The exhibition is a contrast between whimsy and deadly ferocity; the armor and helmets are colored, gilded, shiny and fantastical in form; the swords displayed as just blades are abstract perfection; pure, spare and deadly. The helmets in particular bring a smile to my face, they are so funny, who made this stuff up! Who in their right mind thought a pair of clam shells protruding like bat ears from a helmet was going to inspire fear and awe? But there it is, improbable, beautifully executed in metal, wood and lacquer. Of course, in full garb, not as disjointed objects, the whole presentation of a samurai must have been fearsome with their face covered by a mask, the helmet sometimes enormous above them, covered by flexible lacquered iron plate armor, and armed above all, with swords so sharp and strong that nothing could stop them.
I had to crib pictures from the Met's website and the catalogue and am not completely happy with the images, but they do serve to give a flavor of what is in the exhibit. I will start with what most amused me the helmets and armor:
Edo period, 18th century.
wood, lacquer, silk and iron.
Kyoto National Museum
Again, who thought a stylized cut out of a pagoda was going to inspire awe and fear? But somehow the scale of it, the total height of the helmet is almost three feet, and beautiful execution are remarkable, and the little horns above the brow are a cute touch, I am sure meant to intimidate, but the horns of a fallow deer are going to impress me? Not so sure about that.
Edo period, 17th century.
Iron, lacquer, cord, silk, wood and papier-mache.
Helmet with crest of Clamshells.
Edo period, 17th-18th century.
Iron, lacquer, silver, gold, silk and wood.
Iwakuni Art Museum, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
(scanned from the exhibition catalog)
This helmet cracks me up, what look like huge bat ears are in fact clam shells, done in gilt and lacquered wood, outward facing in heraldic stance. Who thought this up, who ever thought that left overs from dinner, the discarded clam shells would intimidate your enemy? And yet like the pert ears of some diminutive dog, these ear like decorations indicate an enemy at full attention. I guess. Whatever, this helmet illustrates the whimsy, imagination and incredibly beautiful execution of the armor in the exhibition.
Helmet in form of Rabbit ears.
Edo period, 17th Century.
Iron, lacquer, wood and papier-mache.
Yasukuni-jinja Shrine, Tokyo
(scanned from the catalog)
The range of forms that the helmets take is so idiosyncratic that it leads one to think that they reflect their owners own wishes, beliefs, and how they wanted to present themselves to the world. It is almost as if each samurai had a vision quest and from it took an emblem that was theirs alone. Certainly on the massed field of battle, a distinctive helmet allowed one to be picked out from a crowd, which may partly explain the diversity of the forms employed. But there is a humor, whether intended or not, that makes this exhibition so rewarding for the viewer.
But last, but definitely not least, the swords. The swords are the real draw, nothing else like them exists in the West. The ultimate expression of the warrior, and the height of technological innovation for their time, just the blades are presented, no hilts or scabbards or fittings, those are displayed separately. When you learn how the blades were forged, you look at these lengths of steel with awe. It takes 16 men three months to make a true Japanese sword. The steel is specially smelted in a three to four day melt, then forged, folded and folded and again and again; as much as fifteen times or more, to create as many as a million layers of steel, producing an reproducibly hard and strong blade. To give it flexibility a lower carbon steel rod is inserted into the blank, all this forged again, shaped by hammer, before being tempered in a ritual heating and sudden cooling that produces the final shape and hardness. And then, another specialist, the polisher takes the blade and grinds and polishes it for two weeks to create the final shape and polish. In the exhibition is a great brief video of the process, and online there are others.
What impressed me about some of the blades in the exhibition was their extreme age, the earliest examples date to the Kofun period, that is Fifth Century A.D., and the recognizable polish, tempering line, and form of the true Japanese sword is seen as early as 7th Century with one of the most beautiful swords in the exhibition, a straight blade known "Water Dragon Sword" is Nara Period, 8th Century, and nearly in perfect condition. This is a continuous artisinal tradition, over fifteen hundred years old, and still being practiced today by artisans, some of whom themselves have been designated as living National Treasures. We have no equivalency in the West, our history is too fractured for a traditional form of art to have survived and be valued for a millenia and a half.
Below is just one example from the Met website, as the swords have to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Blade for a Slung Sword, known as "Dai Hannya Nagamitsu"
Kamakura period, 13th Century.
Steel, Length 29 inches.
Tokyo National Museum
"This sword is called "Dai Hannya name because in the Muromachi period it was valued at 600 kan (equal to about 2,250 kg of silver) and that there are 600 volumes -also refered to as kan- of the Dai Hannya Sutra (Heart Sutra)."
It boggles the mind, a single sword being worth the two and half tons of silver. Yes that is right, tons of silver. Granted silver is not gold but that is an enormous value for a simple steel blade.
To read the catalog entries is to get lost in a whole vocabulary that attempts to put into words slight visual differences between blades. I will quote from one such description from the catalog entry for 86, a dagger by Masamune:
"The forging pattern is itame (wood grain), formed by mixing hard and soft steels, and is rich in ji-nie (visible crystals of steel in the flat area of the blade) with chikei (bright, short curving lines). The hamon (tempering pattern) is gunome mixed with notare (compact, irregular waves and broad undulations, respectively), has numerous nei, and is rich in variations, including areas of nioi, a tight, "snowlike" pattern comprising a crystalline structure in which the individual crystals of the steel are visible to the naked eye. Nioi is sometimes likened poetically to clusters of blossoms on distant cherry trees....."
As you can read above, there is a whole language in Japanese to describe the patterns visible on the swords resulting from the chemistry and forging of the steel. It is rather like reading the description of wines, an attempt to put into language a sensuous experience that is beyond verbalizing. It makes for tough but rewarding reading, forcing you to really look at what otherwise appear to be relatively similar if not nearly identical lengths of sharpened steel. You then start to see the patterns on the blades and one really is distinct from another.
Of course my inquiring mind posits the question; after all the enormous effort and labor that goes into the forging of a sword such as these, does it produce a demonstrably superior blade to any other? How would a typical European knight fared against a Samurai? Would one of these fabulous swords sliced the knight up into pieces, armor and all? I'd like to think so, but I don't know, they never faced each other in battle. By the time the Europeans encountered Japan they already had guns, so had the edge on the sword weilding Japanese. Of course the Japanese quickly adopted Western armaments, and became a world power by the beginning of the 20th Century.
On a concluding note, the Times had a little blurb noting that more men have been going to this exhibition than is usual, which is interesting. Certainly I am fascinated, and normally I eschew masculine things, but like Achilles who was hiding in the womens quarters in drag, when shown swords, went right for them, and blew his disguise and so was drafted into the Trojan war. Perhaps it is in our male dna, a fascination with weapons regardless of our various persuasions. Just a thought.