"Oh, this is top news all over Japan," said Akira Ogawa, a writer who was on his way to cover the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament for Tokyo Sports when he stopped off in Norfolk in July to file an update on Kitao.
"This was a big story when he had his problem," said Ogawa. "It was on the front pages for days. I would say 80 percent of public opinion was against him at first. But time has passed. Things have changed."
The man orchestrating those changes is a chain-smoking Japanese-American entrepreneur named Victor Higgins. His Atlanta-based video company, Higgins International, usually produces and distributes Japanese-language programs for audiences in the U.S., but Higgins's biggest project was a two-hour-long documentary on the life and times of Kitao that was shown last winter on Japanese television.
"Prime time," says Higgins, who was hired in June 1988 by ARMS. The company realized that it needed an expert to put a shine on its client's tarnished image. The video, says Higgins, was the first step of Kitao's climb back to respectability.
"What we needed to do first was to show he's not a hot-tempered guy," says Higgins. "The image we wanted to create is that it's O.K. to be free and focus your own life. So we thought the best place to show that was in America."
So last spring, Higgins brought Kitao here to shoot the documentary. They began filming in Madison Square Garden, where Kitao had last appeared in 1985 as one of a delegation of sumo wrestlers on a tour of the U.S.
They shot segments in Philadelphia, where Kitao horsed around with Joe Frazier, and in Columbus, Ga., where he spent a day at an Army boot camp. They put Kitao on a horse in Oklahoma, filmed him washing dishes in a Phoenix restaurant, and even filmed him hitchhiking at various locations.
"This all shows freedom and searching," says Higgins, who makes no bones about having scripted the entire show. "Of course, I created all this. But he went along and did it. Normally, if I told a sumo wrestler to go wash dishes, he'd tell me to go to hell. They are accustomed to having everything done for them.
"What I wanted to do—what he wanted to do—was say, 'Hey, I'm a human, I want to come back to earth and be like everybody else.' "
The platform on which to stage Kitao's comeback, concluded Higgins and ARMS, is the professional wrestling ring. ARMS has spent more than $350,000 to finance three months of coaching for Kitao in Norfolk, three weeks of bodybuilding in Atlanta and three more months of training at a professional wrestling school in Minneapolis, where Kitao refined his airplane spins and sleeper holds. Kitao has been training in Japan since December, and his debut in an American ring probably will take place in the spring.