I think I’ve gotten into the habit of reading graphic novels and expecting them to be lengthy series or intricate stand-alones that neatly wrap up every loose end. Sumo is neither of these things. This open-ended graphic novella is about Scott, a promising college football player who never made it to the pros. His girlfriend has left him and, with nothing left to lose, Scott decides to train at a sumo heya (stable) in Japan. His life as an amateur sumo wrestler isn’t easy. Because of his low ranking, Scott is responsible for cooking and cleaning at the dojo. And if he hopes to have any future as a sumo wrestler, he’s going to have to win his next bout.
Sumo is an elegant story that uses dialogue sparingly, telling Scott’s story in its art, panels, and pacing. Pham weaves three threads of plot together: the present, his past in America, and his past in Japan. The present, told in orange-toned panels, is set in Japan. Scott has become friends with Asami, his instructor’s daughter. He has struggled in his career as a sumo wrestler. He’s a day away from the match that will make or break his career, but Scott has lost his confidence and his center in life. Pham then switches the story to the past in America, using blue panels, where Scott is on the verge of leaving for Japan. His friends throw a meager goodbye party and the girl who left him returns to ask Scott to stay. The third plot thread, done in green, takes place in the past in Japan, where Scott meets Asami for the first time and takes her on a fishing trip.
In interviews, Pham has said that the story’s focus and pacing is influenced by sumo matches, in an attempt to capture the sport’s tradition and beauty. He demonstrates great control in his use of panels. Pham transitions between the present and the two different threads of Scott’s past, gradually shortening the pages given to each plot line. As the big match approaches, we flash quickly between moments, each getting a handful of pages, then a single page, then just a couple of panels. The story has changed from a peaceful reflection on Scott’s history to the sudden moment of truth: will he succeed or not? But Scott has already told us — every moment is the moment of truth.
Pham is well-known for illustrating Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, where his art had a sketchy quality that made use of pale washes. Sumo, by contrast, has rich colors and full, blocky artwork. Wrestlers are bulky, towering barrels that fill each panel. Scott, on the other hand, feels soft and meek, hunching to fit into the panel space. His face is a series of sharp angles and lines, but always full of expression. Pham’s use of color is a treat, particularly in the sections set in the past in Japan, on the fishing trip. He also marks each plot thread with illustrations around the page numbers: the present is an orange square with an inset circle, the American past a blue water tower, and the Japanese past a green fish.
The only place where the artwork doesn’t seem to match the story is the cover. Scott is drawn in greater detail, crouched and dressed in a ceremonial apron, parting waves. This intimidating figure doesn’t jibe with the man we see in the book, but it certainly draws the reader in. It’s the back cover, where Scott is treading water, that shows us his starting point, with the front perhaps pointing at what he may become.
Sumo is brief, weighing in at just a little over 100 pages. However, I’ve come back to the story several times and discovered something new with each reading. Who hasn’t found themselves living a life different from what they imagined? Scott’s facing a moment of decision, but he also realizes that he’s always living that moment. While this book is appropriate for teens, I believe it will appeal more to adults who have been there, but maybe not done what they thought they should. If you choose to carry Sumo in your teen section, be prepared to hand-sell it.