Samurai, which literally means “those who serve,” were a class of warrior in traditional Japan, active from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries. The moral code of the samurai—that stresses loyalty and honor, and mastery of martial arts—is a celebrated aspect of this unique type of warrior lifestyle. The samurai served the nobility during both periods of intense warfare and times of peace (such as the Tokugawa period, 1603–1868). Samurai were officially disbanded in 1876 and were banned from carrying swords.
Samurai are celebrated in Western popular culture through movies, novels and video games. The reach of samurai culture in America is evident in works ranging from the Star Wars films to the Ronin comic books. Samurai became unofficially enshrined in mainstream culture through the parodies of John Belushi, Quentin Tarantino and others. Samurai culture has even spawned an entire genre of international cinema (chanbara).
Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor offers visitors the opportunity to see the real thing—actual arms and armor made for use by the samurai. Ranging from the thirteenth to twentieth centuries, the 75 objects in the exhibition focus on works from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Five full sets of armor will be on view, complete with masks and helmets. Remarkable weapons include long and short swords—the oldest of which dates to the 1200s—daggers, and even a few examples of early Japanese rifles. In addition, a brilliantly painted pair of folding screens illustrate samurai battles in the famous warrior epic Tale of Heike.
Lethal Beauty, as the title evokes, contrasts the deadliness of samurai weapons and the artistic beauty with which they are imbued. Many of the objects reveal the capacity for aesthetic appreciation expected of the cultivated samurai. The final section of the exhibition presents samurai objects that were later recycled and repurposed, such as a bonsai tray made from forty sword scabbards.
A Discovery Gallery in the exhibition will allow visitors to explore samurai culture and aspects of traditional Japan through family-friendly activities. A full-color exhibition catalogue accompanies the exhibition and is available at both the main SAMA Shop and a dedicated special exhibition shop.