Thunder Roll

defeat.jpg So I started writing this on Wednesday, a little follow-up of semi-coherent thought about sumo wrestling. So it's Friday now. Sue me. One of the really exciting things about watching last Friday's sumo match was getting to see Yokozuna Asashoryu compete. Now, I must be honest. I still can barely tell one sumo wrestler from another, and that's with pictures, name cards and a flow chart. The fact is, they still look like a bunch of really tough, really fat guys in uncomfortable underwear. Better them than me, I guess. But watching Asashoryu fight was amazing. He's not so big for a sumo wrestler, only 137 kg - 100 kg less than the other current yokozuna. (I'll get to how how know that wee bit o' trivia in a second. Hold on to your obi's, folks.) Asashoryu was swift, and clearly knew where to hit his oppponent. At one point, the other wrestler unbalanced the yokozuna. I remembered seeing the same move in an earlier match. Asashoryu simply adjusted his weight and in moments had taken down the lesser fighter with a leg sweep. A leg sweep, in sumo. Not a single other fighter that day bothered to even try it. I got to see some culo moves, but it also occured to me that even though I am seven months into my stay in Japan, I'm still having moments where I realize my jaw is firmly planted on my chest. It's embarassing, because then I have to pick the thing up and wipe off any drool. The point being, when a friend of mine called me and asked where I was, I got say, "I'm watching sumo live." That's just so cool. How many times can you say that to somebody? I'm just hanging out, watching sumo and drinking a beer. It's what makes living here indescribable at times. Right after I got off the phone with my friend, an elderly Japanese woman came up to me and handed me a program. Gratis, just put the thing in front of me with a big smile on her face and used a unique combination of broken Engrish, gestures and her excited tone of voice to indicate who was whom in the ring, and so on. I thanked her, and she went back to her friends. Amazing. The program, of course, is where one can find the height, weight and probably blood type of all the wrestlers. Learning how relatively dimunitive Asashoryu is in comparison to other wrestlers underscored his ability, but I couldn't help but wonder how accepted the Mongolian is by the Japanese. I imagine he gets the same reception as a black baseball player might in the early '60s, after the integration of the sport but before it had become widespread and accepted. He's not the first foreigner to be a yokozuna, and we all know how this cliche ends. At one point in one of the matches, one of the wrestlers slowly raised his fists off the ground. Apparently, this was a signal that he wasn't ready to fight, but the other fighter didn't see it and kept staring down his opponent until the crowd started tittering. This happened several times, with the crowd laughing louder and longer each time. It made sense to me. If you're going to be that big, and wear underwear in public that small, you might as well have fun doing it.

With great size comes great responsibility

To paraphrase a Primus song from when I was in high school, "The air was thick with fat calls, pun intended." Last Friday I went to Ryogokan, the veritable home of sumo wrestling. It's a sport that defies belief: men load themselves up as heavy as they can get, and then throw themselves at each other in a re-enactment of esoteric Shinto rites. Spectators get loaded on booze and yell themselves hoarse during the handful of seconds that each match lasts. My fascination with sumo comes from this one time at band camp... I'm kidding. I never went to band camp. But watching sumo on TV doesn't do the sport any justice. Although the men are humongous, bigger than any adjective can truly get across, they are fast and without a doubt, they are strong. The best of them, like Yokozuna Asashoryo, have made an art of moving their bulk around with skill and force. The air Friday morning was chewable, the humidity was so thick. Usually, when it gets like that the humidity sits on your soul like the fat kid that bullies everyone in fifth grade. Strangely, it was not oppressive. The thick air carried through the afternoon, dampening all sound. Even in the middle of the day, Tokyo was eerily quiet. At 2:30 in the afternoon, I walked up to the Kokugikan, the arena in east Tokyo where the sumo matches are held. Only the nosebleed seats and the front-row, look-there's-a-giant-about-to-fall-on-me seats were sold out. The nosebleeds run about 2000 yen; the front-row goes for more than 20 times that. I put down my 3600 yen for section C, just below the ceiling, and walked in. The building is essentially a shrine to sumo. Nothin' wrong with that. There are rows and rows of vendors selling sumo-related tchotchkes and souvenirs and paraphenalia. It's circular, and sort of fascinating to walk around the interior, looking at the trophy case (how very high school) and the paintings of various sumo champions. I chose a entry at random and sat down. The seats on the lower level are arrangements of four cushions with a small raised platform for tea. Quite traditional. At one point I got booted, and found another unoccupied seat to fill. Everyone assumes that gaijin are stupid and don't know which way is up in Japanese culture; I'm not above making the most of this in ways that aren't any different from how I would act in the U.S. A sumo match begins as the previous one ends. The new fighters are already on deck, as it were, ready to step up to the ring. An official not wearing a hakama at this point does one of two things. He either announces the winner of the last match, and the records of both winner and loser; or he announces the coming competitors and their records. Or he does both. Or neither. For all I know, he's screaming out his favorite recipe for quiche. The beauty of not understanding much Japanese is that everything that gets said in my vicinity is multiple choice. Anyway, the action - such as it is - begins with the fighters in "corners" on the same side of the ring, which is circular. The each lift one leg high and then slam it down. Rinse, lather, repeat - a common theme in sumo matches. They grab salt and chuck it into the ring, I imagine as a kind of purification process. Then they move to the center of the ring where they face each other and the leg lifting is repeated. After the judge shouts something, they repeat. And then they repeat again. The leg kicking is only done three times, but they often set into their ready position only to get up and get rice to throw, or pound on their muscles to keep them warm, or wipe the sweat off their bodies. (Remember, they're huge, this takes awhile.) Finally, they'll set and their legs will be in a slightly different position. Still hunched over worse than geriatric linebackers, their fists barely touch the ring, and then they lunge at each other. Worst place to be in a sumo match: in-bewteen the two wrestlers during the initial lunge. The sound of the wrestlers took me by surprise. When they do their high kicks at the beginning and their feet hit the ground, I was expecting something measurable on the Richter Scale - or at least in double-decibel digits. But it had that same muted quality of the ambient noise of Tokyo earlier in the day. Even when they hit each other, there wasn't much beyond grunting. It was a bit disappointing. Maybe it's my American heritage of "bigger better faster more," to which we can add "louder," but with such great size I expected more, I dunno, Hulk-ishness. Loud, mean, screaming. Of course, I knew that wasn't going to happen, but when the reality didn't match my pipe dreams of sumo it nevertheless tweaked me a bit. The slaps they deliver to each other are not deafening. This battle of titans does not have the pulse-quickening sound of a Godzilla flick. What is amazing is seeing the hits delivered. The throat, the side of the neck, the kidneys, the underside of the chin, all stunning in their potential lethalness. During the match, the main judge shouts something. It sounds a bit like "batta batta batta batta batta," but he never gets to the "swing" part. The match is determined by the first one to hit the ground or to leave the ring; the winner stays on to receive his acknowledgements before the next fight. At 4:30, the real matches begin. The top-ranked fighters, the A-list - these are the men that are the cornerstone and pinnacle of Japan's sumo obsession. They come out group by their division, either East or West, in a long procession where they spiral in on the ring, and then leave it the same way they came in. The only noticable different between these matches and the earlier ones is the ability of the fighters. The fights last longer, usually. The top wrestlers simply know how, when and where to throw their weight, and how to adjust for little mistakes and tactical errors. And, perhaps as a nod to the skill of the opponents, the bows that close each fight seemed to be just that much deeper.

The weekend in reverse

My weekend work schedule is more like the beginning of the week. My days off are Thursday and Friday; Saturday is my Monday. And as anybody with some sort of a steady job knows, Mondays suck. Usually, it's bad enough to say something like, "Mondays suck so hard, they suck necrotized donkey balls," without being too far from the mark. So Mondays suck, but my Mondays are Saturdays. I ended my weekend - Friday, right? - with a visit to the May Sumo Grand Championships. I kicked off the week with a preview of The Matrix: Reloaded. A few days ago, I ranted about the release dates of popular American movies in Japan. A few months ago, I rambled about the way that movie theaters operate in Japan. I have found two solutions. To the latter problem of assigned seats, it's very simple: avoid Warner Bros. MyCal Theaters, and those like them. No assigned seats, no problem. To the former problem of movie release dates, there is what we call here the preview screening. Simply put, it's a series of shows of the movie in question on several consecutive weekends before said movie's release. The Matrix: Reloaded doesn't come out here until June 7, but thanks to advance screenings, you can see it all day and all night long on the weekends of May 17, 24, and 31. And thanks to the wonder of advance tickets, where you buy movie tickets from a ticket outlet or a retailer like the video rental giant Tsutaya, you can pay 500 yen less than the day-of-the-showing price - enough to cover that beer in the theater. If planning ahead doesn't make your brain hurt, as it sometimes does to mine, advance tickets certainly make movie watching in Japan a more-than-reasonable adventure. I could give you an in-depth report on "Reloaded," I could give the inside scoop on the opinions of a Mr. Phil, who worked on the Aussie special effects crew for the movie. But let's face it: you're going to see this movie. Is it as good as the first? No. But it's still a fun ride, and although the story slows down way too much at times to make it a great film, it's still enjoyable and entertaining. So go see it already!

Rambling on the transcience of friendship

There is no moon tonight in the Tokyo sky. It's as black as the day sky was white - with pollution; light, fuzzy clouds; and haze of indeterminate origin. On the stereo is a rather perturbed Ani DiFranco, on the computer is a sad email morning the loss of a friend - courtesy the Raindogs mailing list. (Normally, I'd link to where you can find the list, but it's one of those things that if you want to find it, you will, and if you don't, it's probably not something you were hoping to come across anyway.) Anyway. This email, sent to me essentially anonomously, was a blunt, caring and tearful reminder of how short your time, my time, is on the planet. We're given 80 years if we're lucky; 86 and counting if you're my sainted grandmother - and let me tell you, you don't know from saints or mensches if you haven't met her. Let's not think about the unlucky, except fondly. A friend of the email's author had died. The author knew where her friend's faults lay, thought she knew where she could have been a better friend. She regretted not being a more unconditional friend. Don't we all? A more giving parent, a more forgiving child. Actions which our ego prevent us from achieving. This is all getting a bit existential, but a friend of mine has decided to quit working for Nova and head back to the States. On the one hand, it's not easy to admit that a year-long contract is not what you're up for. To some it might seem like failure - even if the only time it's a failure is when you're making the decision. Friends come and go in Japan, and it seems more pronounced in the teeny tiny gaijin community. Just when you begin to think that you click with someone, male or female, lover or acquaintance, they realize that the Floating Kingdom holds no more mysteries for them. Or worse, they out-stay their welcome, and they grow bitter and angry at a country whose every cultural difference from their own they take as a personal offense. Ridiculous. My friend is of the former. He has a good sense of humor, and unlike many English teachers in Japan, he genuinely cared about his students. Perhaps he cared too much. He has, to my unprofessional eye, a mild case of Turret's and/or Attention Deficit Disorder; it is his nature to show an emotional extreme, seemingly without warning. But he was, and is, a fun guy: always serious enough to remind you of the skull beneath the bones, always light enough to crack a joke at his own expense. He won't be leaving for another two weeks. Nevertheless, may the road before him, and all the others who seek their fortune away from home, be hard in all the best ways. If I'm lucky, we'll cross paths again.

Blog ’til it gets attention

Here's a little story about bloggers in Japan, from the gaijin rag Metropolis. Not a bad piece, although I'm sure oodles of peeps will post links to it.

Going in circles

So, this is the future of Tokyo. It's a big frickin' circle. On the one hand, the plan makes a lot of sense. Tokyo is built in circles, centered around the train stations. There is no concentrated downtown area, per se, although some areas lend themselves more to commercial structures versus residential ones. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Shinegawa, Tokyo, Hibiya, Ueno - they're more like mini-cities than neighborhoods. On the other hand, cities should be organic. This kind of planning I find to be really boring, and architecturally uninteresting in its implementation - usually. I can't think of any planned cities offhand that are appealing.

Suicidal interlude

Don't worry, this has nothing to do with Chuocide. Before I sat down at my laptop Unicron to get some writing done this evening, I realized the CD I had in the stereo was not going to set the tone I wanted. So out went Radiohead's Kid A and out came the three binders of CDs I brought with me to Japan. I stumbled across a burn I had made of Air's soundtrack to Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. Now, watching Ms. Coppola act I think we can all safely agree is about as enjoyable as extensive dental work done with a spork. The Virgin Suicides, however, was actually quite a good little directorial debut, and the soundtrack matches the dark humor and tone of the movie. It's not perky J-pop, thankfully, but there's enough energy in each song to pull you into the next and still maintain the moody, alternately creepy and haunting melodies. Good stuff. Oh, and http://www.biginjapan.org seems to have stopped functioning as a redirect. Frickin' computers...

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