The two sumo wrestlers stand with knees bent, grounded in the ring, while their upper bodies entwine. Gripping mawashi (the belt) and shoulder, the figures appear still, yet the effort is expressed in their faces, written in pulled brows and the swinging tassels of their mawashi. While beauties of the Yoshiwara and stars of the kabuki theater took center stage in the floating world, sumo wrestlers were also central figures in Edo-period popular culture. Many of the great printmakers portrayed sumo in popular rivalries or in the form of banzuke, or ranking sheets. It is interesting to note in this particular impression, the enormity of the figures is communicated through a rippling of muscles that recalls earlier depictions of famous heroes.
View works signed Toyokuni III
Born in the Honjo district of Edo as Kunisada Tsunoda, Kunisada’s family owned a small hereditary ferryboat service. Though his father, an amateur poet, died when Kunisada was a child, the family business provided some financial security. During his childhood, he showed considerable promise in painting and drawing. Due to strong familial ties with literary and theatrical circles, he spent time studying actor portraits.
At age 14, he was admitted to study under Toyokuni, head of the Utagawa school. Kunisada’s work embodies the characteristics of the Utagawa school, focusing on traditional subjects such as kabuki, bijin (beautiful women), shunga (erotic prints), and historical prints. His first known print dates to 1807, his first illustrated book to 1808. Kunisada’s career took off from the beginning. Many of his works became overnight successes and he was considered the “star attraction” of the Utagawa school. He signed his works “Kunisada,” sometimes with the studio names of Gototei and Kochoro affixed. In 1844, he adopted the name of his teacher and became Toyokuni III. Kunisada passed away in 1864 in the same neighborhood that he was born. He was 70 years old. Kunisada was a highly popular, and the most active, ukiyo-e print artist of the 19th century. In his time, his reputation surpassed those of his contemporaries Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.