27 October 2014

Sumo Lake (相撲の湖, 2011)

Sumo Lake (相撲の湖, 2011) is a humorous, hand-drawn animated short by Canadian-Australian artist Greg Holfeld (グレッグ ホルフェルド, b. 1965).  The official Japanese name that appears in the film is an attempt at a katakana rendering of the English title: スーモー・ルエク.  Unfortunately, as Holfeld told me himself at Hiroshima 2014 (he was on this year’s selection committee), he found out too late that this was inaccurate.  To begin with, “sumo” does not have a long “u”, and “ルエク” is not commonly used for “Lake” in Japanese.  So, I have amended the title to more authentically capture the English title of the film, which is a play on Swan Lake (白鳥の湖), the nineteenth century ballet composed by Tchaikovsky.

Holfeld’s interest in sumo wrestling dates back to 1990, when he lived in Tokyo.  His attention was captured by the sight of the Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki, the heaviest rikishi ever in sumo with a peak weight of 287kg.   Around this time David Benjamin asked him to illustrate The Joy of Sumo: A Fan’s Notes (1992), which is currently in print in its revised form: Sumo: A Thinking Man’s Guide to the National Sport (2010).  The initial inspiration for this film; however, was a pitch painting by Eddie White and Ari Gibson, co-directors of the animated short The Cat Piano (2009), about a sumo wrestler who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.  Learn more here.

As with all great comedy, Holfeld takes a simple conceit, the notion of a large, ungainly sumo wrestler doing ballet, and executes it brilliantly for the screen.  The story begins with a wind-up sumo doll performing shiko (四股), the side-to-side stomping that sumo wrestlers ritually perform at the beginning out each bout in order to drive away any demons.  A wider shot shows the tiny doll is facing a large sumo wrestler, who also performs shiko, causing the wind-up doll to fall over, face down.  The wrestler picks up the doll and tries again, but his time the doll clatters away and disappears as if falling into water.  A moment later, the figure re-emerges from the water like “The Lady of the Lake” of Arthurian legend, but the wind-up doll has transformed into a lifelike sumo wrestler on his toes like a ballet dancer. 

The two wrestlers face-off and begin to wrestle one another, but midway through their fight transforms into a graceful pas de deux.  One wrestler sinks into the water yet again, then re-emerges for another showdown.  However, this battle gets interrupted by the stomping foot of a Godzilla-esque kaiju.  Thus commences the climax of the film, which is a hilarious combination of epic battle and dance off.  The icing on the cake is the glorious soundtrack composed by Benjamin Speed in a style similar to that of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  It is a beautifully drawn film, as you can see from some of materials Holfeld has shared on his website.  The three-minute film consists of 1,300 drawings – a total of 6.24 kg of paper.  The simplicity of the pencil sketch on paper style is delightful, particularly when paired with the complexity of character movement. 

Sumo Lake can be viewed on Vimeo.  You can support Greg Holfeld by buying his books and comics.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014