A young woman wrestles with prejudice in this short, sweet documentary.
“Your opponent is almost two metres tall so be careful, okay?”
Sumo is one of Japan’s most recognisable cultural exports, and has been around in some form for almost 1500 years. The unique form of wrestling is as much a part of Japan’s identity as Shinto or Mount Fuji but, like so many traditions, has often failed to keep up with the times. The often conservative Japanese way of life has meant that sumo wrestling has not moved in as gender-friendly a direction as some would hope – not least of all Hiyori Kon.
Little Miss Sumo is a Netflix original documentary that follows Hiyori as she trains, visits her home town and eventually competes in a tournament. Throughout, she narrates (interspersed occasionally by others, such as her mentor) what she likes about the sport, what she did to achieve what she has, and her misgivings about the lack of progressive thinking within those circles. Content-wise, there’s a lot to cover and in the same amount of time as a standard episode of a TV comedy, director Matt Kay does quite a bit, but he could do so much more.
If Netflix was able to give a full hour to something as frankly horrible as Enter the Anime (which doesn’t technically fit my criteria for the site but was such an atrocity that it’s too tempting not to talk about), it kind of sucks that more time wasn’t given to Hiyori and her story. There’s a lot more we could have done, and each of the film’s roughly 6-minute pieces could have been expanded into their own 20-minute episodes.
As it is, it plays out more like a teaser for a larger film, one that delves deeper into the traditions of the sport, history of female sumo wrestling and what the future might hold for one of Japan’s proudest pastimes. Hiyori herself is a really interesting person, and her dedication to a sport that seems to want nothing to do with her makes for compelling watching, and I’d love to see a longer-form story that goes deeper into her life. The fact that I want more is a testament to both the filmmaking and storytelling here, but all of it passes by so quickly that we’re not given enough time to invest ourselves and for an entire picture to be painted. It doesn’t help that certain parts of the story are painted with this big, expository brush that does nothing to enrich the story.
It does end strongly, though, with the final few minutes dedicated to a David and Goliath battle at the finals of the female sumo championships in Taiwan. The scenes of the competition do more than the rest of the film does in showing us who Hiyori is, the journey she’s been on to get here, and the stakes she’s playing for when she comes face to face with the Russian champion in the competition’s finals. Little Miss Sumo, by itself, is an appetiser but it’s still a fairly satisfying one, even if we don’t see more of Hiyori’s life. But on the plus side, its short runtime might convince more people to watch it, and it’s worth it for what it is – even if it does put the little in its own title.
Verdict: It’s never as deep or as engaging as it wants to be, but Little Miss Sumo has plenty of potential to make it big.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Little Miss Sumo (2019)
Director: Matt Kay