Utagawa Yoshinku 
Japanese 1833–1904

While sumo wrestlers originally competed in sponsored tournaments within the grounds of shrines and temples in Japan, by the early 1780s sumo wrestling had become an integral part of Japanese life, and today it is one of the most popular national sports in Japan. Sumo wrestlers were regarded not only as sporting heroes, but also as embodiments of religious and court ritual. Owing to the popularity of matches and wrestlers, ukiyo-e artists from the Katsukawa and Utagawa schools depicted various sumo subjects, such as matches, portraits and processions of wrestlers, and sumo banzuke – printed programs, playbills or guide listings which were also produced for Yoshiwara entertainment establishments and kabuki theatres.

An official sumo banzuke was printed for each tournament held in April and November during the Edo period. The programs’ formal design was divided into three vertical sections, with sumo wrestler groups listed on each side (east to the right, west to the left) of a central panel that contained the names of referees and information on the tournament. Sumo banzuke were written in a special style of sumomoji (bold strokes), reflecting the wrestlers’ power and physical strength.

In addition to the official banzuke, a pictorial banzuke was also published for particularly popular bouts, such as this one produced for a special New Year tournament of 1859, designed by ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoshinku of the Utagawa School. The composition of the program is divided into west and east sides, echoing the directions from which the wrestlers entered the sumo ring. Wrestlers listed on the same side did not compete against one another.

Accommodating portraits of more than 100 sumo wrestlers, along with detailed information about the tournament, within a single sheet of paper was a considerable compositional challenge. In Yoshinku’s innovative design the highest-ranking wrestlers are ranged across the top, the most famous wrestlers face-off in the middle and two cascading lines of wrestlers, lowering in rank as they descend the page, zigzag to the bottom. The awesome physical presences of the 121 sumo wrestlers are reinforced by this ranking arrangement, which includes their names. The corpulent physiques of the first rank at the top are in contrast to the diminishing figures of the lowest rank.

The upper section of the central column bears the following written information on the tournament, displayed vertically:

Tamegoran [For all to see] Ansei 6 (1859) Oshogatsu jojun [New Year tournament] will be held at Ekō-in [a Pure Land Buddhist temple in Ryōgoku, Tokyo] in fine weather over a ten day period with Ozumo dohyoiri [a ritual parade held before the tournament].

Beneath this information, three referees with ceremonial fans surmount two tournament criers who have pads inscribed with the names of the famous wrestlers Nishikigi and Sakaigawa. At the bottom of the sheet, special donation sake barrels appear inscribed with the names of sponsors.

In addition to this banzuke, Yoshinku designed a print depicting a procession of sumo wrestlers for a fundraising tournament in 1859. The two works present a vivid record of one of the most important forms of entertainment during the Edo period.

Julietta Park, Assistant Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).