Author: Thien Pham
Publisher: First Second
Pub Date: December 11, 2012
Let's start with the publisher's plot summary:
"Scott is a washed-up football player who never made it, and whose girlfriend abandoned him along with his dreams of playing pro football. But things have a way of working out, in this sweet, poetic tale--and a new chapter in Scott's life begins as the old one ends. Offered a position in a Japanese sumo training "stable," Scott abandons his old life, his old name, and even his old hair color, and becomes an aspiring sumo wrestler. And in so doing, he begins to find some kind of center in himself...a center that had seemed lost for good."
As with any book, my evaluation of "Sumo" began with the cover. Pham's playful homage to Hokusai's iconic print, The Great Wave off Kanagwa, raised my hope that I was in for a fun and unique read. I was not disappointed.
Pham's sparing use of color immediately strikes the reader. The sections alternate between those primarily colored in orange, blue or green. The choice to use 2-3 shades in each section of the illustrations reminded me a bit of the old days in children's book illustration, when only a few shades were used because it wasn't economical to do otherwise.
But Maurice Sendak, among others, used that restricted palette to create classics that benefit from the minimalism of the visual experience. Pham also uses the alternating colors as a narrative device to differentiate between place and time. The volume of text varies depending on the time period depicted. The orange sumo present, set in the dojo or at matches, is almost devoid of words. To give you an idea of the sparseness of the text, there are only 12 words used in the first 10 orange pages. The combination of visual and textual minimalism allows the physicality of sumo wrestling to dominate this portion of the narrative.
In contrast, the blue section is far more generous with its dialogue, giving the reader insight into Scott's past. Finally, the green section focuses on Scott's budding relationship with Asami, a Japanese UCLA graduate, utilizing a beautifully rendered fish as a symbol for Scott's life.
On several remarkable wordless pages, 1-3 section panels of each of the colors are presented, allowing the reader to be present in Scott's memories while observing the sumo match he's engaged in. The final pages of the green fish swimming to freedom have far more emotional resonance than I would have anticipated. Pham doesn't just tell the story of an American sumo wrestler; he depicts the simultaneous influences of the past, present and future on the individual. In sum, "Sumo" is lyrical and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes from netgalley.com.