If you’re a fan of the military culture of feudal Japan — and you know you are if you hear the word “samurai” and think “awesome” — this is a grand time to be in New England. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) recently opened Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection (through August 5th), and the Currier Museum of Art is displaying Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor (through May 5). The Currier show is worthy, and the MFA show is stunning. Catalogs accompany both exhibitions; the monograph presented alongside Samurai! must be one of the most lavish treatments of this material ever printed in the English language.
The important theme to keep in mind for these exhibitions is that combat in this milieu was personal. Archers were necessary but could only get you so far. The time would come for you to face down a combatant wielding a length of steel that could be made to pass through you as if you were a stick of butter. The fighting took place at arm’s length, and so did the viewing. You would be close enough to your enemy to admire the decorative knotwork on his throat guard. Such details would speak of the thoroughness and precision that went into his training, and imply commensurate lethality even if they took the form of an inlaid butterfly or a carved peony.
Many other cultures of the world created military hardware with great aesthetic merit. [To see European examples, one could and should make a supplemental trip to the Higgins Armory Museum, which, as of this writing, is set to close in December, its holdings to be transferred to the Worcester Art Museum (WAM). This is a boon for WAM, but it’s hard not to feel sorry about the loss of a local institution with eight decades of history behind it.] But something about the Japanese soul caused deadliness, craft, and imagination to combine in an especially lovely manner in their armament. Many arts were called upon in its production — textiles, wood carving, lacquering, iron forging, and steel working to name the main ones. The care that went into the manufacture was consummate. One comes away from these exhibitions wondering if one is working hard enough at anything.
Samurai! is installed in the MFA’s Gund Gallery to great effect, full of shadows and spotlights. Over 140 objects are on display, with emphasis on an astonishing array of helmets. The distinctive flanged bowl is recognizable to anyone familiar with Darth Vader, but this practical design hailing from the aptly named Warring States Period (roughly 1450–1600) took on inventive embellishments once Tokugawa Ieyasu crushed his last major opponent (the battle involved 160,000 troops), established the Shogunate, and imposed relative peace. One of these examples is a pointed, iron helmet crossed front-to-back and side-to-side by rows of flames, curling gently back at the top as if the wearer was facing a headwind. The form refers to the Buddhist image of the flaming jewel, symbolizing high enlightenment. A frontal crest in gilded bronze represents Marishiten, a warrior goddess revered especially by archers.
Embellishment gave way to full-on reshaping under the Tokugawa Period, and the results are often surprising. One seventeenth-century helmet is meant to invoke bamboo, with its distinctive leaves sprouting out of the back like giant rabbit ears. Another rises almost two feet high and takes the form of an eggplant. This is presented without explanation. Maybe it needs none. You know you’re in trouble when you’re on the field of battle and General Eggplant shows up.
But the real excitement at the MFA are the displays of full sets of armor. Most of these are presented in the usual manner, as if worn by a seated figure, such as the exceptional suit with a cuirass bearing an intricate dragon soaring among clouds made blue with the application of a gold-copper alloy. But three of them have been mounted on life-size representations of galloping horses, furry hides and all, each bearing horse armor. This is arguably the right way to see them, from the view you would have if you were about to be jabbed by a halberd and trampled.
Lethal Beauty at the Currier is a comparatively modest affair, but it has one advantage over the MFA show—more swords. One of these is a tachi from the fourteenth century that was shortened in the sixteenth when the main combat concern changed from the invading Mongols of the Kamakura period to same-sized, less-armored colleagues vying for courtly power. The sinuous temper mark, where the thicker, supporting part of the blade turns towards its edge, snakes up its still-impressive length. Other swords still sporting their handles and scabbards are displayed to allow close inspection, so that one can see carved figurines bound to the bumpy manta ray skin—the preferred grip on a Japanese sword—with silk braid.
The Currier show also has some surprises, such as a sixteenth-century helmet in the shape of a bear head, with bright eyes of white lacquer and gold teeth, and a suit of armor from the eighteenth century with a cuirass fashioned after the emaciated protector deities typical of Buddhist temple decoration, the whole ensemble looking rather like a screaming, mustachioed, bare-chested grandpa ready for all-out war.
My only point of criticism for either of these shows is the video game tie-in orchestrated by the MFA. “Usagi Yojimbo” (literally, “rabbit bodyguard”) is a wonderful, long-running story about an anthropomorphic rabbit ronin by comics great Stan Sakai. Game development company Happy Giant has produced a sword-combat side-scroller in which Usagi attempts to recover a mirror of great mystical import stolen by bandits from a slain priest. A game code posted at the MFA unlocks a suit of armor for Usagi and a special level in which Usagi gets to fight some delightfully creepy bad guys. While the game does Sakai’s style and his characters justice, the layering often goes wrong (Usagi’s helmet has a tendency to appear behind his head instead of upon it), the game code didn’t work on my Android phone (the tablet version accepted it when I got home), and I’m currently stuck in a boss fight on Level Four, getting bombarded with fireballs by a demon because Usagi won’t shoot his bow and arrow upwards as directed. Too, for some reason, there are no Usagi Yojimbo titles among the books in the special exhibition gift shop, which is a shame and ought to be corrected before Sakai and Happy Giant come to speak about their work at the MFA on May 11.