Samurai Armor as a Fashion Statement

Dressed to Kill: Japanese Arms & Armor’ at the Cincinnati Art Museum features more than 130 objects including weapons, artwork and 11 suits of armor.

With a title like Dressed to Kill: Japanese Arms & Armor, you might think this is purely a warlike exhibit, aiming for throngs of young (and older) men rushing to the Cincinnati Art Museum through May 7 to imagine themselves in battle with the weaponry on display.

And there may be that aspect to it. But really, despite — or because of — the clever pun of a title, the way to think of this show is as a fashion exhibit, not unlike the Taft Museum of Art’s current Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris. Only it is one where the decorative objects are samurai armored neck guards instead of gemstone-bedecked necklaces; katana swords with long curved blades rather than bracelets and brooches. 

Really, the designers who installed this show for Asian Art Curator Hou-mei Sung may have been thinking the same thing. The central attractions of this 130-plus-object exhibit, which also includes weapons and artwork, are 11 suits of armor. (Three are from the museum’s collection; the rest are on loan from collector Gary Grose.) 

In their rooster-ish helmet bowls with turned-back deflectors, wearing ominous battle masks that sometimes have real-hair mustaches above the mouth openings, the suits of armor are posed as if they are seated models — you can imagine crossed and folded legs. Displayed on roped-off platforms, they seem a little like runway models. Displayed on roped-off platforms, they seem to each have a personality. 

The term “samurai,” museum information informs us, means “one who served,” and Japanese samurai were elite soldiers with a strict code of honor, called bushido, which had religious elements. Samurai warfare virtually ended by the mid-17th century. Samurai families became Japan’s political elite. Their political power ended by 1867. 

The most notable exception to these more “recent” objects is the show’s signature piece, a suit of armor from 1596 made by Saotome Iyetada from metal and fabric. To say this one has teeth is not merely a euphemism for noting that it has a powerfully imposing visual presence. It really has teeth, lining the facial mask’s open mouth and looking ready to bite. (The museum assures these aren’t real teeth.) 

It also has hinged flaps on its arm protectors, possibly to hold easy-to-reach opium balls for wound-inflicted pain, and a secret compartment in the chest protector where the warrior kept silver pieces given in exchange for the heads of slain enemy soldiers. It’s evident a great deal of practicality went into this suit of armor’s design and it’s a fascinating object.

Another one of the suits, from the early 19th century, is for a child. Made of metal, doeskin and fabric, it is more resplendent than fierce with its headdress-shaped helmet and wave-shaped turned-back deflectors. Rare today, these small-scale suits were presented to children by their samurai families as coming-of-age gifts. 

For anyone who has ever seen the great samurai movies of the genius director Akira Kurosawa, it’s easy to accept that an exhibit about samurai is appropriate for an art museum. 

The exhibit also has samurai-related objects created as artwork — woodcuts, calligraphy, ceramic jars and two spectacular handmade banners created for an event called Boy’s Day. Still, there are some things here hard to view as artful in their own right. I barely glanced at the section on matchlock guns, for instance.

But the art museum does try to put the weaponry into an artistic context. That can be a tricky balance. For instance, we are informed that a “short sword” made in 1839 by Kato Tsunatoshi passed the “tai tai” cutting test — it sliced through a person’s neck and upper arm bones cleanly. (The victim, we are informed, was the cadaver of an executed criminal.) 

It’s not all that pretty of an image. But on display just below the sword is its scabbard with black-lacquer finish, which sparkles from the reflective crushed shells it contains. It’s so gorgeous you could wear it without the sword. 

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