Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III)

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Sumō prints Utagawa Kunisada

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Toyokuni signed prints


In 1994, Lawrence Bickford’s “Sumo and the Woodblock Print Masters” was published. This book remains the most comprehensive history of the representation of Sumō in Japanese woodblock prints.

For about 50 years, during the period circa 1775-1825, Sumō prints were designed nearly exclusively by Katsukawa School graphic artists. The dominance of their school in this genre ended in the second half of the 1820’s. For the rest of the Edō era and during the Meiji period, prints of this type were executed exclusively by artists of the Utagawa school. During the last four decades of the Edō era, the most productive of all was Utagawa Kunisada. Bickford states in his book that around 300 Sumō prints by Kunisada are known. Meanwhile, the ‘Kunisada Project’ lists about 740 (March 2020).  Furthermore, I believe that some hundreds of his Sumō prints are still missing.

Bickford dates some prints depicting two wrestlers in a bout, and signed ‘Kōchōrō Kunisada’, to the year 1828. He suggests that these were Kunisada’s first true Sumō prints, and that the few examples of earlier works were all designs of legendary Sumō bouts. Therefore those precedents are in fact musha-e, and not true Sumō prints.
Apart from that, an exact dating of most of the Sumō prints is difficult. There are actually 41 illustrations signed ‘Gototei Kunisada’, whereas all other designs before 1844 are signed with the go-name ‘Kōchōrō Kunisada’. The name ‘Gototei’ is the earlier of the two signatures, and therefore I believe some of these 41 prints certainly were produced prior to 1828.

The wrestlers (sumōtori) are represented as figure portraits, most of them wearing wrestling belts (mawashi) in the Sumō arena (dohyō). Only about 10 percent of the prints depict them in street attire. By request of the publishers, Kunisada first depicted exclusively wrestlers belonging to the makuuchi league (senior league). Then from around 1840 on, probably in connection with the Tenpō reforms, he also depicted wrestlers of the jūryō league (junior league). On triptychs not depicting the dohyōiri (entering the ring ceremony), wrestlers from the ‘stables’ (heya) are also shown, whose rank was below the two highest leagues of professional Sumō. In certain prints which depict yokozuna during their individual dohyōiri, these low-ranked attendants, belonging to the heya of the yokozuna, also appear.

Until the end of the Edō era, two great Sumō tournaments were held each year in Edō. Those tournaments, called ‘kanjin ōzumō’, had already been allowed by the government, since the early 18th century, for the purpose of raising funds for shrines and temples. By the beginning of the 19th century, these tournaments had become a lucrative business, and the receipts began to be taken by the promoters and by the sumōtori themselves. The publishers of woodblock prints wanted to participate in the great success of the Sumō tournaments and ordered the graphic designers to sketch the heroes of the arena on paper with the intent of selling them profitable to the audience.

In these prints, the dohyōiri are separated into the East Division (higashi no kata), and West Division (nishi no kata), in some cases both together in one print composition. The wrestlers themselves are ordered by the rank given in ranking lists (banzuke) which were updated after each tournament. Other subjects include famous Sumō bouts, the referees (gyōji), the coaches (toshiyori) and the sumōtori in leisure time strolling or relaxing.
From the mid-1820’s onwards it seems to have been normal not only to depict the great stars, (yokozuna, ōseki, sekiwara and komosubi) in single prints, but also the complete ensemble of a tournament. One such example appears on 22 prints overall (11 wrestlers for each division). At least this may be assumed by the representations of wrestlers belonging to the lower maegashira ranks. However no one complete series could be found until now. The most complete is an untitled set, probably developed in 1830, designed by Kunisada for Yamaguchiya Tōbei, showing the wrestlers of the makuuchi league. From this I succeeded in finding 14 prints.

Other series exist printed by major publishers of the time: Nishimuraya Yohachi (from c. 1825), Yamaguchiya Tobei (from c. 1825), Jōshūya Kinzō (from c. 1830), Yamamotoya Heikichi (from c. 1830), Moriya Jihei (from c. 1830), Izumiya Ichibei (from c. 1830), Tsutaya Kichizō (a very few prints from c. 1835, more from 1843 onwards), Kawaguchiya Uhei (a very few prints c. 1840) and Daikokuya Heikichi (from c. 1840). These prints designed by Kunisada are more difficult to date, because most wrestlers stayed for years in the makuuchi league, and so their names appear again and again in the banzuke. From time to time, the sumōtori changed their fighting names (shikona), in a manner similar to that in which kabuki actors changed their stage names. In that case, a more exact dating is possible. Except for the above-named publishers, I could not find any others who published sumō prints before the Tenpō reforms. Probably, through contracts with the promoters of the tournaments and owners of the heya, they succeeded in excluding other publishing houses from participation in this lucrative business.

Shortly after the Tenpō reforms in 1842, some smaller publishing houses tried their luck with sumō prints, such as Fujiokaya Hikotarō (in 1842/43), Kogaya Katsugorō (in 1844 only), and Kamaya Kihei, as well as ‘Iwatoya’ and ‘Nunokichi’ (identification uncertain) and a some others. However, overall none of these lasted longer than a few years. The traditional publishing house Tsutaya Jūzaburō likewise tried to publish sumō prints, but vanished shortly thereafter and went completely out of business. Ibaya Sensaburō and Sanoya Kihei, two elder publishing companies, also published sumō-e for the first time. In the very last decades of the Edō era, Fujiokaya Keijirō, Wakasaya Yoichi, Hayashiya Shōgorō, Kiya Sōjirō, Ebisuya Shōshichi, Maruya Jinpachi and Iseya Kanekichi took over the business of sumō prints, together with the traditional publishers Yamamotoya Heikichi and Yamaguchi Tōbei. Although the publishers were numerous, this fact is not surprising, given that Kunisada worked during his career with at least 300 different publishing houses.

Nearly half of all Kunisada’s sumō prints are from the five years after the Tenpō reforms, during which time the content of artworks was strictly regulated by the governmental authorities. The representation of kabuki actors was forbidden. In the genre of bijin-ga (beautiful woman prints), the representation of 'courtesans' (actually often involuntary inhabitants of brothels) was also banned. Regular portraits of women in more innocuous activities were still permitted, as long as the women were not identifed by name. Violation of the regulations was severely punished. Kabuki theatre audiences were accustomed to bringing home portraits of their idols from the theatre, where the visit could be afforded even by poorer people. Meanwhile the most glamorous women of the brothels could only be dreamed about secretly by most people, and thus their fantasy had been provided in another way in paper form. Publishers, graphic designers, woodcutters, and other craftsmen (the paper, woodblock and color producers) were confounded by the restriction of their two most popular subjects, and needed sales volume.

The great sumō tournaments, and all business connected to them, seem to have been the only areas of entertainment during those years which did not suffer much under governmental restrictions. Therefore for the confounded craftsmen, the most convenient solution was to turn to an increased production of representations of the idols of the sumō arena.
After the hard years ended, kabuki, actor and courtesan prints first were tolerated (1846-48), then from 1849-51 remained largely unquestioned, and finally from 1852 onwards, could be published nearly unrestricted. The production of sumō prints by Kunisada, and most probably also by other artists, was reduced to the ‘normal’ range found before the Tenpō reforms. Kunisada still designed them, because there was a certain demand by the audience and the publishers, but otherwise he returned to his most beloved themes such as kabuki-e and yakusha-e.

Printing blocks were sometimes re-used by their publishers, especially for kabuki prints. Similarly, some printing blocks for sumō-e were reused for portraits of new wrestlers who had recently joined the leagues. In that case, the heads of the wrestlers and the name cartouches were re-cut. Sometimes only the names were changed. I found an example of a print which was used, with only minor changes, for four different wrestlers. On prints showing the dohyōiri, sometimes only the name cartouches were re-ordered according to the new banzuke, while the main wrestlers depicted as the focus of the print stayed the same. In one case, a composition of a ‘kanjin ōzumō’ bears the date seal of 2/1853, but in fact shows the names of the banzuke from 1854. I have not yet found the actual print corresponding to the year 1853. The exact same print also exists in a version with the banzuke from 1865 (!) with a completion next to Kunisada’s signature added by his pupil Kuniteru. The date seal of the print is still 2/1853. I find only one example in which one publisher sold the printing blocks to another. All new editions of sumō-e bear except from this one the same publisher seal as the original print, whereas reissuing often took place with a new publisher seal. The trade of used wood blocks for these prints seems to have occurred more rarely than in other genres of ukiyo-e.

Many thanks to those who maintain the great ‘Sumō Reference’ site. They provide the banzuke of all tournaments ever held. Without the help of this site it would have been impossible to me to find all the information.

Link: http://sumodb.sumogames.de/


Statistics (March 2020): 

All sumō-e:
739 (including the ireki prints)

Kunisada signed prints:
322, thereof around the half from 1840-1843, first print around 1825
Single sheets with one or more persons: 2
Diptychs and triptychs: 4

Toyokuni signed prints:
417, thereof  248 from 1844-51, last print 1864
Single sheets with one or more persons: 3
Diptychs and triptychs: 8



Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) - Sumō prints