Katsumi Yamada doesn’t have it easy. The 44-year-old Hyogo native alienated his family, lost his full-time job, and completely devoted his life to training for the sport he loves.
He’s a classic case of a tragic hero. Peaked too soon. Fell too soon. Never seemed to ever pull himself back up after suffering more embarrassing defeats than any athlete or bodybuilder should know.
But no matter how many failures he posts – 23, to be exact – he keeps coming back for more.
His love for the sport isn’t mutual. It continues to spit back in his face and kick him to the curb. Some may argue that it’s even ruined his life. Yamada’s lust for victory has left him with a bruised body, bruised ego, and bruised spirit.
You’ve probably never heard of him. That’s OK. Neither had I. Until three years ago.
The Rise of Katsumi Yamada
Yamada made his debut on American television in 2007. G4TV added Japan’s “Sasuke” Tournament to its lineup under the name “Ninja Warrior” and, along with it, Katsumi Yamada. Complete with English subtitles, it became America’s first exposure to Sasuke, which had been airing in Japan since 1997.
Put simply, Sasuke is the world’s most difficult obstacle course. Made up of four stages and 100 competitors, the tournaments are held semi-annually atop of Mount Midoriyama. The course tests physical and mental endurance, speed, strength, stamina, and balance. Sasuke continues to evolve as new obstacles are added to the course, making it progressively more difficult with each passing tournament.
Obstacles include jumping up a 16-foot wall, grappling across a suspended curtain, and navigating across a ledge with only your fingertips for support. Additionally, the First, Second, and Fourth Stages must be completed within a certain time limit. Don’t worry about falling – there’s a pool of water underneath each obstacle to rescue competitors.
Think it sounds easy? Check out some footage from Stage Three.
Sasuke remains widely popular in Japan while developing somewhat of a cult following in the states. Since ’97, there have been a total of 24 Sasuke Tournaments. Thousands of athletes, celebrities, personalities, and fan favorites continue to attempt the course. Three have completed all four stages. Only a handful know what Stage Four holds in store.
Among them? Katsumi Yamada.
Yamada appeared as the 92nd competitor in Sasuke’s inaugural tournament. A delivery boy from humble beginnings, he instantly became a fan favorite and was one of a few athletes who made it to the Second Stage. The 32-year-old built a reputation on his unparalleled mental focus and impressive upper-body strength.
He followed up his first performance with another Second Stage failure in Sasuke 2. Determined to become the first competitor to clear all four stages, Yamada launched himself into a new training regiment that would eventually consume him. Sasuke became his passion, his career, his existence.
The training paid off the following year. Yamada reached his peak at Sasuke 3, conquering the first three stages and becoming one of five competitors to make it to the finals. The task seemed simple enough – scale a rope and reach the top of a 50-foot tower in 30 seconds or less. Craving total victory, Yamada vowed to leave the tournament as champion.
But the challenge proved too much for him. Yamada made it within feet of the top but relied too heavily on upper-body strength alone to carry him through. With 30 seconds passed, the rope released from the top of the tower and dropped a defeated Yamada to its base. The crowd’s gasps and moans mirrored his own emotions. He sat on his hands and knees –fists clenched, teeth gritted, eyes painfully squinted to conceal tears.
It would be Yamada’s first and last taste of Stage Four.
Despite failing the Final Stage, Yamada’s popularity skyrocketed after his Sasuke 3 performance. He became hyped by fans, critics, and producers as the contestant most likely to complete the entire course. His devotion and ability in the tournament earned him the nickname “Mr. Sasuke.” Or, as Americans like to call him, “Mr. Ninja Warrior.”
He put together a string of respectable performances in following tournaments, overcoming new obstacles and returning to the Third Stage once again in Sasuke 4 and Sasuke 6. After the fifth tournament, producers rewarded Katsumi Yamada with the title of Sasuke All-Star. To this day, he remains one of only six competitors bestowed with that honor.
But what was left of Yamada’s personal life took a serious toll after the sixth tournament. The factory he worked at shut down, leaving Mr. Sasuke without a full-time job and a steady means of income. To mask his shortcomings in the real world, Yamada devoted all of his time to training for Sasuke. He pushed his body beyond his limits, practicing the course on makeshift obstacles with fellow competitors.
He did it all without the support of his family. Prior to the seventh tournament, Yamada competed with the blessing of his loved ones. But they soon urged him to retire from Sasuke and start rebuilding his career. With the scent of victory still lingering, Yamada ignored their pleas and alienated them from his life.
Sasuke 7 and Sasuke 8 only brought more disappointment. Obstacles grew more difficult, causing Yamada to lose his center of focus and post consecutive First-Stage failures. Furthermore, a new All-Star arose — in Sasuke 4, Kazuhiko Akiyama surpassed Katsumi Yamada and became the first competitor to clear the entire course. One era ended. Another began.
Yamada ended the eighth tournament in shambles. Timing out on First Stage’s Warped Wall obstacle, he stood at its base and simply stared for an eternity. Then, with an unexpected burst of energy, Mr. Sasuke lifted himself over the wall and finished the final obstacle with ease.
Hands clasped over his eyes, Katsumi Yamada announced his retirement from Sasuke with no intentions of ever returning.
The Draw of Victory
Yamada’s retirement didn’t last long. In fact, it barely even took off — he returned to compete in the ninth competititon, breaking his losing streak and making it back to the Second Stage. The draw of victory proved too great. Even greater than family, friends, and security.
A small ray of hope was injected back into the Sasuke faithful during the tenth tournament. Yamada returned to the Third Stage once again and became the only All-Star to advance past Stage Two. But the Pipe Slider obstacle prevented him from scaling the tower for a second time.
Though still recognized and respected in the Sasuke community, Yamada began to lose the support of his fans. New competitors with even more potential began taking on the course. Some even made consecutive visits to the Final Stage. The once dominant Yamada found himself standing in the shadows of younger, faster, and stronger talent.
Sasuke 12 slammed the proverbial nail in Yamada’s coffin. He nearly achieved Second Stage victory for only the second time in six tournaments. All things considered, he completed every obstacle and cleared the stage with enough time remaining on the clock. Could Mr. Sasuke have finally returned?
The stars were aligned against him. Competitors are required to wear gloves during Stage Two’s first obstacle: the Chain Reaction. These gloves prevent competitors’ hands from chaffing or bleeding. After completing the Chain Reaction, competitors must remove their gloves before reaching the Spider Walk obstacle.
Yamada did not remove his gloves. And he didn’t realize it until completing the course. He was disqualified on account of a technicality and not allowed to compete in Stage Three.
Physically humiliated. Mentally humiliated. Warped Wall. Spider Walk. Rope Climb. Twelve toiling tournaments ultimately accounting to nothing. Love the sport. But it can never return that love. Never.
Katsumi Yamada did not return to Mount Midoriyama for Sasuke 13.
The End of Mr. Sasuke?
Yamada slowly acclimated himself to life without Sasuke. Eager to rejoin the workforce, he took a job as a steel worker at a factory owned by his wife’s family and scraped toward some sense of dignity. He spent more time with his loved ones and concentrated on building a family of his own.
Life became calm for Mr. Sasuke. He settled into a normal routine, surrounded himself with normal people, and began setting normal goals for himself. That’s the real world. That’s reality. That’s what he should be doing.
But one lingering piece of unfinished business continued to haunt him. One thought remained in the back of his head and in the depths of his soul. His calling. His passion. His very being.
A sense of renewal swept Yamada, casting aside his insignificance and lifting his spirits. After more than a year of searching for answers, he realized there was only one. Sasuke.
Yamada spent months preparing himself for Sasuke 14. He knew he needed to train more than ever to go toe-for-toe with even newer obstacles and a new wave of competitors. His regiment became stricter than ever.
The idea of coming out of retirement didn’t faze him. There’s no Japanese word for Rocky. There’s no Japanese word for Brett Favre. He wasn’t returning to Sasuke for anybody but himself.
His comeback ultimately fell short. Instead of advancing far into the tournament, Yamada added yet another battle scar with a wipeout on the Jump Hang obstacle in the First Stage. A shaky start didn’t help Mr. Sasuke’s confidence, as he almost fell off the course on two separate occasions. Not even the help and advice of his fellow All-Stars could help Yamada overcome his demons.
It became painfully obvious — Yamada’s best days were behind him. Eleven tournaments had passed since he reached the Final Stage. The course became harder and harder each time. Yamada simply couldn’t keep up the pace.
But his problem wasn’t strictly physical. The pressure of completing the course broke him down mentally. And now, the pressure of passing the First Stage continued to mount.
A man can only take so much abuse. But despite his mountain of failures, Yamada buried his suffering and pressed on.
Cue Fade Out
There appears to be no happy ending in sight for Katsumi Yamada. Granted, he’s competed in every tournament after Sasuke 14. But he’s failed the First Stage 11 consecutive times since. And even if he did pass the First Stage, the subsequent ones have become more difficult than he’ll ever know.
The potential he once held, the hype surrounding him, his vision for the course — it all evaporated. He’s not the first competitor to complete Sasuke. Nor will he ever be the second or the third. Fisherman Makoto Nagano conquered the course in Sasuke 17, and shoe salesman Yuuji Urushihara defeated it in Sasuke 24.
At 44 years of age, Yamada passed his peak many tournaments ago. Fans have come to expect failure from him, and some may say he’s come to expect failure from himself. His place among Sasuke’s All-Stars has been called into question. Some even suggest that he seek therapy to fix the mental damage the tournament thrust upon him.
Yet he still continues to train for Sasuke as if victory is still within grasp. He still spends most of his time fantasizing about glory and ways to achieve it. And he still hasn’t found another full-time position, working odd jobs as a hot-dog vendor and steel worker to fund his training.
For Katsumi Yamada, it has and always will be about Sasuke. Until he’s kicked off, injured, crippled, or pronounced dead. He has nothing else. It’s his life.
And nobody can retire from that.
Alex Cole is a freelance writer and recent graduate of St. Bonaventure University in New York. He currently resides in Syracuse, NY.