Daily Distraction: Revisit ‘The Sea of Crises’

Writer Brian Phillips goes long in a fascinating Grantland feature

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Grantland "Sea of Crises"

Grantland ceased publication in 2015, but the former online sports and culture site is still rich with features worth rediscovering, including this new-to-me piece from Brian Phillips.

“Sea of Crises,” which you can visit here, had me hooked from the subhead, which reads: “A sumo wrestling tournament. A failed coup ending in seppuku. A search for a forgotten man. How one writer’s trip to Japan became a journey through oblivion.”

Originally intended as an exploration into sumo wrestling, and in particular Hakuho, then the sport’s top-ranked competitor, the feature quickly becomes something different, with Phillips delving into his favorite works of Japanese literature (structural elements of which begin to bleed into his piece), walking Tokyo streets, which he describes as “endless warrens of ‘Blade Runner’ alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines,” and relaying his own sleepwalker-like detachment, which combines with his jetlag to make the trip akin to navigating a waking dream. 

“Professionally, I managed to keep up a façade of minimum competence,” Phillips writes. “Most of the time, though, I was lost in Tokyo, and if I wound up anywhere I was supposed to be, anywhere I had agreed to be, it felt like a fortuitous accident.”

These fortuitous accidents allow the feature to take on a number of unexpected turns, as Phillips becomes enamored with the story of a 1970 Japanese suicide. “It was a distraction,” he writes, “but unlike almost everything else during those weeks, I couldn’t get it out of mind.”

Read on here to see how Phillips elegantly weaves these seemingly disparate threads, and to find where the journey ultimately takes him.