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Samurai in San Francisco

At the Asian Art Museum, 'Lords of the Samurai' glimpses the warrior-aesthetes who combined martial prowess with cultural attainment.

July 19, 2009|Charles Burress

SAN FRANCISCO — The year is 1600. The only slings and arrows assailing Shakespeare are of the metaphorical kind. But on the other side of the globe, an unsurpassed literary master of a different stripe is strapped in samurai armor and preparing for death as his tiny band of 500 warriors faces an enemy army of 15,000.

Suddenly, the looming defeat is blocked. The Japanese emperor has issued an edict stopping the battle. The reason: The besieged samurai leader, Yusai Hosokawa, a skilled fighter who grew up in the era depicted in the famous Kurosawa film "Seven Samurai," was also a celebrated poet, esteemed scholar and, most important, the only living possessor of a secret, orally transmitted body of knowledge about the imperial poetry classic, the Kokin Wakashu.

This deus ex machina rescue not only lends support to those who believe the pen is mightier than the sword. It also helps explain why the "Lords of the Samurai" exhibit at the Asian Art Museum opened with a solemn ceremony that was highly unusual for American museums and that featured a meticulously prepared cup of Japanese tea placed in offering to a painting of the long-ago rescued warrior.

Prominent in the hushed group of ceremony observers was Morihiro Hosokawa, a former prime minister of Japan and the 18th head of the Hosokawa line of former samurai lords that includes the one honored with the tea. Perhaps by coincidence, the current Hosokawa sat facing a brightly colored, intricately detailed suit of samurai armor, as if he were looking into an ancestor-revealing mirror. The armor, also in a seated posture, was a faithful replica made in 1829 of the 14th century battle dress worn by the founder of the Hosokawa clan.

It was a fitting launch for an exhibition extraordinary in several ways. Nearly all of the 166 objects come from the collection gathered over nearly seven centuries by the Hosokawa family, one of Japan's most distinguished and long-standing samurai clans. Several of the items are classified as cultural treasures by the Japanese government. The exhibit, exclusive to San Francisco, represents the first comprehensive display of the Hosokawa collection in the United States. And it's an assortment that even the Japanese could not see in one place. Though the objects are taken largely from the Hosokawas' Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo, a few are drawn also from other sources, including the Asian Art Museum's holdings.

The items offer an intriguing glimpse of the elite class of the samurai, those extinct warrior-aesthetes who combined highly disciplined martial prowess with refined cultural attainment and who continue to shimmer with a captivating glow on the stage of history. The exhibition title, "Lords of the Samurai," refers to the samurai rulers known as daimyo, who governed the regional domains for the top military ruler, the shogun. Luckily, the Hosokawa daimyo, known for their extra emphasis on erudition and culture, preserved not only military hardware but also fragile works of art and craft.

Along with sword blades of unmatched craftsmanship are delicately rendered paintings, large decorative screens and brilliantly illuminated hand scrolls. The martial and artistic often merged, as shown in the intricate designs and decorations of sword scabbards and other accessories.

Among the highlights is the masterful painting of a wild horse by swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, who served the Hosokawas in the 17th century. The section devoted to him features also the training swords he carved from oak and a disciple's copy of his "Book of Five Rings," a work still read today for its lessons not only in martial arts but also in strategy and philosophy.

Eliciting smiles from visitors is a small, 17th century picnic set made of lacquered wood and attributed to Sansai Hosokawa, known for his understated sense of beauty. The top consists of a sake flask in the guise of an eggplant that looks ready to eat, while an equally convincing eggplant leaf serves as the sake cup. Even among men expected to be highly cultured, "the ability to create such a complex and charmingly proportioned piece as this was very unusual," exhibition curator Yoko Woodson writes in the show's catalog. Though the age of the samurai ended with the fall of Japan's last shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s, the exhibition incorporates objects from post-daimyo Hosokawas as well, including tea bowls by the current Hosokawa family head, 71-year-old Morihiro. Unlike most former prime ministers, he retreated from the political world into that of a reclusive artist whose ceramic pieces have won critical praise.

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