National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Allan Myers AO and Maria Myers AO, 2012
This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of The Gordon Darling Foundation
Sumo has existed since ancient times with accounts of sumo bouts appearing in Japan’s earliest extant records. Originally an oracular ritual connected with Shinto prayers for the harvest, sumo gradually evolved into a professional spectator sport during the Edo period (1600-1868). Edo period, tournaments were usually held within the grounds of Honjo Ekō-in, a Pure Land Buddhist temple in Edo which still exists in the vicinity of the modern day Ryōgoku Kokugikan (Ryōgoku Sumo Stadium).
Like kabuki actors sumo wrestlers were popular celebrities with successful wrestlers becoming adored public heroes and the subjects of woodblock prints. Detailed polychrome prints were produced by the era’s leading artists and publishers to commemorate a tournament or display an individual wrestler’s fame and prowess. No weight restrictions or weight classes existed in sumo therefore weight gain was an essential part of sumo training and is seen as symbol of status and bravado for each wrestler. Leading wrestlers were skilfully depicted with their half naked bludging bodies filling the full sheet of paper to give a vivid expression of the wrestler’s awesome physique. Other images depict wrestlers adorned with swords and wearing the latest fashion of kimono with haori (coat) as a display of dandyism and their elevated social status.
Sumo prints were designed nearly exclusively by artists from Katsukawa School during the period circa 1775-1825. Then for the rest of the Edo period until 1868, and during the Meiji period (1868-1913), the Utagawa School became the major produces with the most productive artist of all being Utagawa Kunisada (Utagawa Toyokuni III).
Nearly half of all Kunisada’s sumo prints are from the five years after the Tenpō reforms (1842), during which time the content of artworks was strictly regulated by the governmental authorities. The representation of kabuki actors and courtesans was banned yet prints of the great sumo tournaments and their wrestlers did not suffer as much under governmental restrictions. The publishers of woodblock prints wanted to ride the great popularity of sumo tournaments and commissioned artists to sketch the heroes of the arena on paper with the intent of selling them to the audience and populace of Edo.