The Art of Sumo



'Don’t Mess with the Yokozuna' by Andy Ristaino

In a current exhibition in San Francisco, local artists re-imagine the traditional Japanese sport of sumo in entirely untraditional ways, often pairing the iconic rotund athletes with quirky pop-culture images. A sumo wrestler battles a giant sharp-toothed monster as onlookers gasp below. Orange-haired clown wrestlers trade blows, with balloons bursting from their open mouths. One sumo wrestler gazes at a mini-Superman, another unsmiling fighter wears a My Melody on his lapel.

“Into the Ring, Sumo-style,” curated by artist MariNaomi, offers these fanciful visions of sumo — as well as some more realistic interpretations — through paintings, photography and drawings by 20 artists.

San Francisco-based artist MariNaomi is the author and illustrator of “Estrus Comics,” a collection of “mostly autobiographical stories,” and has been exhibiting her artwork since 2002. She has exhibited and done live painting in such venues as the de Young Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and 111 Minna.

The exhibition will be on view until Jan. 23 at SOMArts Cultural Center’s Bay Gallery. After the show closes, MariNaomi said she will display images on her Website,

The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed MariNaomi via e-mail.

Nichi Bei Weekly: Why did you choose sumo as a theme for an exhibition? Sumo wrestling doesn’t immediately strike me as a sport one might think of as “beautiful.” What about sumo intrigued you?

MariNaomi: Sumo combines nakedness, obesity, strength, fancy footwork and ancient rituals. Where else can you find something like that? Although the wrestlers themselves may not be appealing by Western Hollywood standards, I’ve never been a fan of those standards to begin with. I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder.


NBW: Is there any message or feeling that you hope to convey to viewers of this exhibition?

M: The pieces in this show are very eclectic and run the gamut of emotion: shame (Ryan Germick’s candid photograph of the crying sumo breaks my heart), love (Jesse Harold’s “Breakup I and II” shows two sumos cuddling and crying, their sobs almost audible), sport, fear and humor. Ideally, people will explore the exhibit and come out feeling like they’ve gone on a short journey. Maybe they’ll also stop and think about what an interesting and strange world we live in and often take for granted. That’s what the subject does for me, at least.

NBW: How did you choose the pieces for the show? What did you think of the various responses to the theme of sumo? Did anything in particular surprise you? Interest you?

M: There were some submissions from others, but the bulk of the artists in this show are people I approached, whose art I have admired for some time. Many of the pieces were created specifically for this show, and I was delighted with each one. The range of creativity really impressed me, and I was indeed surprised by how diverse the submissions were.

NBW: Your art features clown-themed ninja, geisha, and, of course, sumo wrestlers. In another interview, you said that these images come from “my experiences with my Japanese culture clashing with my American culture at times. It mostly has to do with my experiences in Japan and how the Western culture kind of desecrates everything there.” Can you elaborate on that? What have you experienced, and why do those experiences intrigue you as a theme for your art?

M: I love traveling, but my heart sinks every time I encounter a Pizza Hut or a Starbucks in a foreign land. It’s like looking at litter on an otherwise-beautiful ocean shore. Maybe my bitterness about Western “culture” desecrating my mother’s homeland has more to do with keeping memories precious than actual harm on their culture. Looking at it that way, it’s kind of a selfish point of view, isn’t it?

NBW: More generally, how does your mixed heritage inform your art?

M: That’s a hard question! I think everything about a person affects everything they do. So naturally, it’s unavoidable that my heritage be tied into my artwork. But no more so than other aspects of my life, such as my friends and enemies, my schooling and lack thereof, my romances, my failures and successes. I don’t want to be defined solely by my ethnicity, though it’s impossible not to be, at least a little. But honestly, my mixed heritage influences my taste in cuisine more than anything, at least superficially. Occasionally I throw in tastes of things I’ve seen on my travels, including things I’ve seen in Japan. I don’t feel any sense of ownership to the country, however. In Japan, I am just another tourist.

NBW: In your artist’s statement for this exhibition, you write about how much Japan changes each time you visit, incorporating more of American culture. How do those experiences affect you? Do you see any positive aspects to those changes?

M: I don’t know that it’s America’s culture that Japan is adopting, or if we’re all adopting a global culture. From a personal standpoint, it is sad when landmarks from your childhood disappear. On the other hand, I think flexibility within a culture is a very good, protective thing, and could, in theory, make things like prejudices and general bad behavior recede into the past. I’m not sure that’s what is happening per se, but it gives me hope. American society could benefit from being more flexible.

NBW: Japanese culture and cultural phenomena seem to be increasingly popular in the U.S. as well. How does that strike you, and do you feel differently seeing Japanese culture being embraced here, as opposed to seeing American culture affecting Japan?

M: I don’t think anyone is really embracing each other’s culture, I think there is more of a fetishizing of novelty items at work here. When I talk to the Japanese about American culture, it seems they have very little actual knowledge of how we think, or the reasons behind our actions. Vice versa, Americans are often mistaken by intentions of the Japanese. As I grow older, I understand more acutely exactly how dividing a cultural gap can be.

NBW: What do you think are the differences in the way an American sees sumo wrestling, as opposed to someone from Japan? And what about yourself, as someone who straddles both cultures?

M: I can’t honestly say how anyone sees the sport other than how I see it. That was partly why I was interested in putting together this show, to view something I love through other people’s eyes. Although my mother was born in Japan (in fact, currently, both of my parents live there as American citizens), I am as American as can be. Truthfully, the Japanese culture remains mysterious to me, despite the fact that I have more exposure to it than most people I know. Perhaps it’s because I have never been able to master the language, though I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

My love for sumo stems from one experience I had in the early 2000s. I had recently quit a job and had split from a devastating romance, and my heart was heavy. Hoping to lighten it a bit, I decided to spend some time with my folks in Gifu. My parents live across from beautiful Mt. Kinka. On one rainy day, I decided to take a walk to the foot of the mountain, where they had a little sitting area with tall windows, myriad ice cream machines, and a large-screen television. The TV was playing a sumo match that day, so I sat there, ate an ice cream bar, listened to the rain fall and watched the results of hundreds of years of tradition as giant, half-naked men quickly took each other out. It was a moment I will never forget: surreal, peaceful and hilarious.

NBW: How did you get started as an artist?

M: In 1997, inspired by Mary Fleener, Scott Russo and Roberta Gregory, I started drawing comics about my life, and self-published them in a zine I called Estrus (which I still do to this day — in fact, HarperCollins will be publishing a graphic novel of my stories in the next year or so, titled “Kiss & Tell”). In 2002, because of the comics, I was invited to be in an art show for LadyFest Bay Area. I hadn’t painted for years, but I remembered loving it, so I thought I should give it a chance. And once I got started, I couldn’t stop. It just so happened that I was in-between jobs at the time and not sure where I wanted to go with my career, and that made it the perfect time to pursue a life of art. If I’d had a 9-to-5 job at the time, I’m sure things would have turned out very differently. For one thing, I wouldn’t have had the time to create all that artwork or haul it around to all those different exhibits. It’s a lot of hard, time-consuming work to get yourself out there.


NBW: How would you describe the artistic community in the Bay Area, especially for Asian American artists?

M: San Francisco has a lot of little art communities, segregated by many aspects (age, social groups, art styles, success, etc.). One of the groups that has won me over is the Asian American Women Artists Association ( They are comprised of a diverse group of Asian ladies spanning many generations and styles. They are all very supportive and open doors for one another.

“Into the Ring, Sumo-style” is on display at the SOMArts Cultural Center, Bay Gallery, 934 Brannan St., San Francisco, through Jan. 23. The gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 2 to 7 p.m., Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, contact (415) 863-1414 or

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