Here is a definition of sanctuary from Google - "Refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger." For sumo wrestlers, though, the sanctuary is located in dohyo (a circle inside which sumo wrestling takes place). There is no safety within that ring. Only danger. Here is another definition of sanctuary from Google - "A place where injured or unwanted animals of a specified kind are cared for." The sumo wrestlers in this Netflix series do look like animals. They are aggressive, cruel, and mostly seen naked. Their derrières get closeups, and their filth becomes a source of discussion. A sumo wrestler looks at his poop, compliments it, and asks someone else to flush it. This is a show that is unafraid to dip its hands in shit.
But Sanctuary is not only dirty; it's also quite horny. The sumo wrestlers can satisfy their appetites but have no luck satisfying their sexual desires. None of them seem to have any experience with women. When one wrestler brags he has slept with hundreds of girls, you immediately recognize that he is making up tall tales. One character gets horny by watching an infomercial. The series is told through the perspective of these wrestlers (i.e., male gaze), which is why the camera beholds breasts as if it were a beautiful, bright sun. Enno (Wataru Ichinose) can see them but cannot touch them. The boobs hang in front of his eyes, yet they are far away from his grasp. So what do these wrestlers do to fulfill their hormonal requirements? One of them squeezes the chest of another sumo wrestler. That's all the action they get.
Sanctuary starts with the aim of exposing the dark side of sumo wrestling. Ryuki's (Kaku So) cheery press meet is intercut with shots of him puking in the toilet. The scene suggests that it's not easy to reach this top position. A journalist, Kunishima (Shiori Kutsuna), argues that it's absurd women are not allowed to participate in the world of sumo wrestling. She also observes that sumos undergo harsh and problematic treatment and even get bullied in the name of discipline. And there doesn't seem to be any penalty for engaging in unfair practices. For instance, one sumo kicks his opponent in the groin but is still allowed to stay in the ring. The wrestlers can beat their rivals to death and still walk out with respect and admiration.
The series makes these points, though it flattens its importance by paying lip service to these problems. In fact, the series, as well as Kunishima, stop seeing anything as a problem after a while. Sanctuary suggests that only an outsider (Kunishima has returned from the US) will consider all these things problematic and that too at first. Stay in the company of these sumos, and you will fall in love with this game. You will be thrilled by it. You will cheer for your favorite player. What this means is that the rubbish regarding exposé is nothing but bait to reel in the audience. Sanctuary has to fill its eight episodes with something, right? So it fills its runtime with half-baked subplots that tire your senses.
This is a very lazy show that uses very lazy tricks to spice itself up. Take those flashbacks where a boy looks at his dead mother and brother with a smile on his face. Sanctuary uses these scenes to paint a character as a ruthless psychopath, which proves to be a red herring. Moreover, the series keeps us away from this thread for so long that we lose interest in it. When we learn everything about that flashback, we shrug it aside because it's utterly underwhelming. Enno gets involved with an untrustworthy guy and is seduced by a sly, manipulative woman. Since Sanctuary has no idea how to handle these secondary plot strands, it executes them without cleverness.
The series is content with scoring easy points. It has generic villains who have easy-to-hate faces. They are caricatures who smile and jump like nincompoops when their plan shows signs of success. It's probably futile to expect creativity from a show where a mother, out of nowhere, arrives to encourage her son so that the plot can move forward. The first three episodes have Enno doing shiko near or at the end. But in the following episodes, we return to square one as the character questions its relevance. This means that those Shiko scenes are empty, rousing hero moments. And, of course, there is a training montage, though this one drags and leaves you spiritless. But boredom doesn't end here. The scene where a generic, "quiet and wise" guy's hair is cut goes on for so long that it leaves you exhausted. We are never close to any character and never feel anything for them.
There are some well-choreographed wrestling scenes, and a sumo wrestler looks like a shark about to devour his prey (it's the only nifty visual here). But overall, Sanctuary is uninspiring and wearisome. While reading this review, take a shot every time you come across the words "sumo," "wrestler," or "sumo wrestler." You will be in a better state.
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