By Deborah Wong, Staff Writer
As you enter the ‘Samurai!’ exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, you face three formidable samurai armors. These armors symbolize courage, skills and status in Japanese society. You initially stare in fear at the dragon-shaped horns on the helmet, the protruding nose on the mask and the gold-encrusted swirls on the chest piece. But after understanding that every minuscule detail has a function and meaning, you stare in awe at these majestic Samurais– the military elite of Japan.
The exquisite art of these Japanese warriors fascinate collectors Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller— so much so that eventually expanded their collection into The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum in Dallas, Texas. ‘Samurai!’ shares a selection of these artifacts with Bostonians, illustrating the evolution of these fearsome fighters from the 12th to the 19th century. The samurai is still widely talked about today, and their skills continue to inspire multiple Eastern sports and martial arts. The samurai— with their truly remarkable finesse— are praised for their honorable code based on the seven essential virtues: honesty, courage, respect, benevolence, rectitude, honor and loyalty.
The opening of the collection introduces the overall history of these highly trained combatants. Three soldiers stand erect in full uniform, clutching their weapons: chest armor, footwear, a mask, a helmet, a bow and arrow and a thin sword. Their posture resembles a Buckingham palace guard, but you wouldn’t want to stand too close to these men should they to come to life. As you continue along, parts of the armor are separated for you to analyze each of the traditional opera-like masks, the vibrant horse saddles and the daunting helmets.
The Shogun, or warlords, described the sword as “the soul of the samurai,” but surprisingly there aren’t many swords at the MFA. In fact; only one sword stood out from the whole collection. The single sword was placed in a glass box, almost like it was levitating in the middle of the room. The gold on the handle and the bronze pieces radiated, causing anyone who entered this room to approach the thin piece of steel. Museum guests could not take their eyes off the detailed gold leaves and the shiny lacquer. I applaud them for this intriguing, alluring display of the soul of these fighters.
But hands down, the helmets stole the spotlight; the intricate engravings of the iron and steel are absolutely breathtaking. Certain carved shapes and pieces reveal Japanese beliefs and superstitions. For example, one helmet had what looked like Bugs Bunny ears planted on the top. Since the metal looks extremely long and heavy the design may seem to hinder the warrior’s performance when fighting, but those hare ears symbolize longevity.
Once you step to the next helmet, you’re faced with one that is adorned with little flames on the side and on the top to represent the Buddhist doctrine. Besides that, the pendant for the goddess of archers is emblazoned on the forehead of the helmet. Every little detail matters in the construction of these uniforms.
However the exhibition did not provide any description of the fighting styles of the samurai. They are trained to be precise in their fighting technique yet they also carry some form of art in their movements. The benefit of omitting the gory war scenes is to allow the viewers to imagine for themselves on how these samurai perform on and off the battlefield when they strap on their armors. Plus, with just the artifacts on display, it reminds the audience that they’re not just bloodthirsty killers— they carry some form of grace.
Nonetheless I would personally love to view some aspects of their training. There seems to be a gap in their display of the growth of the start of the samurai’s journey as a 12-year-old boy to the time when he vows to follow bushido, a code to fight and to accept death.
The names and the classes of the samurai may be confusing but, overall the exhibition was able to illuminate on their transformation from generation to generation, providing sufficient background on the cultural and doctrinal beliefs, the military history of them, their feudal lords, and the creation of each individual masterpiece.
The samurai celebrated “tango-no-sekku” to remind the young men of their importance of their samurai status. Now the stories of these Japanese elite fighters aren’t only shared among young men, but among people of all ages. Go see the MFA version of tango-no-sekku where they remind everyone of these revered and warriors.
The ‘Samurai!’ exhibition will run at the MFA through Aug. 4.