'Actors on a Bridge in Edo, 1854' by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864). Collection: Frank Milner
Kabuki theatre was vulgar, topical, exciting, sentimental and edgy. Performances were interrupted by fans cheering and shouting. They bought the prints of their actor heroes to take home.
About 80% of all Japanese woodblock prints are of actors. Actors usually came from established theatrical families like the famous Danjuro dynasty, three of whose portrait prints can be seen in the exhibition.
Many times the rulers of Japan tried to clean up Kabuki and stamp on political content. In 1842 kabuki was heavily censored and some actors were imprisoned.
Kabuki today is a Japanese tradition kept alive as an historical national treasure rather than as popular entertainment.
'Grand champion Shiranui Koemon fighting, 1854' by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864). Collection: Frank Milner
Sumo wrestling is a martial art that may have originally formed part of the training of a samurai warrior.
During the late 17th century, sumo developed into a public spectator sport, typically taking place in temple precincts and accompanied by various religious rituals. Money raised from bouts was used for religious charities and wrestlers were patronised by rich lords whose insignia they often wore on their ceremonial aprons.
Wrestlers were celebrities just like kabuki actors and many prints were made for sumo fans. The greatest sumo wrestlers were Yokosuna or Grand Champions.