I understand that art museums are trying to reach out to the average person, to the younger generation, and in general to people who don't normally come through their doors. For Japanese art, heck, for Asian art, two words will lure the curious: samurai and geisha. To an increasing number of Americans, another word can be added: anime. Thus it is easy to see why the exhibit, The Samurai Re-Imagined, curated by Julian Bermudez, at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena through August 9, 2009, came about.
The figure of the geisha objectifies and exalts a small percentage of the female population of Japan--so much so that it has come to represent Japanese women in general. This is a case of the foreign eye adopting a minority to represent the majority. What would Freud think of that? Can we call it geisha envy or just male stupidity?
Samurai warriors, likewise, were a small percentage of the general population. They were de-activated in the Meiji era, although the Imperial Army adopted some of the samurai system for its imperialistic goals. There has been an attempt to hijack the image of the samurai and merge it with the Japanese businessman, but that ploy has been more successful in convincing foreigners than the Japanese themselves.
Yet if you've read the biography of Saburo Sakai you'll know that even during World War II and after, some samurai families continued to value certain samurai moral codes. We're not talking about that really awful Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai, because there were other samurai thereafter, and the misleading title was only one of that film's many historical and cultural problems, although they were not as flagrant as that Memoirs of a Geisha movie.
First, it is not clear what audience the curator, Julian Bermudez, is attempting to reach. The samurai re-imagined by whom? The nebulous West? Does that include Western countries outside of America? Wasn't there a French movie called Le Samourai? Didn't that 1967 movie, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and starring Alain Delon, go on to influence other movies such as Jim Jarmusch's 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai? Like Delon, Forest Whitaker played a loner, an assassin by trade who lives by the samurai code.
Those stories concern the interior life of a samurai, but Bermudez focuses on the exterior. In the introductory paragraphs leading into the exhibit, there is a promise made, but it isn't fulfilled. Manga are defined by genre, including the shonen (aimed at young boys and men) and shojo (aimed at young girls and women).
The exhibit mentions ninja girls and bugeisha and "girl power," but what we really get is one manga of Tomoe Gozen, segments of Kill Bill, and a movie poster from that Quentin Tarantino flick.