Their armor

Photo: Nicola-Franl Vachon, Perspective

Armor and Accessories: Collection of Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller - Bequest of the Möri clan

Those of us whose knowledge of Japanese art is limited to Chinese inspired Zen ink paintings may be surprised by the lavishness of Samurai armor and helmets.  The fact is that by the time the power came into the hands the military leaders: shoguns and daimyos, this audaciously simplified and monochrome style of painting was combined with the Japanese Yamato-e paintings which emphasized gorgeous colours and the agility of contours. The Kano school painters who had combined the two styles became favorites of the war lords who felt that their power and energy was well expressed through the bold brushstrokes and bright colors, the strength and dynamism of this combined style.   With that in mind, one can begin to understand the aesthetic approach in the making of samurais’ battle attire.

As fighters, the Samurai needed to have armor that offered protection while allowing great flexability. This could be accomplished by having plates of various dimensions tied together. Since the Japanese culture is very oriented toward nature, it could be that the preference of the overlapping of scales was inspired by the ease with which fishes move about.

The full samurai armor has multiple parts reaching at times more than 23.  However, only five of them can be considered basic elements of the body suit. The most important is obviously the cuirass or "do" protecting the chest and back. Being the most vulnerable parts of the body, it is often made of a full plate of metal and at times made of scales or lamellae. It can completely surround the torso or can be in two parts like a clamshell. To the cuirass are attached the protection for the thighs or "kusazuri" and the shoulder guards or "sode" that give the samurai armor its particular appearance.  To these elements, are added armored sleeves or "kote", gauntlets - gloves with extended cuffs covering the forearm, the greaves or "suneate" and the cuisses or "haidate" protecting the legs.  All parts other than the torso would be made of leather protected by lacquer. Colored silk or leather laces as well as decorative knotted tassels add colour, texture and richness to the whole outfit.

The samurai’s armor is completed by the face mask and the protective helmet or Kabuto. Made of two parts the bowl (hachi) and the neck-guard (shikoro), the helmet often has a visor or mabisashi designed to protect from the sunlight as well as from possible strikes from the enemy sword. But the most visually interesting components of the helmet are obviously the often elaborate elements added to it and that have different functions ranging from the decorative to the mythological.  The helmet thus comes to display the samurai’s status symbol and is often seen as a signature.  

Samurai is the kind of exhibition where the visitor needs to take the time to look at details in order to appreciate the craftsmanship.  It is the kind of exhibition that will make even the most resolute peace lover fall in love with equipment meant for warfare.  An absolute must see at the Musée de la Civilisation du Québec.