In the recently released documentary film version of Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner find their written musings on “the hidden side of everything” skillfully brought to the screen by an all-star team of modern young documentary film makers: Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).

Despite the quirky popularity Freakonomics has found, trying to create excitement and recommending this film to potential viewers can be difficult:

“Sure, it’s about economics, but it’s kind of fun too…”

Freakonomics the Movie

Freakonomics Film PosterThe reason that Levitt and Dubner’s effort in bringing this seemingly arcane minutiae to screen is successful mostly depends on the same success the book Freakonomics found in 2005 in selling four million copies worldwide. The book is well-thought out and well-researched, and slim, parsed up into easily-navigable bitesize niblets of esoteric economies, which rather than drag on, end with the reader wanting more. The film too manages to pull this aspect off spectacularly, especially Alex Gibney’s segment Pure Corruption, which switches emphasis from the almost impossible-to-detect cheating ways of teachers and sumo wrestlers Levitt and Dubner describe in the book, and focuses solely on the sly corruption of modern day sumo wrestlers and the larger story of the stoic association that backs them.

Illustrating the numbers game of sumo wrestling by interviewing experts who delve into various mini-lessons on Japanese culture–Shinto, Tatemae and Honne, hazing in the sumo stables–Gibney asks, “What happens to markets when people cheat?”

Roughly a twenty-three minute long expose, the skilled director is forced to break out the big guns early in a not-so-veiled shot at the Tower of Babel that is the Nihon Sumō Kyōkai (Japan Sumo Association). Riffing off of Levitt’s economic breakdown of Yaochō (match fixing) as not only evident, but rampant in the secret world of sumo, this is a perfect forum to showcase Gibney’s talent at exposing corporate greed and government collusion (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the recent Casino Jack and the United States of Money). “What keeps us from seeing corruption is the illusion that our economy is a rational system, a free market, open to all. The fact is that rigging markets, and matches, is good business, if the rigging is hidden from all but a few.”

The only way to undo corruption is to change rules to undo corrupt incentives. The irony of our analysis of Sumo wrestling was when it became public, the Sumo wrestlers stopped cheating. Not for good, but that is the answer of how you… Click To Tweet

Although he does tenuously stab at the recent Wall Street financial meltdown with allusions to Bernie Madoff and other crooked CEOs, showing that as in “the realm of high finance and the world of sumo both demonstrate that the illusion of purity can not only hide corruption it can help to make it possible,” the segment does not allow enough time to fully explore any real connections, the gaping flaw of the film itself: none of these subjects could support much more than 30 minutes of hardcore film documentation.

Freakonomics is about being short, sweet, and up-to-date. Featuring footage of recently retired Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Asashoryu and current Yokozuna Hakuho (who just won his 18th Makuuchi Division title), Gibney interviews former Yokozuna Akebono and Ozeki (Champion) Konishiki, who talk about the rigors of the twenty-four hour a day lifestyle that being a sumo wrestler entails: training morning to night six days a week for six yearly tournaments while nursing injuries, caring for other higher ranked wrestlers, and maintaining the tough exterior necessary to rise from the depths of the lowest pool of wrestlers to the top, an almost impossible feat for the vast majority who undertake it.

Freakonomics the Movie

Rikishi taking a morning break outside the stable in Tokyo © Manny Santiago

Each tournament lasts fifteen days with each rikishi (wrestler) performing once a day for a possible record of 15-0. If at the end of the two-week exhibition an athlete has a winning record (8-7) he advances in rank, which brings more money and respect, whereas a losing record (7-8) will bring demotion, and its associated humiliations. Therefore the difference between winning and losing is as huge as some of the wrestlers themselves and many who teeter on the edge of the precarious line may be willing to do that much more to advance.

Yet no matter how much the rikishi on the outside of the ring looking in wants to win, it takes two to wrestle. Levitt points out that “two wrestlers I would expect to have an even match, when one of them needs the eighth win and the other one doesn’t, the one who needs it wins 75% of the time, rather than 50% of the time. That is a huge deviation.”

Dubner states, “A rikishi entering a tournament’s final fifteenth match with a 7-7 record has far more to gain from a victory than an opponent with a record of 8-6 has to lose. The next time those two wrestlers meet, lo and behold, the 8-6 wrestler almost always wins those matches.”

Gibney talks to more than skeptical westerner researchers. Surprisingly, his team uncovered a few Japanese experts to testify to Sumo Association ills. Freelance journalist Yorimasa Takeda muses that Yaochō is rampant and match fixing rates can run from as little as a carton of cigarettes in the lower ranks to 1-2 million yen or more for bouts that decide championships. Former editor of the Shukan Post Akihiko Takeuchi states that the continued denial of the existence of Yaochō by the Sumo Association is an example of Honne and Tatemae, the Japanese terms for truth and facade, respectively. Ex-CIA agent Barry Eisler explains the importance of these ideas to Japanese society, “The tatemae is going to be a great spectacle of honest competition, but in the service of creating that pleasing facade the actual players are engaging in a form of corruption. To have the honne exposed produces discomfort.”

The Untouchables

Dohyō-iri - Ring Entrance Ceremony

Dohyō-iri - Ring Entrance Ceremony © Manny Santiago

Few and far between, whistle-blowers are reticent to talk to outsiders for fear of being cast out of the village world lifestyle of sumo wrestling, which does not allow for rocking the boat, but only going with the waves. Other insiders who talked have either been discredited and stripped of the only community they know or have wound up dead. The fact that Gibney can only assemble a freelance journalist, an ex-newspaper editor, an ex-cop and a foreigner–all individuals without ties to the establishment–goes to show how powerful the forces of Tatemae are in keeping in check those who speak out against societal corruption.

Takeda says, “To come out and expose everything was shattering a taboo in Japan’s shadow society…Not only the police, but Japanese society as a whole tend to view the Sumo world as untouchable, as if they are somehow outside the law.”

But in 2007 when the Tokitsukaze stable hazing scandal came to light and onetime Sumo hopeful Takeshi Saito’s corpse was found mutilated and littered with bruises and cigarette burns, and the Tokyo Police said the boy died of natural causes, something had to be done. The boy’s father came forward, demanding an autopsy, which found he had been beaten to death. The Sumo Association elite seemingly had to come clean, yet despite public opinion turning against the Sumo world, they countered with lawsuits against Takeda and proclaimed their Shinto-based purity.

Hiromasa Saikawa, ex-police officer, speaks out against the ever-widening gap of Honne and Tatemae in regards to Japan’s unbelievable conviction rate (96%), “This number does not reflect reality and every single police officer is aware of this. In the case of both police officers and athletes, their efforts are measured in numbers…As long as he’s producing impressive numbers, there’s a tendency not to dig deeper to find the truth. They employ all sorts of schemes to raise those numbers.”

Retired Komusubi (fourth-highest rank) Keisuke Itai publicly admits to partaking in Yaochō and adds that, “If the rikishi are really taking Sumo seriously, there is an element that is sacred to the sport. Even now, if I see a good match, it moves me. And if I see yaochō, I am disappointed. All of us in Sumo can tell just by looking.”

Despite the the depressing truth of the regimented hierarchical reality of Japanese power structure’s unflinching dedication to living a superficial lie, it is heartening to know that not just western economists, journalists and other like-minded outsiders, but some individuals living inside the beehive collective nature of Japanese society are brave enough to risk coming forward to decry not just the overwhelming numbers of match fixing in Sumo, but the human cost of corruption as well.

“The only way to undo corruption is to change rules to undo corrupt incentives. The irony of our analysis of Sumo wrestling was when it became public, the Sumo wrestlers stopped cheating. Not for good, but that is the answer of how you stop cheating. As Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.'”

A Magnolia Films presentation of a Green Film Company production, in association with Cold Fusion Media. Produced by Chad Troutwine, Chris Romano, and Dan O’Meara. Executive producer: Seth Gordon, Damon Martin, Jay Rifkin, Michael Roban. Segments written and directed by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Rachel Grady. Written by Peter Bull & Alex Gibney (Pure Corruption), Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock (A Roshanda by Any Other Name), Eugene Jarecki (It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life), Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?), Seth Gordon (Intro & Segues), Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner (book).

With: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
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