Exhibition: Samurai Swords

The heart of the samurai and the soul of the swordsmith

Modern warfare is increasingly being depersonalized by long range missiles, so-called smart bombs, and the "virtual battlefield" of electronic information and commands. The current exhibition at the Nezu Museum takes us back to an era when our dirty work wasn't done for us by computers but was "up close and personal," the greatly romanticized era of the samurai and their trusty swords.

With a roomful of beautiful killing implements, this is the kind of exhibition that is bound to attract its share of 'otakus' and morbid oddballs hypnotized by the gleaming blades and their deadly history. But, naturally, this is not the angle the museum is playing up. Rather the emphasis is squarely on the swords' more homely virtues as family heirlooms, objects of beauty, and expressions of individuality.

The oldest swords here, like the one signed Bungo-kuni-yukihira-saku (made by Yukihira of Bungo province), date back to the late Heian era (794-1185), long before the Edo period (1603-1868), when swords lost much of their functional role and assumed an increasingly symbolic one. So, it is more than likely that many of the razor sharp edges on display tasted human blood, either that of slain enemies or perhaps their owners' in an act of ritual suicide.

Compared to European weapons of identical age, these swords are all in excellent condition. There are no nicks or dents and very few visible scratches. One reason for this is the initial strength and quality of the blades, forged in a complex process involving folding and hammering the metal repeatedly to build up thousands of layers. Another is that the blades have been so rigorously polished that any marks on the surface have been rubbed or ground away, often leaving the older blades, like Yoshiie-saku (made by Yoshiie), also from the late Heian or early Kamakura period looking a lot thinner.

This is not to say that these blades are featureless. Quite the reverse. The polishing brings out the 'grain' of the metal, showing different patterns, each one a unique signature. A short sword from the Kamakura period signed Rai Kunimitsu shows a beautiful notare hamon an undulating pattern just behind the cutting edge, revealing where different types of steel have been fused together: one type for strength and flexibility, and the other for sharpness.

As the civil wars of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) started to result in greater unity, the shogunal government sought to pacify the country by disarming the masses. Many confiscated swords were melted down to make statues of Buddha. Only the samurai class were to keep possession of their lethal blades. In the more peaceful atmosphere of the Edo period, however, these weapons remained in their sheaths, and gradually became mere symbols of social status, differentiating their wearers from the common herd.

Although always beautiful and stylish implements, their decoration now became increasingly ornate. The sheath of the blade signed, Senjuin Yasuhige, a weapon of Kamakura vintage, is decorated with an exquisite chohzame (sturgeon) design in black-lacquer while the handle is decorated with rough white shark skin and corded silk. Other sword sheaths and accouterments are pure gold with the precious metal on the handle made to mimic the texture of the more usual shark skin.

Sword hilts are another area where great license was granted artists to delight, with images of herons, geese, butterflies and flowers. A knife sheath is even decorated with a cute little bunny, giving the impression that such weapons were more often shown to ladies or geishas than rattled in anger at military foes.

In the same way that the Japanese art of tattooing developed to hide criminal branding, sword accouterments with all their attendant arts evolved to sheath and beautify the merciless glint of the well tempered steel, veiling the soul of both the samurai and the swordsmith.

Beauty of Swords and Sword Accouterments runs until Mar. 20, 2001 at the Nezu Museum.

Japan Times
11th March, 2001
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