The bow and the saber – Imaginary warrior of Japan

From March 16 to August 29, 2022 at the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet.

Organized around the character of the samurai, the exhibition retraces the multiple facets of this warrior and his cultural environment: the aristocratic culture, the taste for nô theatre, the tea ceremony or poetry, as well as the way in which he is perceived, even fantasized or parodied. Made up of prints, elements of armour, photographs and works of art, the presentation highlights the resumption of the image of the Japanese warrior by popular culture, illustrating the vision of the samurai in modern Japan. and in the West. The History of the 47 ronins, through the series of prints preserved at the MNAAG, comes to support the point by showing the most emblematic warriors of Japan.

The literate culture of the Japanese warrior
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, warriors are placed at the top of the social hierarchy
Japanese. The lords (daimyo), from the elite and the aristocracy, cultivate the arts and luxury. With the omnipotence of the warrior aristocracy, the "way of the warrior" (bushido) developed, granting fundamental importance to letters and culture, influencing artistic production, as evidenced by the fashion for spectacular and exuberant helmets, the practice of literature and poetry by shoguns, daimyos and samurai. Most daimyos think of their duty and rank to maintain theatrical troupes. The samurai's relationship to aesthetics is also reflected in a number of aristocratic practices and entertainments that they share quite widely with Buddhist monks: the way of tea (chado), the way of fragrant woods (kodo) and the way flowers (ikebana).

The samurai, object of theater and parody
Theater is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Noh, bunraku and kabuki are particularly attached to illustrating the image of the courageous warrior, embodying the values ​​of ancestral Japan. Born in the 14th century, Noh was from the outset the favorite art of emperors, samurai and the aristocratic classes. You can recognize a samurai on stage by his saber (katana) and his costume, which evokes an ideal of military simplicity and reflects the warrior's code: uprightness, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty. In the 17th century, the nascent kabuki, inspired by bunraku puppet theatre, was considered a secondary theater as opposed to nô. Outrageous, sometimes burlesque, very colorful theatre, multiplying combat scenes and love stories, kabuki became very popular because it
addresses itself above all to the people, allowing itself a certain freedom in the caricature and the
criticism of power. Indeed, the public likes to see samurai and lords on stage in sometimes comic or ironic postures.

The story of the 47 ronins
Based on historical facts, The story of the forty-seven ronins depicts a group of masterless samurai (ronins) who decide in 1703 to avenge their former lord, condemned to death by suicide (seppuku), before their own collective seppuku . This act of bravery is considered particularly honorable, a symbol of the unwavering loyalty of these warriors to their master. All the interpretations of this sometimes romanticized story are grouped under the title Chushingura (“The treasure of the faithful vassals”). Many plays are written on this theme, including the most important of them Kanadehon Chushingura. It became an important iconographic source for the artists of the Edo period and in particular the masters of printmaking, including Utagawa Hiroshige, 15 of whose prints on the subject are presented in the exhibition.

The image of the samurai in contemporary culture
A symbol of power and loyalty, a source of fascination for more than a century, the samurai is now part of our imagination. This historical warrior with complex armor, mastering all kinds of combat techniques, has constituted an inexhaustible iconographic source for contemporary artists, from manga comics to cinema, video games and animated films, populated by characters with supernatural and superhero powers.

Sophie Makariou, President of the MNAAG, General Commissioner
Vincent Lefèvre, director of conservation and collections at the MNAAG


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