Netflix Hit Drama ‘Sanctuary’ Offers Glimpse into Sumo World

A Netflix original series, Sanctuary
In this scene from “Sanctuary,” Enno is seen behaving in a manner that disrespects sumo traditions.

“Sanctuary,” a Netflix original drama series, follows the growth of a rowdy youth-turned-sumo wrestler who rises to prominence in the world of traditional Japanese wrestling.

The eight-episode drama is an underdog story featuring characters with distinctive personalities, providing a realistic portrayal of the sumo world.

“This is a drama in which the actors use their physicality to convey their stories; it’s a tale that’s never been told before,” said series director Kan Eguchi.

The story pivots around Enno (played by Wataru Ichinose) who grew up amid poverty and violence. Enno is scouted by sumo stablemaster Ensho (Pierre Taki) and joins the sumo world purely for financial gain.

Initially, Enno has no respect for sumo traditions, cursing in the ring and constantly tussling with his stablemate seniors. Later, however, he encounters a major life hurdle and falls into despair, suffering both mental and physical trauma.

Attention to detail

The screenplay for “Sanctuary” was written by Tomoki Kanazawa, who worked with Eguchi on the movie “Gachiboshi” (“Riding Uphill”), in which a middle-aged man tries to turn his life around through professional cycling. Netflix was impressed with the movie, resulting in the creation of the sumo series.

The stable-filmed training sessions and fights seen in “Sanctuary” ring look authentic, thanks to the about two years of training undertaken by the audition-selected actors, who subsequently trained in the ways of professional sumo.

“Entertainment is a business, but it’s half art, too,” Eguchi opined. “Both elements are necessary to achieve greatness. I wanted everything to be realistic. That’s why I took great care over the details for each role, right down to most minor parts. That’s one of the reasons why I pushed the actors to build up their bodies.”

A Netflix original series, Sanctuary
Actor Wataru Ichinose, right, who built up his body to play the role of a sumo wrestler, is seen with cast member Shota Sometani.

The initial and middle parts of the drama deal with Enno’s struggles in the sumo world, focusing particularly on the intrigue and greed rife in the bleak stable atmosphere.

In the latter part of the series, however, the protagonist builds his strength and grows along with his colleagues — a common trope in fight-based sports dramas — before experiencing a particularly low point in life that leads into the uplifting and cathartic finale.

Ichinose, a former martial artist, makes for a hugely believable Enno — a “bad guy” who nevertheless retains a sense of purity.

After suffering multiple setbacks, Enno — replete with a sumo-honed physique — shows his respect for the sport, while laying bare its underlying Shinto rituals.

‘Mental armor’

Prior to filming, Eguchi spent a lot of time with Ichinose, giving him one-on-one acting lessons. “[Ichinose is] serious and kindhearted, and his good nature jumps out at you,” said the director, who demanded Ichinose don “mental armor” and forbade him from interacting with his costars and staff members.

Taki’s performance as stablemaster Ensho is another series standout, leading his charge, Enno, in a strict but warm fashion. Former sumo wrestler Kensho Sawada’s performance as Enya — Enno’s older stablemate — also has been widely praised.

Other key presences in the drama include strong rival Shizuuchi (former sumo wrestler Hiroki Sumi) and deliberately dislikable senior stablemate Enga (Kazuya Yoshie).

The high-quality cinematography surrounding the matches is a further highlight, capturing the wrestlers’ heaving bodies and cascading sweat in super-slow motion, while allowing viewers to imagine the matches from the wrestlers’ perspective.

“Of course, it’s far more interesting to watch sumo wrestling in the flesh,” Eguchi said. “But, because I was filming for entertainment purposes, I was determined to produce the kind of imagery that can’t be seen in run-of-the-mill live broadcasts.”

Scenes depicting match-starting face-offs — including a scene in which Enno curses — were shot from angles familiar to viewers of NHK’s live sumo broadcasts, helping create a quasi-documentary atmosphere.

In addition to its popularity in Japan, “Sanctuary” has achieved top-10 status in more than 50 countries and regions around the world. “It transpires that many people are looking for an exciting story,” Eguchi noted.

“Viewers warmed to the drama’s simple action-drama plot, despite its non-manga-based storyline and average-looking protagonist,” he added. “There’s something about a flesh-and-blood presence that can’t be matched by animation or computer graphics.”

The drama’s stellar supporting cast includes Shiori Kutsuna as Kunishima, a reporter assigned to cover sumo after being demoted, and Shota Sometani as Shimizu, a stablemate who gives Enno his full backing.