What’s more terrifying than being charged at by a team of deadly warriors?
If the Currier Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor,” is any indication, it’s being charged at by warriors sporting malicious metal face guards atop horses wearing dragon masks.
That’s how the samurai did it for about 700 years. Their armor was created to frighten, but the intimidating look was secondary to their weapons, which were carefully crafted to kill.
Centuries later, the samurai live on. Not in the same way they did in pre-industrial Japan — the Japanese government officially disbanded the warriors in 1876 — but rather, in their seven codes of conduct, in their martial arts teachings, in their values of honor and dignity, and, in this case in particular, their beautiful armor and weapons.
The Currier’s exhibition showcases the craftsmanship of each helmet, each mask, each deadly-to-the-touch blade, which were all made by hand. Sixty-three items from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture will reside in the Currier this spring in a show unlike anything regular visitors have seen in Manchester.
“We often try to do shows of important work that is not represented in the Currier’s permanent collection. There’s no Asian art; there’s no ancient Greek art. It’s almost all Western,” said Kurt Sundstrom, Currier curator. “We think it’s our responsibility as a center for the arts community in New Hampshire to present a variety of work.”
This exhibition does indeed tell a unique tale. The samurai came to power shortly after the Genpei War (1180-85), which was fought between feudal clans of Minamoto (or Genji) and Taira (or Heike). This war culminated in the battle of Dannoura in 1185, according to the exhibit panels. The end resulted in a new era for Japanese history, marking the rise of the samurai.
When you first walk into the exhibition, what captures your eye is the armor. Each suit was unique to its owner and in some way, usually described the wearer. A bear helmet meant a fiercer warrior, an embellished sword was perhaps a sign of wealth. A sword was like a fashion statement, said Andreas Marks, director and chief curator of “Lethal Beauty” from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in California.
But the samurai warriors who did fight in their armor, with their swords, found success.
“The helmets are relatively light,” Marks said.
They don’t always look that way; the first suit of armor you see when you walk into the exhibit is accessorized with a large, metal horned helmet (kabuto). It looks too heavy and cumbersome for combat, but in actuality, the horn is crafted from a thin sheet of wood varnished with gold lacquer.
The rest of the armor, too, is beautiful, yet practical. Samurai moved more freely and easily with a helmet, neck guard (shikoro), shoulder guard (sode), thigh guard (haidate) and shin protector (sun-ate), than, say, a European suit of armor.
“If you look at it [the armor] in regards to the European knights, this is moveable,” Marks said. “If you’re a knight, once you fall down, it’s over.”
Many of the masks you’ll see in the exhibit have menacing, cartoon-villain characteristics, but these too served a practical purpose. The face armor (mengu) protected the warrior’s face, but also fastened the warrior’s helmet. Underneath the chin, there are perspiration holes for comfort.
“In my recollection, the samurai armor is the most aesthetically beautiful, in terms of functional armor,” Sundstrom said. Spain, for instance, had beautiful ceremonial armor, but it wasn’t practical. “They take such pride in their work, and it’s a thing that continues to this day. Craftsmanship is very important in Japanese culture.”
Perhaps the most intriguing piece on display is the mythic Katana sword. The weapon’s origins date back to at least the 12th century. These swords were made by master craftsmen who had undergone rigorous apprenticeships involving years of study, followed by a lifetime of dedication. A single sword could take up to a year to make, but a Katana was forever; the sword’s “mystical connection” to its owner caused some to believe that the Katana embodied the soul of the samurai. In many ways, this is what they said protected their life and sustained their livelihood, Sundstrom said.
“It was shocking to me, to see how gorgeous the swords were, to think that they were all hand-made, hand-polished, not machine-made at all,” Sundstrom said.
A mini evolution of weaponry is explained in the exhibit; warfare changed as fewer warriors fought on horseback, and swords became shorter for better access, Marks said.
Multi-paneled screens of historic battles round out the display. These battles (or “episodes”) are drawn from The Tale of the Heike (one of the greatest warrior epics of Japanese literature). You have to look closely to see the stories: the warrior fishing his bow out of the water to keep his enemies from capturing it (and thus, them seeing what terrible weapons they were fighting with); a woman waving a fan at her enemies teasingly, betting they they’re too terrible to shoot an arrow through it.