Popular culture has turned the samurai warrior into a mythical figure: gleaming swords, embroidered armor, military cunning and a scowling countenance.
But look beyond the myth and you find a more complex figure, as exemplified by the exhibit “Samurai: Beyond the Sword” at the Detroit Institute of Arts through June 1.
Stroll through the meticulously designed show and you find a figure of contradictions, a practitioner of Bu (the arts of war) as well as Bun (the arts of peace). Samurai were as likely to seek diplomacy through a weapon as through, well, a tea cup.
The 130-plus pieces in the exhibit date from the early 1600s through the mid-19th century and speak of a cultural divide between ancient and modern Japan, although the notion of “honor” remains at the center of both. And yet most people – including Americans – have no concept of the softer side of the samurai says Birgitta Augustin, DIA acting department head of the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World, and the exhibition’s curator.
What: “Samurai: Beyond the Sword”
Where: Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit
When: Through June 1
Admission: $16 adults, $8 for ages 6-17, free for DIA members. All tickets are sold for specific times and dates.
Information: 313-833-4005 or dia.org
“The original samurai heritage is rooted in Japan and families who derive from that heritage still take pride in it,” she says. “The elite warrior class is still very important in Japan. The problem in western culture, I think, is that during the course of the last 10 to 20 years all of the exhibitions were showing the military side and were negating the other side of samurai culture. I don’t know how much of what that culture really was is understood by people in the West. I would say the majority see only the warrior side, not only in America but in Europe as well.”
The exhibit hardly downplays that warrior heritage; there’s enough weaponry here to wage a modest war. But when it comes to conquest, Augustin says, the samurai were no one-trick ponies.
“War and battle and the struggle for power always played a big role in samurai culture from medieval times,” she explains. “It was all about power and territory. It’s just that they used different tools to play out their power as in the so-called tea ceremony, or as we call it, 'warrior tea.' It’s a power struggle and a political negotiation, but it’s a little bit different than what it was before. (That said), samurai families were still trained from childhood in the military arts. That never ceased.”
What exactly do you find in the exhibit? Helmets, face masks, swords and arrows with quivers. You also survey paintings of legendary Buddhist and Chinese figures, scenes of epic battles, colorful Noh theatrical costumes and pottery, including the aforementioned ceramic tea ware. And because samurai culture required the study of arts and literature in addition to military prowess, the show features several manuscripts, including The Tale of Genji, an 11th century work sometimes called the first novel ever written.
“Beyond the Sword” is actually a hybrid show whose roots lie in “Lethal Beauty,” a touring exhibit of samurai weaponry that originated at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, Calif. The DIA then fleshed it out with cultural pieces from its own collection, along with loaned works from the University of Michigan and private collectors.
More than simple entertainment, the show hopes to educate as well. As the show catalogue states: “Samurai means ‘one who serves,’ and at one point they were warriors who served Japan’s emperor and nobility as swords for hire.” The samurai became so powerful over the years that they eventually broke into warring factions, before being brought under control in 1603 by Tokugawa leyasu, Japan’s first shogun.
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The samurai were officially disbanded in 1876 and no longer allowed to carry swords.
The exhibition offers a number of interactive and complimentary elements, from audio guides in English and Japanese to storytelling, live music and demonstrations in the Japanese tea ceremony and flower arrangement. The museum will also show a series of samurai-related films at the Detroit Film Theatre, including Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 classic Yojimbo, about a samurai who rescues a village being terrorized.
“The interactive element is very important,” says Augustin. “An art exhibit should not only be for scholars. It shouldn’t be only for the adult community either. We want to teach and excite people. We want children to leave the exhibition saying ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. I want to learn more.’ ”
If the samurai remain relevant in the modern world, it may be to remind us that courage and culture are opposite sides of the same coin.