“To have the arts of peace, but not the arts of war, is to lack courage. To have the arts of war, but not the arts of peace, is to lack wisdom.” – Hayashi Razan
Starting Saturday, June 28, the Birmingham Museum of Art will present a rare ticketed exhibition, following up the splendid Delacroix exhibition shown in the spring. Rarer still for the staid reputation of an art museum, the exhibition — entitled Lethal Beauty, a collection of samurai arms and armor traveling to Birmingham from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts — is fun, a perfect show for the summer.
Lethal Beauty is a collection of five full suits of samurai armor, along with about a dozen blades, muskets introduced to Japan by the Portuguese and naginatas wielded by the onna-bugeisha, the warrior women of Japan. Dozens of prints depicting famous scenes from Japanese military history, including the Tale of the 47 Ronin, round out Lethal Beauty. The exhibition will be accompanied by two sets of contemporary children’s armor for kids to try on, a Japanese film festival, Japanese-themed Art on the Rocks parties each month and other fun activities.
The arms and armor in the exhibition represent some of the finest martial craftsmanship in the history of the world, but they’re also relics of a highly stratified Japanese social structure, expressions of the religious customs of a society and artifacts detailing the history and values of a culture that is still very much a part of modern Japan.
The rise and decline of the samurai
Dating all the way back to the 10th century, the samurai were the Japanese warrior class until their self-imposed abolition in the middle of the 19th century. According to our popular conception of the samurai, they were a fearless caste of warriors with white-knuckle devotion to the lords they served, prizing honor above all other virtues. The way of the warrior, bushido, was a stoic acceptance of death and duty that was as critical to that class as the chivalric code was to European knights.
That last bit actually gets at the heart of the matter, because there’s not a lot of evidence that the chivalric code was terribly important to most European knights, who were motivated by very relevant goals of greed, conquest and glory. The samurai of the Sengoku period — the Warring States period, a nearly unbroken string of civil wars from about 1467 to 1573 that kept samurai warriors in high demand — had a bit more in common with ruthless, Machiavellian schemers like Richard III than crusaders like Richard the Lionheart.
The Sengoku period came to an end with the triumph of the last of the so-called Three Unifiers of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful warlord who ushered in more than 250 years of peace under his shogunate. During this time, the feudal warlords of Japan — the daimyo — were forced to maintain residences in the city of Edo, now modern-day Tokyo, where their families would be held as glorified hostages. With peace having broken out, and an increasingly centralized government solidifying under Tokugawa’s rule, the samurai began to lose their purpose in Japanese society, and thus had to begin explicitly justifying themselves. What role does a warrior have in a peaceful society?
The armor of Lethal Beauty dates to this Edo period, when the lavish, ornate suits served a ceremonial, rather than martial, role. It was during this time, according to BMA Curator of Asian Art Dr. Donald Wood, that the daimyo began what amounted to a vast public relations campaign.
“They had to make pilgrimages twice a year,” Wood said. “The daimyo were not allowed to live in Edo permanently; they had to go back and manage their estates while their wives and children were basically held hostage. That could be very expensive, managing a lavish lifestyle in Edo, maintaining your castle and maintaining all of your samurai. There were many samurai who were dirt poor.
“They were expected to be in full armor for different ceremonies and for different processions they had to make up and down the country twice a year. It got to be very expensive, but the artisans who crafted these pieces were superb, so the lords who commissioned these pieces just lavished attention on their arms and armor. You’ll see in the exhibition that the detail is just amazing.”
Though these grand processions provided a Japanese equivalent to the Roman notion of bread and circuses, the fact was that more samurai were serving as administrators and bureaucrats than as warriors. Others might become fencing instructors or brigands, but peacetime undermined the entire notion of a warrior class.
In the midst of this existential crisis, the arts became a key aspect of samurai culture, with even the lowliest — as admonished by scholars like the Neo-Confucianist Hayashi Razan, quoted above — learning to master both sword and paintbrush.
“The concentration and the effort that was required to master the Japanese sword, or to become a really good calligrapher, were thought to be one and the same,” Wood said. “There’s a tale of one calligrapher in Japan wanting to give a friend of his a present — his friend had given him this gorgeous rock for his garden, took a hundred men to bring it over and so on — and so this calligrapher sent over, a month or two later, a piece of calligraphy. And the guy who sent over the rock was a little upset. So he went over to the calligrapher’s studio and there were hundreds of samples of this same calligraphy that he’d done, practicing and practicing until he got it perfect. The two go together very much in Japanese thought.”
Wealthier samurai became patrons of the arts, lavishing money not only on their own arms and armor, but also on the ritualized tea ceremony, the flower arrangement of ikebana, calligraphy, painting, ceramics and Noh drama. Just as critically, it was during this period that our somewhat naïve understanding of the samurai as the purely honorable warrior emerged, also in part to solidify the caste’s importance in a peaceful society.
The legitimacy and necessity of the samurai was conveyed through the shock and awe of grand processions and elaborate armor, but it was also conveyed through peerless craftsmanship. No matter how impoverished or irrelevant the samurai might seem during this period — only about a quarter of the caste was ever employed by the shogunate at a given time, with others living on a rice dole — there’s no questioning the quality of their tools.
The fine art of murder
In the early days of the samurai, warriors would shout out their long family lineages before engaging in battle, hoping to avoid the unthinkable shame of being killed by someone of lower rank than oneself. That rigid emphasis on class comes through implicitly in the incredibly ornate armor and weaponry of Lethal Beauty, which combines the brutality of medieval warfare with a refined elegance and attention to detail that seems almost oxymoronic to contemporary sensibilities.
The armor in the exhibition, arranged on traditional tatami mats, differs from the armor worn by Western knights. Made of connecting pieces of plate, lacquer, wood and even papier-mâché, the armor is quite a bit lighter and more versatile than its European counterparts. Reflecting both the religious and the practical aspects of the samurai, many samurai helmets had a hole at the top from which the soul was said to escape, as well as a tube at the chin to release sweat.
When asked if any particular weapon or suit of armor displayed a special sense of the grandeur of the samurai, Wood immediately responded, “Oh, they all do. There’s one when you first get in the show…where the metalwork has been made to look like the color of flesh. That’s pretty impressive, but the one set next to it has these huge gilded blades set into that are two, two-and-a-half feet tall.”
The most impressive craftsmanship, however, comes from the iconic Japanese katana, a weapon that was a personal artistic statement, a symbol of honor and a religious expression all in one. “The Japanese sword can be up to 50 or 60,000 layers of steel,” Wood said. “They would fold it, and every time you folded it, you would have to dip it in ice water to temper it. … It’s a complex process; a good sword would take months to complete. And a sword smith is a Shinto priest, so it’s a very religious activity, making a sword. Each sword is thought to have its own soul, its own spirit, and so each samurai had a name for his sword.”
The dozen or so swords in Lethal Beauty are still razor-sharp, according to Wood.
A national mythology
The terrible majesty of the samurai, combined with their direct patronage of the arts, resulted in samurai becoming the primary subject of Japanese artistic expression, from bunraku puppet drama to epic woodblock prints. The latter constitute the remainder of Lethal Beauty, depicting both famous historical figures of Japan and its most beloved folk stories.
The woodblock printing industry underwent a sort of golden age in the mid-1800s, according to Wood, near the official abolition of the samurai. “In the 19th century, Japan was an incredibly literate population, where most people could read and write in the big cities,” Wood said. “And so all these popular novels needed illustrations, which was a big boon for the woodblock industry. The kabuki theaters needed advertisements, and during the latter part of the 19th century, the Meiji period, historical dramas took place in a very militaristic atmosphere, so you get a lot of samurai depictions from that time. … It was a huge industry, and millions of prints were made. I’ve been here 27 years now, and we now have over 1,000 Japanese prints in our collection, and we’ve never been offered the same print twice.”
The subject matter of the prints in Lethal Beauty is, of course, the samurai, featuring the legendary tales of such warriors as the 47 Ronin. “The Tale of the 47 Ronin is a true story from the early 18th century, in which a lord, or daimyo, was shamed, and forced to commit suicide, and his retainers then became masterless samurai, or ronin,” Wood explained. “They waited and plotted for two years to take their revenge, and then one night they broke into the mansion of the lord who had forced their lord to commit suicide, and they killed him and a number of his retainers. They took the severed head of the enemy to the grave of their lord and presented it. They knew they’d committed a crime, so they immediately turned themselves in to the shogun, who was so impressed by their sense of loyalty and determination to the samurai code that he allowed them the privilege of committing ritual suicide.
“Their remains are in Tokyo, and this became an instant popular folk deal with the Japanese, first as puppet theater, and then as kabuki theater picked it up, and to this day, the story is still performed in puppet theater and kabuki theater, and any number of television shows and films. It’s still incredibly popular,” Wood continued.
The woodblocks also depict the Five Brave Men, five Robin Hood-like figures who fought wicked samurai in Japanese folktales. They also feature historical scenes like the Battle of Honno-ji, which saw the downfall of the first of Japan’s Three Unifiers, the undoubtedly Machiavellian Oda Nobunaga.
Despite the increasing modernization of Japan, the tales of the samurai proved to be enduringly popular, even after the horrors of a truly modern war laid waste to Japan in 1945. The BMA displays shin-hanga, the classicist prints of the long Japanese tradition, while they’ve partnered with UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts to display art influenced by the more modernist sosaku-hanga, prints from the ‘60s and ‘70s on loan from the Museum’s permanent collection. In the process, they show artistic reactions from either end of the most seismic period in Japanese history.
The samurai’s desperation for relevance in a world that seemed to have passed them by sowed the seeds for a profound artistic tradition. That tradition contributed to the militant nationalism of fascist Japan — WWII-era Japanese officers famously bore heirloom katanas — but it also made for the highest expression of national virtues of honor, duty, courage and sacrifice. And in this presentation of the awe-inspiring artifacts of those virtues, Lethal Beauty offers a window into the grand theater of Japanese culture.
Lethal Beauty will show from June 28 to Sept. 21, with a special preview on Friday, June 27. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $10 and are not sold after 4 p.m. each day. For more information, call (205) 254-2565 or visit artsbma.org.