Kunisada, Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuragami and Ichikawa Ichizo III as Hanaregoma

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuregami (R) and Ichikawa Ichizo III as Hanaregoma (L), 1860. Oban diptych.

We had a very popular show in April this year examining conflict in Japanese prints. The nineteenth century was the most violent century in Japanese history for several hundred years. Not only was there internal revolution - the conflict between the traditionalists and the reformists that culminated in the restoration of the monarchy - but there were foreign adventures in China and Korea. The mental conflict that grew throughout the whole century was reflected in prints as apparently anodyne as this one.

This diptych from 1860 by Kunisada is a superb and dynamic sumo wrestler picture. Kunisada fills the two oban sheets with the vast bulk of the actors in the role of sumo wrestlers. The first scene of the play Sumoba takes place outside a sumo wrestling enclosure in Horie, where the last match of the day is going on between two wrestlers, Nuregami Chogoro, the favorite and certain winner, and the young upstart Hanaregoma Chokichi. When the contest is over the spectators pour out, talking excitedly because Nuregami has lost. As the story unfolds we find out that the match was thrown. The truth is that Nuregami, a noted wrestler from Osaka, wanted to help his merchant patron, Yamazaki Yogoro, to whose father he was much indebted. Yogoro wanted to win the hand of his favorite geisha girl, Azuma, as his mistress. But Hanaregoma's samurai patron Hiraoka Gozaemon also wanted to buy Azuma from the geisha house. So, hoping to help his merchant patron, Nuregami purposely lost the match so that Hanaregoma would get a promotion and would then owe Nuregami a favor. That favor was that Hanaregoma would try to dissuade his samurai patron from taking Azuma from the geisha house, so that Nuregami's patron could have her. The two wrestlers meet in front of the sumo enclosure. The young bluffing Hanaregoma gets angry when he hears the truth, as he had been elated over his victory, believing he had won by his own power. Nuregami tries to placate him, but Hanaregoma shows no sign of reconciliation. (This summary has been written by Watanabe Hisao and edited by Jeff Blair)

This play was very popular with print artists for a while since it enabled them to show actors and sumo, sometimes a necessary defense against censorship. Nakamura Shikan IV was famous in this role and was commemorated by Kunichika as late as 1880.

A very good print indeed; colour, condition and impression are all fine.

Published by Hayashiya Shogoro.