Television Review: “Sanctuary” — A Double Dose of Toxic Masculinity

By Sarah Osman

Netflix’s dumb series Sanctuary serves up a cartoon view of sumo wrestling.

A scene from Netflix’s Sanctuary. A cartoon view of toxic masculinity.

When I first heard about the new Netflix series Sanctuary, I envisioned a sumo version of Rocky enlivened by a seedy Asian underbelly. Sadly, the show is a replay of Rocky, but of the later, forgettable sequels. Without multidimensional characters and critical edge, this tiresome drama devolves into a wan look at toxic masculinity.

The series follows Kiyoshi Oze, aka Ennō, a kid off the streets, who reluctantly decides to join the world of professional sumo wrestling. He needs to make some money. That’s not a bad premise — but Kiyoshi is all motivation and no personality. He grew up with a happy family who at one point owned a sushi restaurant. (We know they were happy because they all lovingly gathered around the radio to listen to the latest sumo match.) The sushi restaurant failed and Kiyoshi’s mother became an alcoholic and possibly a prostitute. All we see her do is either shriek at (or about) her husband and sleep with men. Why did she transform from a caring mother to a harpy? Who knows and the writers don’t care. She’s the first of the multiple failed female characters in Sanctuary (we’ll get to that in a minute). Kiyoshi is understandably angry but, beyond seeing him briefly as a child in flashbacks, it’s hard to build up much sympathy for the malcontent. He’s usually rude and doesn’t respect the traditions of the sport. He won’t even help his fellow sumos with essential tasks like putting together the team newsletter. He’s painted as an antihero, but the hero part is pretty well missing.

Meanwhile, Asuka Kunishima, problematic female character #2, is a reporter who grew up in the United States. She’s angry because she has been fired from the political beat. She uncovered meaty scandals but had an affair with her boss. Now she has been sent to work on a story about sumo wrestling. She disdains sumo and its culture immediately, dismissing it as sexist because women aren’t allowed in the dohyō, the space where wrestling bouts occur. Is this true? I’m not sure, but in the series Asuka assumes that just reporting on this exclusion will shock all of Japan. (News flash: the characters in Sanctuary could care less.) Want more feminist caricature? Asuka dismisses her kind, older coworker just because he affectionately calls her “kiddo.” Again, it’s hard to feel much for a figure who is supposed to be “progressive” but is mostly insulting and petty. Want more casual misogyny? Kiyoshi also dates Nanami, a lounge girl in a hostess club who, after two dates, robs him. Nanami’s most outstanding characteristic is her large breasts, which the camera focuses on for so long and so often I would bet the operator was a 12-year-old boy.

The women are demeaned, but the men in the series don’t fare much better. The other sumo wrestlers can be summed up in a few stereotypical words: the weak one, the scary one who’s actually not scary, the dedicated one, and the one who’s under pressure to be the poster child for sumo wrestling. What drives these characters and their families? What do they want? According to Sanctuary, the men desire women and wrestling. End of story. Bowel movements are also big: one sumo wrestler takes massive poops, which is good for an adolescent laugh.

It is hard to tell if Sanctuary accurately portrays sumo wrestling. There are multiple fight scenes where the characters bite, punch, and throw sand at each other. My guess is that it’s not true to life. Sports journalist and sumo aficionado John Gunning has written that the series does not reflect reality, if only because of the sheer disrespect the sumo wrestlers show to each other. He compares the knuckle-dragging goings-on to a Quentin Tarantino film, which is a far too generous comparison.

If you would actually like a reality-based look at sumo wrestling, may I suggest the fine film Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t, which was also rebooted into a series on Disney Plus.

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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  1. Zac on May 15, 2023 at 12:08 am

    John Gunning is the joke of the sumo community, and should not be taken seriously. It makes sense that he’s the only source you used, with how lazy and surface-level this review is.

    • Ayden on May 15, 2023 at 9:03 pm

      Obvious pandering a very surface level do better

  2. frank on May 25, 2023 at 11:24 pm

    Why the film appealed to me is that it well portrayed the sacrifice and pain a modern athlete has to invest in order to be competitive. Their pain was my pain. In the end an athlete has to invest.. in order to achieve. When the moment of truth arrives they have to base their determination on the fact that they have earned it.

  3. ian on May 30, 2023 at 10:04 pm

    Sanctuary was an excellent series.

    This review is as dumb as it suggests Sanctuary is.

  4. finn on June 1, 2023 at 10:49 am

    Obvious pandering and cherry picking examples for you pathetic arguments. Did you even watch past the first few episodes? If you weren’t so shortsighted maybe you could see that the show depicts men no worse than women. If this is honestly how you feel and not some forced agenda you should genuinely consider never writing again.

  5. BenryC on June 3, 2023 at 9:55 am

    I disagree with this review. The show paints pretty much ALL of the characters as deeply flawed and is about the protagonist and deuteragonist’s struggle to adjust in a world they clearly don’t belong in. The world of Sumo is rigidly traditional and masculine (in many ways toxic), and thus sets up the primary tension with the principal characters. The characters are set up as archetypes to allow a baseline establishment of their personalities, which then allow them to grow. The “poop guy” is first presented as juvenile and arrogant, but is shown to overcome this as he is repeatedly humbled and then inspired by Enno’s eventual transformation. How did you miss this?

    The world is seen through Enno’s perspective and relies heavily on the things HE cares about and prioritizes. Is it any surprise that a maladjusted young man focuses on excess and ogling a busty girlfriend? As with the other characters and their conflicts, he too eventually grows and matures with his focus and composure. That’s supposed to be the major arc of the series.

    His mother became an awful person because her husband rendered the family penniless through a yet-to-be explored financial mishap with the shop. The woman clearly felt betrayed and dealt with it in the least healthy way possible. I love that you pointedly knock the series for its brutal misogyny but IMMEDIATELY imply Kiyoshi’s mother became a prostitute when the most the show indicates is that she sleeps around to escape her grief. Once she realizes what Enno is doing, her explosive confrontation with her is supposed to show that she does still deeply care, but is so buried under layers of toxic self-medication that she can only express it in a horribly abusive way. Is it really no surprise that Enno turned out to be a generally shitty person when his broken father and abusive, neglectful mother basically failed to raise him? Notice we only see flashbacks of him as a YOUNG child. Clearly the financial disaster happened early in his life.

    Kunishima comes from a Western education that clearly put her at odds with the antiquated way that Sumo treats women and has immediate confrontation with shitty people and she refuses to bend to their traditions. As the show continues she becomes fascinated with Enno because she sees a kindred spirit in him: someone in a world that they clearly disdain and clearly doesn’t want them as they are. Through his journey she begins to appreciate the sport and, while not fully respecting its regressive traditions, at least empathizes with the athletes. Yet this is somehow a bad thing? Do you not understand conflict and character growth? Complaining that the characters are flat yet blatantly ignoring the clear growth that many of them show paints a really bad picture of you.

    I understand not liking the show, but you clearly didn’t do your homework for this review and, as soon as you decided you didn’t like it, allowed your critical eye to waiver. I went into the show hoping to get an unflinching, high-production look into the life of Sumo, instead I got a drama centered around a protagonist whose antics almost made me give up after two episodes, but I continued and discovered a show that did a fantastic job creating a nuanced and detailed look into both the world of Sumo’s less-than-honorable underbelly (look up the match fixing scandal and a broken person finding redemption in a world that didn’t want him.

    • WilliamN on June 15, 2023 at 7:37 pm

      This is an excellent counter to this review. I came here to raise these exact points, but you already put it perfectly. Watching this show with at least some understanding of Japanese culture goes a long way.

  6. James Arseno on June 5, 2023 at 6:43 am

    I think this review is rather crass and a bit harsh… seems to me the writer has watched the series with a typical western lense… one needs to remember; this is a Japanese show. The humor, the context, the clichés and sterotypes, the drama, etc are all part of a broader japanese context and style. The wokeness of the West and all it’s taboos and do’s & don’ts aren’t dictating writing like they do over here. Even if this is Netflix.

    Japan is very different from the west. Their idea of romance, typical gender roles, sexuality, humor, social behavior, decorum and many other things are often much different from ours. I personally saw the series as a cry from the heart to rally for Sumo, to bring it back to it’s former glory, mass appeal and charm, all while ackowledging it’s flaws but nevertheless forgiving it’s transgressions and wrapped within a pretty charming, amusing style of story-telling. Sanctuary is Rocky meets Hangover.

    You will laugh, cry, jump off your seat and rally for a sport & discipline you never thought you’d ever give a damn about.

  7. JF on June 15, 2023 at 10:16 am

    The relentless incapacity to judge creative production beyond the suffocating frame of the current global discourse. Narrowing this show to “toxic masculinity” only speaks of how ideologically captured the reviewer is. Once again, this is a review that demonstrates a complete lack of curiosity for immersing oneself in a world that does not satisfy the moral standards of the educated West.

    It is a really good show and a window into the world of Sumo. The show combines very well the sports drama with some ingredients of that strangeness that produce the classic Japanese film-making.

  8. Joe Schmo on August 2, 2023 at 6:44 am

    Toxic masculinity says it all. If you aspire to become an activist then go do it, obviously you are not fit to review films without interjecting your own biases. This series is fun and entertaining. It’s not a documentary it’s a fictional story loosely based on sumo. The main character actually is a lot like Asashoryu and it also stars quite a few real sumo wrestlers.

  9. Nonnya Bizness on September 23, 2023 at 6:14 pm

    I loved this show. I’ll take a double dose of “toxic masculinity”, over the woke cancer infecting entertainment, any day of the gender-neutral week.

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