THIS REMARKABLE COLLECTION of Japanese armour is probably the finest in private hands outside of Japan. It was first exhibited in Paris last year, then Québec, and the Paris installation was first covered in the January 2012 issue. The 140 objects now in the exhibition come from The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection, in Dallas, Texas, and if the exhibition is anything like its previous venues in Québec and Paris, the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) will be jam packed.
It is fitting that this collection is being exhibited at the MFA, because together with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London, it comprises one of the three greatest repositories of Japanese arms and armour outside of Japan.
The catalogue itself is a massive book and invaluable source for understanding this highly complex and historically lush field. It begins with an introduction by Ogawa Morihiro, contains catalogue text by Bernard Fournier-Bourdier and eight chapter essays by John Stevenson, Sachiko Hori, Stephen Turnbull, John Anderson, Ian Bottomley, Thom Richardson, Gregory Irvine and Eric Meulien. It is a true opus magnus and is the largest and most complete reference book on Japanese armour in a Western language since John Anderson’s Japanese Armour was published over 40 years ago. It covers every aspect of the cultural background of the samurai class, the military history of Japan, the role of samurai women, great technical and historical details and all aspects of the styles, categories and roles of armour in the martial world of Japan, and especially the rise of the samurai class and their feudal lords,
There is something unique about Japanese armour that far transcends its creation as merely utilitarian. Yes, many cultures, especially in Europe, created armour, mainly of iron and steel, often decorated or crafted into exotic shapes, but they never fully escaped their impression as objects of practical use.
In the hands of the Japanese, matters take a drastically different turn. With their penchant for making utility beautiful, the armour of Japan excels. The suits themselves – armour for the torso, face, arms, thighs, shoulders and legs – are generally of a single uniform design of material, colour and construction, but it is with the helmets after the 15th century that flights of fancy soar.
The construction of the various components of a suit can comprise iron (such as in the case of much armour for the torso), chain mail and lacquered lamellar, either of iron of treated leather. The principal function of this uniquely Japanese type of armour is that it not only deflects a direct strike from a sword, but absorbs its energy, not unlike Kevlar. It can do all of this, but unlike traditional European steel body armour, it is lightweight, flexible and can be worn for extended periods of time.
The exhibition contains complete suits, face masks and helmets as its principal components, but also includes outstanding examples of every possible aspect of the arts of Japanese armour for there are 20 suits of armour; 42 helmets; 12 face masks, both half masks (menpo) and full masks (somen), as well as two pairs of stirrups (abumi), matchlock guns, surcoats (jimbaori), two saddles, quivers, polearms and armour for horses, both individual horse masks (bamen), and three complete suits of horse armour mounted on three life-size mannequins with samurai riders that greet visitors at the entrance.
The full suits date mainly from the 17th through 19th centuries, but as in most cases, the body armour and the helmets can differ in date, with the helmets being the older. This is due to the importance of the helmets over the remaining components.
The names of the suits themselves can be confusing because of the Japanese appellations are much more complex than European ones and are mainly based on the construction of the torso armour while helmets generally fall into two categories: rounded helmets (kabuto) and bowls (bachi), each with their own glossary of sub-types. Number 69 is a Yokohagido Tosei-Gusoku suit. Tosei-gusoku basically means a full suit of armour and Yokohagido indicates torso armour composed of five plates connected by four hinges and in the case of this tosei-gusoku, the helmet is Nambokucho period (1336-1392), while the remaining suit is 18th century.
Part of this exhibition is the glorious and imaginative creations used in both the shapes of many helmets, but mainly in their decoration, either in the form of the tall ornaments at the back of a suit of armour (sashimono) or the crests on the front of the helmets (maedate). The most spectacular of the sashimono is on suit number 61 in which they take the form of three 147 cm high feathers. By far the most impressive (and intimidating) maedate is number 79, a terrifying-looking head of a fanged, mythical animal created out of dry lacquer and white horsehair, looking very much like some beast out of an ‘Aliens’ film.
Generally speaking, before the Momoyama period (1573-1603), these highly elaborate elements did not exist to any extent. Battlefield commanders before the 16th century could indicate their position to their forces by the use of tall banners and flags, but the Momoyama period was a time of ostentations display and sometimes outrageous ornaments began to be used. After the vicious civil wars of the Momoyama period, the Tokugawa clan established a new Shogunate government (bakufu) in 1603 away from the traditional capital at Kyoto, in the fishing village of Edo, modern-day Tokyo. A Pax Japonica descended over the country until the bakufu was overthrown in 1868 and the Emperor was established as the de facto head of state.
During this Pax Japonica, the taste for display really took flight, especially in the hands of the great feudal lords, daimyo, who were vassals to the Shogun and took delight in public displays of their comings and goings with their enormous entourages. For that reason many of these wonderfully spectacular suits are referred to as ‘parade suits’ and Boston now has place of honour is hosting this collection of power and display.
BY MARTIN BARNES LORBER
From 14 April to 4 August at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, www.mfa.org.