Bow and saber at the Musée Guimet: the imagination of a samurai

“Samurai”. The name brings back memories. A Japanese warrior dressed in beautiful armor, a symbol of power and loyalty, whose imagination permeates even superheroes from the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun. The regulars of the Guimet Museum seem to remember yesterday the exhibition dedicated to his armor and attributes.

Samurai, imaginary and fantasy side

This was in 2018. But the museum is not finished with this inexhaustible theme. He wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible, except that the conclusion had gone through with it. And the exhibition “Bow and Sword. The Imaginary Warrior of Japan has been rescheduled. Hidden Blessing: On a more modest scale, it now benefits from more surface area than it was originally assigned.

Mirrors of kabuki actors (yakusha awase kagami), sheet 9 Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Japan, Edo period, 1804
Color woodcut print on paper 26.7 × 18.1 cm.
MNAAG, gift of André Nouflare (1952), former collection of Henri Riviera, BG 43929 © RMN-Grand Palais (MNAAG, Paris) / Thierry Ollivier

What was left to tell? “The exhibition of the Daimyo was devoted only to armor, there was nothing in it connected with the imaginary, with fantasy.“says Sophie Macariou, president of the museum and general curator of this new exhibition. However, paradoxically, all that has come down to us from the Japanese warriors is when they laid down their arms.

Let’s go back to 1868. This is the end of the Edo period (the former name of Tokyo), which began around 1600. A period of peace, but also isolation for Japan. “During this period we are no longer at warexplains Sophie Macariou. Generals live in Edo. They regularly return to their land, but without their families, who remain in some kind of hostages.” Gradually they become poorer. And when the country opened up to the West, at the beginning of the Meiji era, the warriors were deprived of the last privilege – to carry weapons – without the right to use them. Some resist, but not for long. That’s when Westerners arrive in Japan, ancient warriors sell their paraphernalia to survive.

Treasures of a Warrior Who Fights No More

Emile Guimet, the son of Jean-Baptiste Guimet, the founder of the chemical company that was to become Pechin, industrialist and collector, began to bring various items from Japan. This was the starting point of the exhibition presented today in Paris. “We donate to the museum 3,000 items out of 57,000 that make up our fund.“, clarifies Sophie Macariou.”This time the subject is not so much history as representation, imagination, adds Vincent Lefebvre, director of conservation and collections at the museum. First, how the samurai portrays himself, but also how he portrays himself.” Although the warrior was a symbol of the warrior’s strength, during the Edo period, the warrior did not fight. “The warrior class, however, takes on a leading role in Japanese society and becomes a writing class in relation to the Buddhist monasteries and the world of arts and sciences. Continues Vincent Lefebvre. Thus, this elite, born at the end of the 9th century, gradually merges with the cultural and political elite, until the emperor restores power over the shogun at the beginning of the Meiji era. “When they disappear, they enter even more into popular culture. They acquire their international fame while they no longer play any role.The warrior becomes a central character in various forms of Japanese theater and his fame continues to this day in anime and manga culture.

Samurai of Satsuma Fortress – photograph from Stilfried and Andersen’s Felice Beato (1832–1909) album Views and Costumes of Japan.
Japan, Yokohama, Meiji period, 1877-1880 – Albumen print, color 19.4 × 24.2 cm – MNAAG, old collection, AP 11388 © RMN-Grand Palais (MNAAG, Paris) / image musée Guimet

But how to explain this infiltration of Japanese culture into our Western societies? “Despite the remoteness, Japanese culture is the most accessible in Asia. Vincent Lefebvre answers. Warriors (bushi) are born in small armed groups. They are reminiscent of European medieval ones, with the same values ​​of fidelity and loyalty to the master.” So much so that the aesthetic of Japanese warriors can be found in Western science fiction, as evidenced by this helmet that oddly resembles Darth Vader’s helmet from the Star Wars saga. Thus, through objects, armour, engravings, clothing and photographs, the Guimet Museum offers an immersion, unfortunately too short without a guided tour, into a mixture of Japanese history and Western fantasy.

47 Ronin

When a samurai loses his master, he becomes a “ronin”, a masterless warrior. The story of the 47 ronin tells the story of a warrior, a daimyo, who greeted the shogun (the country’s military leader) in 1703. To prepare for this meeting, the master of ceremonies teaches him habits and customs. But the latter would be dismissive to the point that the daimyō would kill him in a fit of anger. An unbearable act that will cause a daimyō to commit suicide by “seppuku” (suicide by disembowelment, also called hara-kiri). Thus, the samurai in his service became ronin. Without income, they wander for two years until they decide to regroup to avenge their master. They eventually track him down, decapitate him, and bring his head to their master’s grave. Their act is condemned, and they are also “seppuku”. They will eventually be buried next to their master’s grave. This legend, which today represents an example of fidelity in Japan, has been adapted many times for the theater or in prints such as Hiroshige, 15 of which are on display.

Bow and saber. The imaginary warrior of Japan.

National Museum of Asian Art – Guimet, 6th place Jena, until 29 August 2022

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