Entertainment » Fine Arts

Lords of the Samurai at the Asian Art Museum

by Robert Taylor
Thursday Jun 25, 2009

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum knows where we get our ideas about samurai-from movies such as Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, or maybe from Japanese graphic novels, or even comically violent sketches by actors like John Belushi.

"They were fearless fighters skilled in combat-from bows and arrows to spears and swords, the samurai were awesome dudes," declares the program guide to the museum’s big new exhibit, with rare lowbrow humor.

Awesome is right

"Although samurai were pretty terrifying, they had a softer side that appreciated the finer things in life like art, poetry and tea," the museum staff points out.

And that’s the message of Lords of the Samurai," the stunning exhibit from Japan running through Sept. 20. When samurai warriors weren’t battling to defend the emperor in feudal times, they were writing poetry, supervising peony gardens, painting calligraphy and conducting tea ceremonies. Awesome is right.

"Is this what you expected?" asked curator Yoko Woodson as she led visitors through the introductory gallery displaying the first of more than 160 objects in the exhibit.

An intimate picture

In the center of the room was a 19th century reproduction of ceremonial samurai armor, but it was surrounded by portraits and paintings and scrolls that gave an intimate picture of the lives of these warrior lords.

The exhibit is drawn entirely from the collection of one of the most distinguished warrior clans, the Hosokawa family, which traces its lineage of military nobility back 26 generations. Morihiro Hosokawa, who attended the opening in San Francisco, is chairman of the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo, the source of most of the objects. The Asian Art Museum is the only United States venue for the show.

It’s a scholarly exhibit in spite of the ceremonial swords and 17th century gun, and it may disappoint visitors expecting depiction of samurai violence. "How did members of the warrior class spend their time from day to day?" asked the director of the Eisei-Bunko Museum, Jun’ichi Takeuchi. Clearly, not just sharpening their swords.

The emphasis in Lords of the Samurai is on the more lordly aspects, on cultural and artistic tradition. There are six sets of ceremonial armor on view (five of them reproductions), but far more robes, fans, lacquer ware and tea-service implements. Curator Woodson traveled to Japan to prepare for the exhibit through a grant from the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation.

The Asian Art Museum’s director, Jay Jie Xu, told a preview audience that this is the most renowned collection of its type in Japan-and only a small part of the Hosokawa family’s collection of about 6,000 works of art. Among the surprises on display are nine sketches of tree peonies from a 19th century survey of a Hosokawa family garden, and a rustic-looking Otogoze Raku teabowl, made in the 1500s by Chojiro Raku.

Attaching the armpit protector

There is an extensive selection of colorful, elaborate silk robes that would have been worn by men, some from Noh and Kyogen stage performances, along with typical Noh performance masks.

The small-scale spectacle of the suits of armor is still the major draw - and for good reason. These elaborate outfits and hood-like helmets have been vastly influential, and indeed the exhibit’s posters and billboards resemble an image of Darth Vader in the movie Star Wars.

In this protective garb, the samurai might have looked like glistening, gigantic, exotic beetles. A suit of Tosei gusoku type armor is exquisitely crafted from iron, leather, braided silk, lacquer, wood, metal, woven silk, gilding, leather and dark blue cord lacing. The helmet is surmounted by a crest nearly four feet tall, resembling the curve of an antelope’s horns. It’s sleek but frightening, even sealed in a museum case.

Another suit of armor created in the 19th century reproduces the type worn in battle by Yoriari, the Hosokawa family founder, in the 1300s.

A Domaru gusoku type outfit dates from the 1700s, and it’s more interesting because you can see the worn edges on the metal and fabric, signs of life over the centuries. (The helmet is missing its tall, dramatic pheasant feathers, because they’re from an endangered species and couldn’t be brought into the Unites States. But the plumage can be seen in the catalog photo taken in Japan.)

If visitors, young and old, wonder how this elaborate armor worked, there’s a handy guide posted, How to Put on a Suit of Armor. It clearly and carefully lists the 12 steps, including directions for attaching the "armpit protector."

Lords of the Samurai runs through Sept. 20 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. in the San Francisco Civic Center. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with extended hours until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Admission, $17 adults, $13 seniors, $12 for youths 13-17, including $5 surcharge. Free general admission the first Sunday of every month, but $5 surcharge applies. Information, 415-581-3500, www.asianart.org.


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