Monday, June 2, 2014

Samurai at the Detroit Institute of Art

Me in Japan 2003.
I love Japan. Where this love originated, I do not know. An art teacher in high school suggested that in a previous life I must have lived in Japan, and this is entirely possible. While I was there in 2003, Japan felt like home in a way that Michigan never has. I truly felt like my life was complete while I was there, and a part of me has been missing since I left. Thus, whenever I see things that are in any way Japanese-related, like, say, the exhibit that closed Sunday at the Detroit Institute of Art entitled Samurai: Beyond the Sword, I MUST SEE THEM. 

One of my majors in college was in Asian Studies with an emphasis on Japan, so a lot of exhibits I come across don't show me anything particularly new. The DIA exhibit, however, was pretty good! Everything they had was in remarkable condition, and there was, as the name implies, more than weapons and armor. (Though there was plenty of that, too. My favorite suit of armor was of a lower ranking samurai who had compiled his suit from cast-offs of other samurai. I thought he did a fine job, keeping it in a lovely blue and purple scheme.)

No photos were allowed
at the DIA. Here is a
 picture of armor I took
from a temple in Japan.
This exhibit had a room devoted to literature and paintings by the samurai class, another for noh theater, another for the tea ceremony and tea accouterments, and more. It wasn't just about being a warrior class. Also, they had Japanese guns on display, which the samurai admitted were a superior in strength weapon (they did manage to invade Korea and capture Seoul using firearms in 1592), but only until close combat ensued, when the sword reigned supreme. They also believed that the gun was a weapon that didn't require skill or discipline (farmers were occasionally armed as gunners in battle while the "real warriors" went out with swords and spears), therefore it was over-all inferior to the sword, which was all about discipline.

I guess my only complaint is that not enough attention was paid to samurai women. It would have been fantastic to have had even a corner of a room that talked about onnabugeisha (though they did have the actual picture featured on the page of the previous link, it was just in a line of other Forty-Seven Ronin prints). There was talk of the Genpei War (1180s), but I didn't see Tomoe Gozen's name anywhere. I saw one naginata, yet nothing about the close ties it had, and continues to have, to women. (While in Japan, I was lucky enough to learn a basic naginata maneuver. I tried to pursue the study upon returning to the US, but I guess it just isn't as popular as the katana here.)

Samurai historical reenactor
at Eiga Mura (Movie Village)
in Japan.
There were a couple of handwritten, hand-painted novels, at least one of which was written by a woman, The Tale of Genji (Genjimonogatari). The highly convoluted court language of the late Heian period was barely understood even 100 years after the novel was written, so consequential copies were extremely, and beautifully, illustrated so that "readers" could still follow the story. (Yosano Akiko was the first to translate it into modern Japanese in the early 20th century.) I had to straighten out a couple of guys here who refused to believe that Genji was the world's first novel. They insisted it had to be something European like Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Though Don Quixote is considered "a founding work of modern Western literature" (Wikipedia), it is far from the world's first novel. The younger was impressed and we chatted a bit. The elder man, however, wouldn't even look at me. (C'est la vie.)

Overall, I really was pleased with this exhibit in how it showed the beautiful artistic side of samurai and not just the awesome killing. I have seen two samurai exhibits previously, one in Osaka Castle in Japan which featured a sword that, it claimed, still had on it the dried blood of the last man it killed, and another more recently in Montreal of last year that had a ton of armor, helms, and weaponry, as well as a focus on the spiritual side, mostly Zen beliefs and philosophies. This latter truly complemented the DIA exhibit. If they could be combined into one giant exhibit, I think it would be the best samurai exhibit ever!

Now I want to look into the history of onnabugeisha and other samurai women and write an article on them. Or maybe just a blog post. Ah well. As they say in Japan, ja ne!

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a great exhibit. I would have enjoyed it if I could have you there to explain things to me.