Much of the documentary "Sumo East and West" focuses on Hawaii-bred wrestlers such as Akebono, Konishiki and Wayne Vierra. Vierra ties the mawashi of Onipa'a Pa'a'aina before a sumo demonstration.

Inside sumo’s

When Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards screened "Sumo East and West" in Los Angeles last fall, the film they had so carefully endeavored to portray with reverence elicited a reaction they hardly expected: hysterical laughter.

'Sumo East and West'

Not Rated

Playing 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at Sunset on the Beach in Waikiki and Thursday at Dole Cannery

While most audiences are intrigued by the documentary's opening shot, in which mysterious streamers wag gently in the breeze, the dangling banners were immediately recognized by the largely Japanese audience as mawashi, or traditional sumo loincloth, drying on a line.

What the happily married, camera-wielding duo has come to realize is that their film resonates with audiences across the board, though sometimes in entirely different ways. Westerners, Japanese and Hawaiians all figure prominently in "Sumo East and West" and as it continues to show to new audiences, reactions will likely be colored by each group's cultures and experiences.

The graceful, engaging documentary, which explores the rise of foreign-born wrestlers in Japan and the rapid globalization of the tradition-steeped 2,000-year-old sport, premieres in Hawaii tomorrow at the Sunset on the Beach affair in Waikiki. Pearlstein and Edwards are eager to see the response of a Hawaiian audience, since much of the film focuses on Hawaii-bred wrestlers like Akebono, Konishiki and Wayne Vierra, the star-crossed sumotori who reached the makushita division, two steps from the highest class in Japan's professional ranks, before a ruptured pancreas ended his pro career.

"When we started this project, we only knew the stereotypes about sumo and it wasn't until we met the guys from Hawaii that we realized there was so much more to it, so much more depth, so much more commitment," states Pearlstein. "That was where the learning began for us. We were so impressed by the Hawaiians that as soon as we saw them, we knew what the film was about. They had a certain spirit and respect for sumo."

It was while filming the North American Amateur Sumo Championships in Los Angeles in 1999 that the pair were alerted to the entrants from Hawaii -- Vierra, in particular, who fulfilled predictions that he would take the title that day. "The Hawaiian team was definitely the best team there," says Edwards. "Technically, they were the strongest and they knew the history and culture of the sport. They were just head and shoulders above the other guys."

LIKEWISE, Vierra was taken with Edwards and Pearlstein, whose queries seemed to reflect a deeper interest in the personalities that propelled the sport. "More serious questions were asked than the usual questions we would get," Vierra remembers. "They wanted to know what makes us who we are, why we loved sumo and how it changed our lives."

Edwards and Pearlstein followed up their interview by bringing their cameras to Oahu to chronicle Vierra's training sessions, then accompanied Vierra and his fellow wrestlers to an amateur tournament in Japan where they competed as representatives of the United States.

There, Pearlstein and Edwards met with Akebono, Konishiki and Maui-born Jesse Kuhaulua, or Takamiyama, the first foreigner to capture a tournament title in 1972 who now runs his own stable as Azumazeki Oyakata.

"They're all pretty intimidating because they're all such big guys, but when we sat down to interview them, we were struck by how gentle and easygoing they were," reveals Edwards. "The Hawaiian guys were much more easygoing than the Japanese guys. It was just a cultural thing. We sat down with Akebono and Konishiki and as soon as they started talking, we were at ease. The Japanese guys were a little more standoffish, a little more aloof. Maybe because the guys from Hawaii were American, and we shared this common background, they were very open to us."

It took four years for the project to see the light of day, though it appears the time and effort spent by Pearlstein and Edwards has paid off. After making the rounds on the film festival circuit, "Sumo East and West" will premiere in June on PBS' "Independent Lens" series, where it should attract its biggest audience to date. Edwards credits the involvement of the Hawaiian wrestlers for lending form to the feature documentary.

"They really helped us out," he says. "The whole thing was a huge education. We knew that the world of professional sumo was closed and very difficult to penetrate. That was kind of the point to the film, but we didn't realize how closed it was until we got into it. They allowed us to see things we might not have otherwise."

For Vierra, who will view "Sumo East and West" for the first time this weekend, is only too happy to give the world a glimpse into the activity he has dedicated his life to. "It's what defines me," he affirms. "It's part of who I am now. I love teaching it and watching kids grow from it. I was bred to do this sport."

7th Annual Hawaii International
Film Festival Spring Fling

Where: Dole Cannery multiplex theaters 8 and 9

When: Today through Thursday

Tickets: $8 adults, $7 military, students, seniors and children; and $6 HIFF Ohana members, available at the Dole Cannery box office (tickets are nonrefundable)

Call: 528-4433, or go online at

Revised schedule (for synopses, go to either HIFF's Web site or to our archived feature at


» 6:30 p.m. » "Touching the Void" (U.S./U.K.)(Reviewed in Wednesday's paper and available on our Web site.)
» 8:45 p.m. » "Singles" (South Korea)
» 9:15 p.m. » "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" (China)


» 12:30 p.m. » "Dolls" (Japan)
» 12:45 p.m. » "A Good Lawyer's Wife" (South Korea) (See review)
» 3:30 p.m. » "Last Life in the Universe" (Thailand)
» 3:45 p.m. » "Singles" (South Korea)
» 6:30 p.m. » "Bright Future" (Japan)
» 6:30 p.m. at Sunset on the Beach in Waikiki » "Sumo East and West" (Hawaii/U.S.) (Feature at left.)
» 6:45 p.m. » "Last Scene" (Japan/South Korea)
» 9 p.m. » "Undead" (Australia)
» 9:15 p.m. » "The Legend of the Evil Lake" (South Korea)


» 12:30 p.m. » "Jealousy Is My Middle Name" (South Korea)(Review on Page 23.)
» 12:45 p.m. » "The Twilight Samurai" (Japan)
» 3:15 p.m. » "Kal Ho Naa Ho" (India)
» 3:30 p.m. » "Bright Future" (Japan)
» 6:30 p.m. » "Purple Butterfly" (China/France)
» 8:45 p.m. » "Haute Tension" (France)
» 9 p.m. » "The Legend of the Evil Lake" (South Korea)


» 6:45 p.m. » "Magic Kitchen" (Hong Kong/China)
» 8:45 p.m. » "Last Scene" (Japan/South Korea)


» 6:30 p.m. » "Dogville" (France/Denmark/U.S./U.K.) (Review on Page 24.)
» 6:30 p.m. » "Last Life in the Universe" (Thailand)
» 6:45 p.m. » "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring" (South Korea) (Review on Page 24.)
» 8:45 p.m. » "Undead" (Australia)


» 6:30 p.m. » "Magic Kitchen" (Hong Kong/China)
» 6:45 p.m. » "Purple Butterfly" (China/France)
» 8:45 p.m. » "A Good Lawyer's Wife" (South Korea)


» 6:30 p.m. » "Sumo East and West" (Hawaii/U.S.)
» 6:45 p.m. » "Kal Ho Naa Ho" (India)
» 8:30 p.m. » "The Land Has Eyes" (Fiji/Hawaii/U.S.)

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.


E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --