wrestlers prepare to climb up the stages of the sport. This forms the origin of most of the drama in the series, as Kiyoshi has to face a number of such obstacles.

The wishes and desires of a young sumo wrestler, or rikishi, are well presented in work, with most worshiping the sport as a sacred practice. Their eyes are all on the title of “yokozuna”, or grand champion, having climbed up every level of sumo wrestling and being the very best. Although becoming a yokozuna is a comparatively rare feat, it does bring a rikishi enormous fame and respect. Our protagonist, Kiyoshi, or Enno, as he is mostly referred to by his wrestling name, is not interested in any of these deep-rooted traditions or hard-earned respect. He is here only to earn money and is very unlike the traditional wrestlers of the sport. Enno is always boastful inside the dohyo, riling up his opponents and the crowds in an apparently unprofessional manner and making use of a considerable dose of showmanship. None of this is allowed, or at least encouraged, in sumo wrestling, and “Sanctuary” presents a very interesting clash between these two sides of ideas.

The series also tries to get into the conflict between the traditional and the modern through the character of Kunishima, a female journalist given the task of reporting on the Ensho stable. The sport of sumo wrestling is not favorable towards women at all, as females are neither allowed to compete nor to enter the dohyo or ring. Kunishima is given a chance to be inside the stable only as a reporter but is immediately reminded of the barriers against women in the sport. The young woman, who has grown up in the USA and has very different ideas about the world, lashes out against this and tries to question the rule multiple times. Another up-and-coming wrestler, Ryuki, who is considered to be the next yokozuna, also agrees that certain traditional beliefs in the sport need to change for it to flourish in modern times. However, both Ryuki and Kunishima are forced to stop such questioning of traditions, and “Sanctuary” ultimately drops the issue altogether. The treatment of Kunishima’s character is arguably all the more unsatisfactory, as the woman’s habit of raising questions and making valid complaints is passed off as comic elements.

Along with the central character, Enno, the Japanese show also introduces other individuals who are given certain levels of importance. Among them are Enga, the harsh bully at Ensho stable; Ryuki, the rising star in the world of sumo; Enya, the skilled and hardened fighter struggling with injuries; and Shizuuchi, a mysterious wrestler with some dark past. Overall, the plot and characters in the series are mostly enjoyable, especially in scenes where the men at Ensho stable interact with each other, but the pacing and utilization of their individual stories could have still been better.

In terms of the visuals, “Sanctuary” makes use of conventional tricks of the sports drama genre, going up close during fights and focusing on the physicality of the wrestlers. The use of slow motion is considerably less here as compared to Western works of the genre and is seen only in moments of extreme significance. Despite providing entry into a world that is not much explored on-screen globally, “Sanctuary” ultimately does not have any remarkable aspects to it, be it in the visuals, the plot, or even the characters. It is not bad or shabby in any sense, but “Sanctuary” mostly deserves a watch only for an interest in the gritty sport that it highlights.


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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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