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When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open at the end of May 2021, her decision shocked officials, the media and fans around the world. But it shouldn’t have. Days before she did that, Osaka had announced that she would not participate in the mandatory press conferences at the tournament. She suffered from severe anxiety, and interviews — often callous and rote — only added to her stress. Tournament officials responded by levying a fine against her. So she left. “I never wanted to be a distraction,” she wrote in a sincere Instagram post. “Love you guys, I’ll see you when I see you.”
More than standing up for herself, Osaka’s post intimated the kind of athlete, the kind of person, she wanted to be. A quiet courage and confidence pulsed through her language. How she cultivated those strengths is the subject of Garrett Bradley’s delicate and absorbing Netflix docuseries Naomi Osaka.
Airdate: Friday, July 16 (Netflix)
Director: Garrett Bradley
The three episodes (each roughly 40 minutes) follow Osaka over two years, elegantly mapping the development of her craft and her voice. Bradley, known for her stunning 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary about the American carceral system, Time, is a masterful storyteller. Her directing philosophy feels like a practice of shaping narratives with her subjects firmly in mind. She teases out who they are and asks how they retain a sense of self, a kind of individuality, within larger systems. It’s a pleasure, then, to see the director successfully apply her sensitive eye and impressionistic style to Osaka, an introverted celebrity forced to live some of her most challenging moments publicly. The resulting work is a poetic, nimble and poignant portrait of young adulthood.
Bradley’s first strokes include footage of Osaka beating her hero Serena Williams and claiming the U.S. Open women’s title in 2018. The win catapulted Osaka, at the time only 20 years old, to an unimaginable level of fame. Journalists wanted to speak to her. Strangers cried in her presence. Everyone — on and offline — had an opinion. This attention, naturally, triggered new heights of anxiety.
Titled “Rise,” the first episode wrestles with the realities of Osaka’s increasing celebrity and the questions it prompts the young star to ask herself. Bradley sketches an outline of Osaka, who, through interviews, candidly discusses a childhood filled with low expectations projected onto her because of her racial identity (she was born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father), the challenges of honing her skills and the pressures of wanting to be the best tennis player in the world.
As she demonstrated in Time, Bradley is not burdened by expectations of a fixed narrative. Themes take precedence, and as a result her stories, like waves, are best experienced with little resistance. In “Rise,” she interweaves clips of Osaka’s matches with excerpts of commentators, showing off the tennis star’s talents while subtly unveiling the warped relationship between athletes and sports media. The language of analysts observing Osaka indeed is cold and possessive, suggesting that support from the rest of the world is contingent on an athlete’s continued success.
The second and third episodes, “Champion Mentality” and “New Blueprint,” deliver on the promise of the first by filling in the details of Osaka the person. Capturing the process of becoming isn’t easy, but Bradley’s formal approach complements the existential questions Osaka begins to ask herself after losing to Belinda Bencic in the fourth round of the 2019 U.S. Open. The documentarian builds stirring momentum by arranging news clips, audio excerpts and shots so they, like the sensational but sparingly used score (by Dev Hynes and Theodosia Roussos), gradually crescendo. Osaka’s face is usually at the center of these affecting moments. Regardless of whether she is surrounded by friends or fans, there’s a sense of isolation — a look that says that, while Osaka’s body is present, her mind is elsewhere.
“Champion Mentality” explores Osaka’s life during the off-season as she nurtures an interest in fashion and finds ways to express herself beyond tennis. The more success she has outside the sport, the more she questions what role she wants it to play in her life. Bradley presents viewers with glimpses of the athlete in different, less intense environments. With her older sister Mari, Osaka moves with greater ease: She giggles, cracks jokes and embraces a more playful side of her personality.
Yet Osaka struggles to translate the confidence she builds off the court to her gameplay, and the death of her mentor Kobe Bryant further destabilizes her. “New Blueprint” is the third act of Osaka’s journey, the point at which she realizes that the existing models for being a celebrity athlete won’t work for her.
It’s also the episode where the limitations of Bradley’s methods become most apparent — when riding the wave feels like missing opportunities. I wanted to sit longer with some moments, like when Osaka wonders aloud about why people assumed she would play for the United States in the upcoming Olympics instead of Japan (“I feel like people really don’t know the difference between nationality and race”) or whether she is “representing half-Black and half-Japanese kids well.” But the film doesn’t dwell.
“I’m supposed to be a silent good person,” Osaka says at one point, questioning the role of the athlete in the public imagination. “And just maintain the image.” After George Floyd’s murder, Osaka feels she can no longer do that. She attends her first protest in Minnesota, which bolsters her determination to forge a new path for herself. She decides to harness the power of her platform by withdrawing from a match in protest and wearing masks with the names of victims of police violence during tournaments.
So, who is this new Osaka? The tennis star articulates it best in the first episode: She used to call herself a counterpuncher, a person who, she explains, “can take the blows and wait for an opportunity to finish it.” But now she considers herself more of an “aggressive baseliner” — which means she’s in control, deciding exactly how the game is played.
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