Among the highlights of the huge Asian collection at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria - 8,000 artifacts making up more than 40 per cent of the gallery's collection - is a group of Samurai suits that date back to the 16th century. Ornate, functional and dripping in history, each suit has a story to tell about the samurai warriors and pre-industrial Japan. Return of the Samurai, which has just opened at the AGGV, features 12 samurai suits, 23 helmets, and other paraphernalia, much of it donated or lent to the gallery by Trevor Absolon, a dealer and collector who runs Toraba Samurai Arts. Absolon says each of these suits may have taken some two years to fabricate. "Most samurai invested more money into the building of their armours than they did in the homes they lived in."
It was common for designers to use animal and insect symbolism on the helmets and the dragonfly, or kachi mushi, was considered strong and invincible. Helmets often featured deer and rabbit designs as well. "Some of the symbols they used to us would seem really ludicrous," says Absolon. "You'll see a really fierce-looking armour with a big rabbit front crest on it and you [wonder] what does the rabbit have to do with any of this? They [were used because]of their agility and speed; but also in Japanese folklore rabbits could go into the underworld and they had mystical powers."
This Edo period suit, like many of the Samurai suits, would have been built and rebuilt over decades and even centuries, as the natural materials would rot and needed to be replaced periodically. While it may have originated from about 1650, the bands of colourful silk lacing are likely from the 19th century. The textile not only looked attractive but also allowed for freedom and dexterity in a samurai's movements. Earlier body armour was made from thousands of small scales, and this suit was designed to look as if it was made that way. "At a distance, it looks like individual scales, but when you get up close you realize it's just a surface - [and]it looks good," Absolon says. Samurai "were peacocks," he adds. "They were concerned about how they appeared and their status in their group."
This suit is believed to have belonged to a general from Tanba province, a member of the Hatano family who served the famous Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), who united Japan and led the country on foreign military campaigns. Despite his great success as a warrior, Hideyoshi was never bestowed the title of shogun, because he was born a peasant and rose up through the ranks of the samurai. Hideyoshi also liked to paint and this exhibition features a simple calligraphy work of his depicting Mt. Fuji. "He was a general; he wasn't an artist," says Barry Till, Curator of Asian Art at the AGGV. "He was cultured but also very vicious."
The helmet bowl, or hachi, circa 1525, was made from 62 separate plates of carbon steel riveted together (to disperse any impact) and signed by the famous Japanese smith Myochin Nobuiye. The facemask was practical with a detachable nose piece to allow for easier breathing, eating and talking, and a small hole on the underside of the chin which allowed for the perspiration that accumulates between the face and mask to drain away. Also it was designed to frighten opponents in battle. "You can imagine if someone was wearing that and charging at you, you'd be pretty scared," says Absolon.
This suit was from the Edo period (1603-1868), likely from the later 18th century - and would likely have never been worn in battle. The accoutrement on top of the helmet is detachable and while it may be pointy, it was not meant to be used as a weapon. The face of the helmet features a Buddhist prayer - which may seem like a contradiction to the contemporary mind, but as Absolon points out, it's fairly typical for soldiers to feel that God, whichever God they believe in, is on their side. The helmet also features embossed eyebrows. "The whole thing was meant to intimidate," says Till, of samurai attire. "George Lucas liked the helmet so much that he gave it to Darth Vader." Vader's mask also borrowed heavily from the samurai.
This particular suit, however, is not a favourite of Absolon's. "This to me is very sort of commonplace," he says, noting that he's been spoiled by all of the armour he has collected and dealt in. "This is just another Honda Civic. I'm looking for a [Rolls Royce]Phantom."
Return of the Samurai is at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until Nov. 14. For more information, visit aggv.ca .