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.
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