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Director of film on women's sumo hopes to show the sport's diversity

A scene from "The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine," featuring Mai Kiryu as the main character Hanagiku, who goes through harsh training and becomes a full-fledged sumo wrestler. (Photo courtesy of the producers of "The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine")

TOKYO -- In the midst of controversy over the "no woman on the ring" policy maintained by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), a director of a new film on women's sumo has pointed out that professional tournaments held by the JSA are not the only form of the sport.

The film, "The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine," was released on July 7 and quickly became a hot topic. While debate is divided on whether women should be barred from entering the sumo ring, film director Takahisa Zeze commented, "I want people to know that there are various kinds of sumo by watching this film."

The movie is set around Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The protagonist is Hanagiku, who runs away from her husband's violence and joins a women's sumo group. She comes across youths from an anarchist group called the "Guillotine Association" and they share the same feelings toward a free and equal society.

Although the film is fictional, women's sumo was popular from the Edo period (1603-1868). According to Yoshie Kamei, the author of "Onnazumo Minzokushi (folklore of women's sumo)" and a researcher at Seijo University's Institute of Folklore Studies, who also wrote a column for a promotional pamphlet for the movie, in the Meiji period (1868-1912), women's sumo groups based in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan performed around the country, and as many as four groups existed in the heyday of women's sumo. The sport even made its way into the birthplace of modern-day sumo -- the Ekoin temple in the Tokyo district of Ryogoku in 1890. However, as the Taisho period (1912-1926) came to a close, authorities started to crack down on women's sumo for "corrupting public morals." Women's sumo died out after the end of World War II, and the last group dispersed in 1963.

Recently, controversy over the ban on women in sumo surfaced after a referee ordered women to leave the ring after they climbed up to help a collapsed mayor in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, in April. Even though the JSA later apologized, it still declined a request by Takarazuka Mayor Tomoko Nakagawa to make a speech from the ring, citing tradition. The JSA even requested that organizers of a children's sumo event ban girls from taking part because of "concerns for their safety."

However, according to Kamei, records show that in 1957, stablemaster Takasago, a former yokozuna, invited a former female ozeki onto the ring while on a tour around the city of Matsuyama. "Female sumo wrestlers went through tough training just like men," said Kamei. "She was invited onto the ring out of respect as a colleague."

Kamei added, "Every year, women from local areas take part in sumo at a temple in the district of Kagaminocho in Okayama Prefecture. Women are not banned from all sumo rings."

Director Zeze noted that "there are various types of sumo such as women's sumo and children's sumo." He continued, "The problem may be because we try to make professional sumo represent all aspects of the sport."

(Japanese original by Yoshiaki Kobayashi, Cultural News Department)

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