From the Art Gallery of the Museum of South Australia: "On 25 September, 1843, two sumo wrestlers fought a match on a ring specially built in the grounds of the shogun’s castle, to be watched by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi himself. This event was so special that Kuniyoshi, one of the most popular Ukiyo-e artists of the time, was commissioned to draw the scene. Kuniyoshi’s sketch was made into a woodblock print, and the printed copies were bought by many people as a souvenir of Edo, Japan’s capital city, now called Tokyo. In this print we see the wrestlers Tsurugizan on the right, and Shiranui on the left. The umpire, Shikimori Inosuke, is standing at the far left. The match witness, the Elder Miyagino, is seated to the right of the wrestlers. Most sumo wrestlers had some tokuiwaza, a technique they were best at, but Tsurugizan did not have one. His idea was that once you had established your tokuiwaza, all your opponents would know what it was so they could work out how to defeat you. Therefore, he said, you had to train yourself to be good at every technique. The umpire (gyōji) Shikimori Inosuke is holding a gunpai, originally a fan used on a battlefield by a commander to give directions to his fighters. Using this gunpai his role is to summon the wrestlers into the ring, signal for the wrestlers to stand up to commence the match, encourage them to keep moving, judge which side has won and using which technique, and finally, to announce the winner. The umpire’s role is taken so seriously that, though he is not a samurai, he is allowed to wear a sword to show that he is prepared to take his life if his judgement is found incorrect. Sumo wrestling started out as a ritual to forecast the fortune of the country, but after hundreds of years it became more a sport and a popular entertainment. The wrestlers became rough, and sometimes violent, and sumo started to get a bad reputation."
The son of silk dyer, Kuniyoshi Utagawa was born into the Igusa family in Edo. Little is known about his very early years, though he is said to have shown remarkable talent from a young age. Kuniyoshi began his ukiyo-e career as a pupil of Shunei. At age 14 he was accepted to study the art of woodblock printing under Toyokuni I and, in time, would become one of his most successful students. In 1814, he left Toyokuni’s studio to pursue a career as an independent Japanese ukiyo-e artist. Initially, he had little success, selling tatami mats in order to support himself. However, his fortunes changed in 1827 with his dramatic series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. From that point on, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi worked in all genres, producing some brilliant landscapes and charming bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). He died in the spring of 1861 from complications of a stroke.
In direct contrast to the peaceful views of a scenic Japan provided by Hiroshige and Hokusai, the following decades saw a rise of the fierce, fearsome and fantastical in ukiyo-e. Kuniyoshi welcomed this changing public taste. He had a ravenous imagination and the full scope of his work reveals an aesthetic sensibility capable of assimilating almost any experience. No doubt, however, his particular genius felt most at home in the world of martial glory, where epic battles decided the fate of empires and fierce warriors clashed to the death. His imagery was so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.