Editors' pick

Samurai: The Warrior Transformed

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Editorial Review

Samurai show is not quite titanic
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 13, 2012

"Samurai: The Warrior Transformed" delivers a bit of a mixed message. Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Tokyo's gift of cherry trees to Washington, the exhibition at the National Geographic Museum celebrates, on the one hand, the roots of the samurai as a fearsome warrior -- with a mildly sword-rattling display of cutlery and armor -- and, on the other, the evolution of the samurai into that most Washingtonian of creatures: the bureaucrat.

As any 10-year-old boy -- or grown-up fan of Japanese samurai movies -- will tell you, it's the first part that's fun. The other stuff makes for a walk on the mild side.

Anchoring the exhibition are several suits of armor. They range from the practical -- with one featuring a solid metal cuirass, meant to protect the torso from gunfire -- to the showy. A particularly fine one features a cuirass made from a series of small, interlocking, enamelled metal plates held together with blue silk threads.

The miscellaneous blades range from a small knife to several examples of swords of the iconic, gently curving variety that most of us think of when we think of samurai.

Made from hot steel that's been folded repeatedly, like pastry dough, they're renowned for the their strength and flexibility. They also they look every bit as lethal as they are. Looking at them, it's easy to fantasize about redressing some perceived offense -- failure to stand to the right on the Metro escalator, for instance -- with a swift, single stroke. (Yes, samurai were once legally allowed to kill people who offended them. Alas, we modern sidewalk samurai will have to content ourselves with a sword-handle umbrella, available in the museum shop for around $30. A collapsible mini version is also for sale.)

One especially fascinating wall of the exhibition features an assortment of ornamental tsuba, or sword grip guards. Their designs range from dragons to cherry blossoms, which symbolize the fleeting nature of life. It's an idea that any samurai contemplating ritual suicide would have been keenly aware of.

That's not the only connection between cherry blossoms and samurai in the show. As samurai evolved from fierce soldiers to sober-minded statesmen and diplomats, they played a key role in organizing the 1912 gift of cherry trees, strenuously lobbied for by National Geographic writer, editor and photographer Eliza Scidmore, who made many trips to Japan, beginning in the late 19th century.

Admittedly, that part of the samurai story is somewhat less exciting than the blood and guts. For an exhibition that's not quite so dry, in more ways than one, you might want to check out another 100-year anniversary show. Just across the hall from "Samurai" is the National Geographic's "Titanic: 100 Year Obsession." Both shows are included in a single admission price.

The story behind the work
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 13, 2012

The enduring obsession with samurai culture isn't just a Western cult. As a series of photographs in "Samurai: The Warrior Transformed" makes clear, many Japanese still harbor a profound nostalgia for that chapter of their country's history, keeping it alive by, say, staging costumed reenactments of famous samurai battles, much as American Civil War reenactors do.

Samurai culture lives on in other ways too, as photographer Michael Yamashita's picture of Kyoto fire department trainees - clad in white, warriorlike headgear - shows. The knight-in-shining-armor get-up isn't so far-fetched. In peacetime, samurai often moonlighted as firefighters and cops.