Samurai values, techniques and legends have long fascinated Westerners. Initially armed servants, samurais later became experts in the skill and warfare. A new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), opening Oct. 19, displays in fascinating detail the evolution of Samurai armor, skills and lore.
The special show, Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection, incorporates the evolution of the samurai war craft as well as the evolution of the craftsmanship of armor making. Samurai arose when Japan ended mandatory military service in 792 forcing landowners to rely on their own private forces. This gave rise to the legendary samurai class.
Used initially for small-scale combats between equestrian archers, armor were to vast armies of infantry using swords, spears and eventually gunpowder, guns and more modern weaponry. The armor (for both the men and their horses) evolved with the weaponry.
Samurai armor consisted of a helmet (kabuto), a mask (mengu) and chest armor (dō) along with thick shoulder guards, sleeve covers, a skirt, protection for thighs and shin guards. Unlike the heavy armor or Europe, the complete outfit for samurai only weighed between 20 and 45 pounds. Rather than being crafted from large plates of metal, the Japanese armor was made using small perforated plates that were lacquered and sewn together with colorful silk cord and intricate workmanship that made them beautiful easier to wear and fit garments that wear handed down from father to son. Creating an outfit involved blacksmiths for the metal, leather-craftsman, weavers, embroiderers and metal smiths who added elaborate ornamentation.
The LACMA exhibition contains more than 140 warrior objects from the 12th to the 19th centuries, including 18 complete suits of armor and some life-size armor-clad horse figurines. The samurai collection objects are part of a traveling exhibition from the Dallas-based Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, which holds one of the most comprehensive private assemblages of samurai armor in the world. Their collection encompasses several hundred pieces from 10 centuries of samurai warriors.
“When we think about the figure of the warrior throughout history, there are few more iconic representations than the samurai of Japan,” said Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. “The Samurai Collection assembled by Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller is truly exceptional, and we are so glad to be able to share these incredible objects with Los Angeles.
Various types of armor are featured, such as:
- The Tatehagidō armor features horse armor (bagai), horse masks (bamen) and horse tack (bagu). Starting in the 17th century, samurai recognized that their horses needed armor, for show as well as protection. The elaborate horse armor then developed reflected the owner’s prestige even for ceremonial display during peacetime, as a result fanciful masks and armor were developed, included several shown in the LACMA show.
- The Okegawadō armor displayed in the exhibition illustrates how armor became largely decorative once peace marked the end of samurai dominance.
The exhibit with displays of battle armor enhancing the lore of the samurai will remain at LACMA in Los Angeles until Feb. 1, 2015. It will be joined by a related-Samurai exhibit starting Nov. 1, 2014, and running through Mar. 1, 2015, focused on swords and works of art. That show will have detailed information on swords, sword fittings and other weaponry and well as battle screens and paintings made for the samurai will also be on view.
By Dyanne Weiss