I do not keep great sketchbooks. Their contents range from lazy bits of observational drawing, to doodles done while killing time or sitting through dull parts in the movie the family is watching. I've come to accept that I'm never going to produce a gallery-worthy sketchbook like James Jean or Shaun Tan, and just swallow my sense of inadequacy and persevere, knowing that for most of us sketchbook keeping is an exercise in filling a receptacle with bad ideas and lame images in the hope that eventually something bobs to the surface worth looking at twice, and possibly even drawing several times over. Or in this case, about 1300 times over.
This combination of bulk and grace, fury and tenderness, presented itself in a way that seemed like it's always been obvious. When shortly afterwards fellow director Eddie White showed me a pitch painting by Ari Gibson for their film about a sumo wrestler aspiring to be a ballet dancer, I assumed that this really was as obvious an idea for a cartoon as a wise-arse rabbit out-smarting a dim-witted hunter with a speech impediment. Eddie, who seems to generate ideas as easily and rapidly as my cat does hair-balls, didn't seem fussed that I still wanted to go ahead and draw all this stuff anyway. Guess he had other things on his agenda.
My pencil had been enthralled by sumo wrestling before and it seemed necessary to return. In 1990, I was living in Tokyo, doing everything I could to not inflict my English teaching onto the locals. Instead I inflicted them with my english-speaking radio voice and shamefully inadequate manga (another story for another blog). About the only thing I did then that is not embarrassing now was illustrate David Benjamin's editorials in The Tokyo Journal. Hard to go wrong when given David's prose to work with. It was, and continues to be, incisive, original, witty, and sharp-edged. I guess David felt similarly positive about seeing my scribbles next to his, because he tracked me down after I'd left Japan and asked me to illustrate his book "The Joy of Sumo".
He didn't have to ask twice. Not only was I happy to paste pictures next to his words, the sumo-bug had already bit me from the moment I saw…
Konishiki.Not the greatest wrestler, but a good one, and easily the biggest. Able to generate a lifetime's interest in the sport from the first glance of his mountainous flesh on the telly. Until then sumo wrestling was lumped in with all the other things exhaustingly obtuse about Japanese culture for an expat. Squat toilets and dried squid snacks are enough. Take things as they come, don't need to go out seeking confusion and strangeness, there's plenty to figure just in the subtleties of noodle-slurping etiquette alone. But Konishiki's size was so arresting that you couldn't help but look. And once you've watched a few sumo matches, you're hooked.
And possibly still in love with drawing them more than 20 years later.
P.S. "Joy of Sumo"has since been revised, updated, and re-published as "Sumo: A Thinking Fan's Guide to the National Sport". Better book, crappier title (not David's fault). My drawings are still there, along with everything you'd want to know about big men in little clothes shoving each other around.