Everyone has a samurai moment when something – a film, TV show or comic – created an indelible image of what a samurai warrior should look like and get up to. Mine was Shintaro, that mid-1960s TV series The Samurai that enjoyed local popularity and, incidentally, was the first Japanese TV program to be screened in Australia.
There are nods to samurai popism in this exhibition. A woodblock print by Shunsen Natori, for example, depicts 1930s actor Okichi Denjiro as the fabled one-eyed, one-armed swordsman Tange Sazen. Here’s a guy you don’t mess with.
Samurai can be experienced as a journey that starts in feudal Japan, as seen through the prism of art and artefacts that reflect evolving social and cultural change into the 20th century. Or it can be adopted as a vantage point from which to view the legacy of samurai-centric culture within contemporary Japan, and, indeed, the global community. This tension between historical truth and romanticised fiction gives Samurai, the exhibition, a strong shot of adrenalin.
While in the tradition of reflective haiku poetry , moons waning, leaves falling, hands that once held tea bowls or swords turned to dust, the charisma that surrounds these artefacts – screens, armour, weaponry, prints and ceramics – speaks to a contemporary imagination.
To test this response, start with one work, Tenmyouya Hisashi’s Conquest of the Karasu Tengu, from the series One hundred new ghost stories. This is a wildride image depicting a hero fi ghting crowfeatured Karasu Tengu. Samurai curator Russell Kelty’s catalogue interview with the artist opens a doorway to looking at not only Tenmyouya’s practice but its roots in street culture, and anti-social subculture, particularly kabukimono (‘the crazy ones’) extending back to the 16th century.
Kabukimono were either ronin (outlaws) or members of street gangs that were known for transgressive, outrageous behaviour and adopting flamboyant appearance s in clothing, hairstyle and weapons.
Tenmyouya, in developing his theory, BASARA, which legitimised kabukimono as contributing to modern day Japanese culture, also saw a connection with forms of art which expressed an ‘untamed, flamboyant attitude’, described at other times as ‘eccentric’. Even the counter–culture of bosozoku (1980s to 1990s biker gangs) Tenmyouya saw as embodying the brash qualities of the anti-social samurai.