Local hero

KEEP OUT — Jugheli Teimraz of Georgia, aka Gagamaru, moments before his match at the Kokugikan Hall in Ryogoku, Tokyo (May 26, 2019)

This image of a modern myth-in-waiting is literally the figure of a man waiting to compete. The bare-chested Gagamaru Masaru 臥牙丸 勝 (born Jugheli Teimraz of Tsibili, Georgia) is an exception to the rule of tradition. He first came to Japan in 2005 invited as part of Georgia’s national junior sumo team and stayed. Now his stable hovers as he waits, having reached the top division and defeated yokozuna, the highest rank of sumo there is.

Not the only foreign sumo rikishi to have ever been, he has travelled from his home in search of a new life that begins in abject subservience just as others have ventured from parts of Siberia, Mongolia and the Ukraine. It starts by living domicile with other wrestlers, cut off from the outside world, waiting on more experienced stable mates as they work their way through an unrelenting routine of ritual and performance. They’re encouraged to speak the common language of consumption, consuming the memory of their own identity, replacing it with a fictional self through competition as their homeland becomes a distant memory. With every new word they consume their old selves expanding in hubris and chest size. Recent Mongolian dominance has become a concern for the older generation but it doesn’t surprise them either. The forcefulness of the outsider, known as oshi-zumo (the ‘pusher’) always outplays the careful manoeuvrings of domestic yotsu-zumo (the ‘grabber’) as arms steer an opponent’s belt towards the edge of the dohyō ring drawn in straw and clay. But this was more than just a performance for Gagamaru, it was escapism. He would use imagination to adopt a new persona and use that new identity to confront challenges and tragedies back home and meet the obstacles they lay ahead. And as painter Nanami Hori later said when she graduated Musabi, “Imagination and action can break down barriers, smash systems and take us anywhere we want to go.”

堀ななみ Nanami Hori
触発 Inspiration

The real pleasure lies in how to transform negative vibes, conflicts, complexes, etc., such as “I want to kill everyone”, and channel them into one’s own energy. Imagination and action can break down barriers, smash systems and take us anywhere we want to go. And maybe the key is to really tackle reality through the human form straight from the mold.”

— 堀ななみ Nanami Hori

Salt is thrown in the air at the start of every contest as both a purifier and palette cleanser; between who he is and who he wants to be. He bears his idle thoughts like a slogan worn across his chest and yukata, literally. As do his companions in solidarity. They form their own collective and mini-country. To ‘Keep out’ is not an option if you’re left with nowhere else to go. When a yokozuna or sumo champion is overthrown the audience erupt, hurling cushions in the air in celebration and disgust: celebrating the victor and chastising the loser. The audience might as well be shouting at the top of their lungs “Get out of here and don’t come back.”

Rikishi wrestlers have always been drifters and wanderers searching for work. And Gagamaru, a latter-day wanderer, represents what it means to drift and wander through impossible surroundings. Sumo is an industry fading into the background of popular culture yet at the same time it remains ever present on television. And so the sport evolves into the very image of pop-culture, reimagining the industry of entertainment and the entertainer’s origin. Rural communities are defined by their local industry, no more so than Britain in the late 1980’s where farming and the automative factories were slowly automated or moved abroad. Artist Mike Nelson once asked what happens to sculpture when manufacturing draws to a close, when a country no longer makes things? Something new emerges in its place. Sculpture, he remarked, takes on the form of the machine and the machine imitates sculpture. Gagamaru is the inheritor of a mechanical, maniacal age where character and identity show purpose even when they lack importance. His presence appears as rallying cry which in turn becomes a logo worn on the way to work. The obstacles he and wrestlers like him face become livery for a sport that worries about its own future and a dwindling supply of local heroes. As myth dangles mid-air like the punch line to a joke that never comes, he emerges from his stable into Kokugikan in Ryogoku as something otherworldly but not unreasonable; a wrestler from Georgia full of the sport’s passion, with little of its technique; and succeeds.

Gagamaru formally retired from sumo in November 2020 and still lives in Japan.