Most people think of samurai as fierce swordsmen attuned to violence, but the artifacts currently on display in Samurai: The Way of the Warrior at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville reveal a commitment to impeccable craftsmanship as well as deadly force. On loan from the Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy, the exhibition boasts a priceless collection of ceremonial suits of armor, handscrolls, katanas (swords), and other samurai-related relics rarely seen outside of Japan.
Some of the most exciting artifacts on display have nothing to do with battle. “There is a 60-foot handscroll commemorating the visit of the 12th Tokugawa shogun to the tomb of the first Tokugawa shogun. It’s a remarkable record of the people and objects involved in this procession,” Ginny Soenksen, assistant curator of interpretation, tells The Creators Project. A translation reveals that it was written in 1843 and that the artist was 83 years old when he painted the scroll.
One of the oldest items on display is a katana dating to 1571, a turbulent era in Japan, which implies that the sword saw combat. Most of the armor on display was crafted during the peaceful 18th and 19th centuries, however, and these pieces tend to be more ornamental. Materials like gold lacquer, smoked deerskin, paper mache, and bear fur were used as much for aesthetic purposes as functional ones. One of the more surprising discoveries was the technique of using stringray skin to wrap sword hilts.
“Stingray skin, when dried, is covered with bumpy nodules that provide a non-slip surface. Having this material would have improved the grip of the swordsman, especially in the heat of battle when hands are damp with sweat and blood. It’s the same idea as having a tread on tires or shoes to prevent slipping—pretty incredible to see the concept achieved with natural materials,” Soenksen explains.
To complement the physical collection, the museum will host a series of films and lectures, offering a broader look into the life of a samurai. Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai are two highlights. For those looking to explore lesser-known films, the curator suggests Ran or Kagemusha, which feature original 16th century armor on loan from museums, as well as recreations from Marutake Sangyo Co., which reportedly crafts 90 percent of the armor used in modern day film interpretations.
As for more mainstream films like The Last Samurai, that depicts the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, the armor and weaponry are crafted for drama, not historical accuracy. “Most of the samurai leaders fought in military uniforms inspired by French or English designs, while their subordinates fought in simple Japanese clothes, not armor. They also made heavy use of artillery and firearms—they didn’t ride into battle wielding nothing but swords unless they were out of bullets,” Soenksen says.
Samurai: The Way of the Warrior is at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts through January 16.