"There is a problem that sometimes afflicts documentaries about sports personalities, in that the phrase can be an oxymoron," says Rebecca Nicholson. "This is not intended to be an insult: sporting excellence on an international level requires such astonishing dedication that there is rarely time or space for much of a life outside it. Naomi Osaka (Netflix) solves this by turning the tennis player’s story into an exploration of both life on the court and the vast spaces around it. It is about loneliness and self-discovery as much as it is about tennis, and it is beautifully done. Each of its three episodes covers a different phase in Osaka’s still-nascent career, and though it does not cover her recent withdrawal from the French Open and the subsequent discussion around mental health in sport, it provides substantial context for it." Nicholson adds: "While it has its moments of sadness, this is not a bleak watch. By the third episode, you get the sense that Osaka is transforming her endless self-contemplation into action. She talks about her choice to play for Japan; her fear of controversy and being outspoken; her decision to wear seven face masks at the US Open in 2020, each emblazoned with the name of a victim of police brutality. She spends time with her family, and visits her tennis foundation in Haiti – her father’s home country – where she learns about colonial history. And then the series ends, almost abruptly. Initially, I wanted more, particularly given the voice that Osaka has found to talk about the pressure of public life, but now I think the point is that there is still a lot more to come from her, on and off the court."
The documentary explains why Naomi Osaka withdrew this summer without ever addressing it: "She never utters the word depression in the film, but she doesn’t need to. From the outset of that incredible victory against (Serena) Williams, earned in a stadium full of vocal fans of her opponent, Osaka is thrust into overnight superstardom," says Joe Berkowitz. "Not for one moment does she seem fully comfortable with it. We see how all the attention and pressure gets to her. Osaka has trouble sleeping sometimes, especially after a loss. She worries about not representing half-Black, half-Japanese kids well. She feels suffocated by the inoffensive image role models are required to maintain. She feels despair at the fleeting nature of victory, the way that becoming a champion means having to defend your championship, over and over again, until she no longer can. Thankfully, the series also captures Osaka during an introspective, transitional period of figuring out how to exist within her new circumstances—and how to use her platform in ways she feels good about."
Naomi Osaka is the best explanation for why she temporarily stepped away from tennis: "In sharp contrast to the confident image many champion athletes present in public, Netflix's Naomi Osaka allows viewers to see in detail how the 23-year-old has struggled with notoriety, living up to status as the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in tennis singles, keeping up with the breakneck life pace required for one of the world's most successful and marketable athletes, and much more," says Eric Deggans. "The portrait these three, 40-minute episodes provide is of a shy, willfully intelligent, painfully perceptive young woman grappling with a sudden deluge of fame and success. It's also one of the best arguments yet for Osaka's decision earlier this year to step away from post-game press conferences to protect her mental health. Watching how intensely she worries about so much, revealing her thoughts through introspective monologues, it is easier to understand why she refused to participate in press conferences during the French Open in May, despite a $15,000 fine and threats she might be disqualified. Eventually, she withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon championships; in an Instagram post, Osaka wrote about her social anxiety and suffering bouts of depression after her U.S. Open win in 2018. Curiously, the docuseries doesn't capture much of this anxiety over press conferences. We mostly see professional journalists asking pertinent questions respectfully, which Osaka handles with a practiced reserve and shy grace. And there isn't an attempt to address the massive controversy over her decisions about speaking to the press, which likely happened after filming concluded."
Naomi Osaka keeps viewers at a distance: "If this series is something Osaka wanted to do in order to be transparent in a way she otherwise can’t, you wouldn’t know it from the precious little she shares," says Caroline Framke. "If it’s a filmmaker trying to excavate the roots of a young celebrity’s psyche, it doesn’t especially succeed on that front, either. Not quite a tell-all, not quite an impressionistic portrait, Naomi Osaka floats somewhere in between with a cautious curiosity that does, at least, reflect its namesake."
Even diehard Osaka fans may find themselves yawning: "That’s likely more a problem with the format than the filmmaking, helmed by Oscar-nominated Time director Garrett Bradley. Bradley’s attempts at spinning lifeless raw material into gold don’t fall entirely flat, but they’re small glimmers in a sea of grayscale," says Kristen Lopez. "Likewise, the original music by Theodosia Roussos and Devonté Hynes, also known as Blood Orange, underscores the mundane onscreen action with a haunting resonance."
Naomi Osaka works best as a window into the demands placed on young athletes, and the pressures -- from personal to political to marketing -- that go with it: "On that level alone it's a winner, despite a few faults," says Brian Lowry, adding: "It could be easy to dismiss Osaka's complaints as high-class problems, from maintaining her then-ranking as the No. 1 player in the world to enduring questions from reporters -- a small price, seemingly, for the riches and other benefits associated with stardom. Yet what Naomi Osaka illustrates, quite effectively, are the tradeoffs associated with that, including the way in which Osaka, like many prodigies, experienced a far-from-carefree childhood that involved untold hours training on the tennis court. At times listening to Osaka grapple with her doubts and insecurities can be uncomfortable and intrusive, but that's revealing in its own way. Indeed, it's possible to envy all that she has and still feel sympathy for the sacrifices made in order to have it -- which, in terms of the points that Naomi Osaka intends to get across, is pretty much game, set and match."
It’s refreshing that the documentary resists presenting Osaka as an inherently triumphant and bold figure: "While Osaka’s ability, work ethic and tournament wins are certainly on display throughout the series, the filmmaker puts a sharp focus on the ambiguity of being young, anxious and navigating new adulthood," says Kyndall Cunningham. "It helps that the soft-spoken athlete is frank about the regrets and insecurities that come with accomplishing so much at such a young age, even if she’s concise. Chief of these is that she hasn’t formed an identity outside of tennis and that she’s based her self-worth in winning."
Naomi Osaka couldn't be more timely, not only with Osaka's struggles but with the recent refocusing on Britney Spears: "While watching the series this week, I couldn’t help but think about the Britney Spears conservatorship case, adding yet another layer of timeliness," says Marina Fong. "While the specific circumstances of Spears’ fame are different and the stunning revelations about the conservatorship are particularly egregious, the larger themes are unfortunately all too similar. When you become world-famous at a young age, and all of your successes and failures receive outsized attention, it’s exceedingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to gain perspective and see the bigger picture of what you want in your life. There are more and more people involved in every decision — and more and more people to please."
Naomi Osaka is a reminder of the power that young people have to change the world: "Being in your early 20s is not just about making TikToks — for Naomi, it’s about bringing awareness to important causes, taking care of her physical and mental health, and separating her worth as a human being from the job at which she’s exceptionally talented and famous for doing," says Lea Palmieri. "In fact, Osaka’s real impact on the world probably won’t be felt for years to come, but this documentary is certainly a good starting point to understanding her....If anything, this series will hopefully remind viewers to think before they tweet, especially when it comes to criticizing athletes, but double especially ahead of the Olympics."