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"Samurai: Beyond the Sword" opens at the Detroit Institute of Arts
The Battles of Ichinotani and Yashima (detail), unknown artist, mid-1600s, ink and gold on paper. Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Gift of Elizabeth and Willard Clark.

DETROIT, MICH.- There is a lot more to the legendary Japanese samurai than meets the eye, and visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Samurai: Beyond the Sword will experience the nuanced culture of these revered warriors through more than 125 artworks that tell their story. The exhibition is on view March 9–June 1, 2014.

Samurai: Beyond the Sword is based on the traveling exhibition Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor, from the collection of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture. Birgitta Augustin, DIA associate curator and acting department head of Arts of Asia & the Islamic World, along with consultant Masako Watanabe, curated Samurai: Beyond the Sword.

The exhibition offers an in-depth look at the samurai—shoguns (supreme military rulers), daimyo (regional lords) and soldiers—who sought balance between military and cultural pursuits. The exhibition explores artworks that project the image of the samurai not only as fierce warriors but also as patrons of the arts and sophisticated artists and scholars during the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603–1868).

“There has long been a fascination with Japan’s elite samurai warriors,” said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. “Some people might not be aware that to become a samurai, study of the arts and literature was required, along with military training. The artworks in the exhibition provide a look at these various facets of samurai culture.”

Menacing suits of armor and meticulously crafted sword blades are evidence of the samurai's military might, while exquisitely painted scenes of nature and finely crafted tea ceremony objects reveal their aesthetic ideals. Many objects used for battle are embellished with artistic, literary and spiritual symbols, illustrating the integration of samurai values.

Among the artworks are helmets, face masks, and paintings of legendary Buddhist and Chinese figures, as well as scenes of epic battles, shimmering Noh theatre costumes and illustrated classical literature on screen and scroll paintings. These and other objects reveal the principles of awareness and mindfulness that samurai pursued throughout their lives.

Samurai means “one who serves,” and, at one point, they were warriors who served Japan’s emperor and nobility as swords for hire. Over time, the samurai organized into powerful warrior bands with the manpower and military training to grasp political control for themselves. For several centuries, warring samurai factions battled for land and supremacy.

This changed in 1603, when the country was unified by Tokugawa leyasu, the supreme military ruler, known as the shogun. The rigid laws and social hierarchy he and his successors enforced kept Japan relatively peaceful under the Tokugawa rule for more than 250 years. As warfare became less prevalent, samurai military equipment became powerful displays of warrior heritage, pride and power.

The samurai were officially disbanded in 1876 and were no longer permitted to carry swords. The exhibition presents innovative examples of how samurai weapons and fittings were recycled and given new purposes, such as a bonsai basin from sword sheaths and a pill box from sword fittings.

An array of programs will be offered to enhance the themes in the exhibition, including artist demonstrations of a Japanese tea ceremony, floral arranging, martial arts, kiting, bunraku-inspired puppets and performances on traditional Japanese instruments. Among the Detroit Film Theatre offerings are The Sword of Doom from 1965; A Story of Floating Weeds, a 1934 silent film presented with live music; and 2004’s The Twilight Samurai, winner of 12 Japanese Academy Awards.

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