Daisuke Sato: The Storyteller of JMMA

A wide shot of the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, which has a lit stage and lights around.
RIZIN’s New Year’s Eve event at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. Credit: RIZIN FF

Matthew Lassiter wouldn’t usually find himself being a fan of a fighter that is wrestling-heavy in their approach. Like many MMA fans, he prefers a more well-rounded fighter or someone who can be more flashy with their striking. However, there’s one wrestling-based athlete that puts him on the edge of his seat whenever they fight: Kanna Asakura.

It’s not Asakura’s style in the ring that gets Lassiter’s attention. Rather, it is her story and her path to prominence, which includes an underdog run through the promotion’s super atomweight tournament in 2018. The storytelling that RIZIN has put together for Asakura has “humanized” her to many fans.

Asakura is one of the hundreds, if not thousands of fighters that have been represented in video productions made by Daisuke Sato. The filmmaker has been in charge of many major combat sports events in recent years, being the visionary for the storytelling in promotions RIZIN and Pride FC.

Generations of fighters have been represented through his work. When interviewing numerous JMMA fans, a wide variety of names came up that represent the past two decades in the sport: Kazushi Sakuraba, Mirko Cro Cop, Manel Kape, Hideo Tokoro, Shinya Aoki, and others.

These video packages, commonly known as VTRs (Video Tape Recording), have remained a cornerstone of what gets fans so hooked on the sport. It contributes to a larger image that major Japanese MMA promotions have carried, putting forward a unique show that emphasizes a large, spectacle look. Many say that’s why Pride FC, a promotion that has been defunct for over a decade, is still talked about to this day with nostalgia.

“Strikeforce went under years after Pride did but Strikeforce doesn’t have the same adoration as Pride,” said Forrest Sowa, an MMA video-essay pundit. “[Pride] wasn’t trying to be another big company, it was trying to be Pride.”

VTRs mostly play at MMA events to start a show, or to introduce a singular fight. Fans have credited these videos for showing a different side of fighters than what you would see in other promotions and their presentations. Despite a language barrier, these videos are regarded by many as a compelling vehicle for storytelling.

“They try to gravitate towards humanizing these fighters and making them feel like [someone] that even a fan can relate to,” said Johan Yusof, who has been watching JMMA since he discovered it on a trip to the country in 2003.

Sato’s Unlikely Start in MMA

The work of Sato has been a major influence on why people watch JMMA. But it is also somewhat of an unlikely story.

Sato says his work within the combat sports and MMA scene sort of fell in his lap. Fresh out of college, he joined the Japanese TV network Fuji TV in the 1990s. He joined the network without any editing experience, and his first jobs were just focused on helping with the production of shows.

His first assignment in relation to the sport was a K-1 kickboxing show in 1997, and his video editing started with MMA event Pride 5 just a year later. This was only the start of a long career that saw him work in DREAM and now RIZIN.

“I was a big fan of music videos and fighting, combat sports. So, it’s kind of complicated, but in a way it all came together … [But] I didn’t enter this industry with a set goal of being a video editor,” said Sato in an interview with Knockdown News.

Sato currently juggles many production aspects for RIZIN, not only producing their pre-fight video packages but also shooting web content and directing their live broadcasts.

His vision with video packages is to tell stories, then “sending the fighters out” to continue that story. Of course, the stories always relate to the fights, but they aren’t always talking about fighting. Who or what a competitor fights for is often stressed.

“If there’s 10 fights in one event, I want to tell 10 different stories. And I want to make sure that 10 different stories are told during one event. There’s so many ways you can be emotionally inspired and emotionally excited, or you can genuinely be excited for a fight that’s coming up, and those are the things I try to be focused on when I do my work.”

When asked about his style in videos, Sato emphasized the importance of having a diverse music taste that spans languages and borders. He cited Quentin Tarantino as a big influence, mentioning his ability to mix “classics” with the “new.”

Many have mentioned how the storytelling in VTRs isn’t afraid to show the low points of people’s lives. Inside and outside of the ring, defeat is highlighted in these video packages. While some promotions might avoid this as it could hurt a fighter’s image, many appreciate that this is shown. In an interview with Knockdown News, kickboxing viewer ApparatusFlatus said it’s important that “everybody has struggled. Everybody has fallen down.”

Sato mentioned that it is important for him to showcase the positive and negative sides of a story.

“In life because there are bad times, it makes the good times much better. And I want to show that,” he said.

Nearly two-and-a-half decades into his career, Sato continues to influence Japanese combat sports through his video work. Another one of his works will be seen in just a few days, as RIZIN will present its annual New Year’s Eve event. The card, which often attempts to be the culmination of events held by the promotion every year, will be another time where fighters will get shown in a unique light.

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