Although sumô (相撲 or 角力), Japanese-style wrestling, has roots as far back as the Yayoi period (300 BCE–300 CE), professional sumô (ôzumô: 大相撲) or sumô as a sporting occupation, developed in the Edo period, from which modern-day sumô takes most of its rules and rituals. Wrestlers are called rikishi (力士): other terms include sumôbito (相撲人) and sumôtori (相撲取り). A wrestler of higher ranking is also called a sekitori (関取), a term one encounters often enough in the titles of ukiyo-e prints. The highest-ranking competitors, the yokozuna (grand champions: 横綱), are the superstars of the sport. Prints of sumô bouts or the sport's ceremonies are called sumô-e (相撲絵).
Among the earliest examples of sumô designs in single-sheets or woodblock-printed books was a book image in 1685 by Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣 1618-94). Ishikawa Toyonobu (石川豊信 1711-85) in the late 1730s and Torii Kiyohiro (鳥居清広廣 died 1776) in the late 1750s also produced hosoban (narrow print: 細判) advertising designs with six small images (mameban, 豆判) of famous rikishi on each sheet. A few other artists designed occasional sumô-e in the 1760s and 1770s, although some of these were portraits of rikishi outside the ring. However, beginning around 1782, Katsukawa Shunshô (勝川春章 1726-1793) introduced sumô prints with realistic nigao (facial likenesses: 似顔) for the rikishi, in well-observed tournament settings, thereby establishing new standards. All told, Shunshô designed about 50 sumô-e. His style of sumô portraiture and tournament settings was then carried on by his pupils Katsukawa Shunkô (勝川春好 1743-1812), who also produced around 50 designs, and Katsukawa Shun'ei (勝川春英 1762-1819), who is said to have designed more than 200 sumô-e. The Katsukawa hegemony gradually gave way to Utagawa-school dominance, primarily by its master Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1865), whose first ôzumô subject appeared around 1825. In keeping with his (and his studio's) mind-boggling productivity, Kunisada seems to have produced nearly 700 sumô-e.
In Kunisada's impressive triptych, each rikishi wears a keshô-mawashi (tassled apron: 化粧廻し), which in the Edo period was worn during both the dohyô-iri (ring-entering ceremony: 土俵入り) and the wrestling bout. Today, it is used solely during the dohyô-iri; a mere mawashi (thick-waisted loincloth: 廻し) is worn during the match.
From the mid 1700s, when a roof or canopy was first introduced over the ring, it was supported by pillars at the four corners, as can be seen in Kunisada's triptych (the eaves of the roof are barely visible). However, to improve the viewing experience for television in the 1950s, modern sumô adopted the tsuriyane (hanging or raised roof: 吊り屋根) suspended by wires. In either case, the roof was meant to resemble a Shinto shrine, suggesting that a sumô ring was also a sanctified place.
Kunisada portrayed, under the canopy, four rikishi: (1R) Arauma (荒馬), (2R) Iwatoyama (岩戸山), (3R) Matsuchiyama (待乳山), and (4R) Koshinoumi (越の海). The wrestlers are participating in a dohyô-iri held during a sumô tournment called a Kanjin sumô (勧進相撲), a fund-raising professional wrestling tournament. Orignially, Kanjin sumô were held to help support temples and shrines.
Also notable here is the blue pigment in the sky, a fairly early use of a synthetic complex iron oxide called bero or bero-ai ("Berlin blue" or "Prussian blue": ベロ藍), imported into Japan at that time by the Chinese. (The first use of bero in prints apparently occurred circa 1822-23, probably in surimono or privately issued prints.) The first all-blue prints (aizuri-e, 藍摺絵) seem to have been published in the same year as Kunisada's print.
Another impression of Kunisada's triptych is shown in Bickford (ref. below), but the wrestlers are misidentified (presumably a mix-up with the intended illustration, as the brief description in the caption also does not match the image). The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has the complete triptych (Acc #11.15915-7), although it is partly faded.
- Bickford, Lawrence: Sumo and the Woodblock Print Masters. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1994, pp. 6-7.
There are many publications on the works of Kunisada. A good introduction in English is by Sebastian Izzard (with essays by J. Thomas Rimer and John Carpenter): Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America, 1993.