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Pacific Asia Museum’s Exhibit The Samurai Re-Imagined is a Limited View

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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.

Tomoe Gozen predates the Tokugawa period, presumably living between 1157 and 1247. She is mentioned in the Tale of the Heike, meaning that she was a female samurai warrior during the Genpei War (1180-1185). She served under a cousin of Minamoto Yoritomo, Minamoto Yoshinaka, who defied Yoritomo. Yoshinaka was defeated by Minamoto Yoshitsune and Minamoto Noriyori. She does appear in several anime and manga, including Usagi Yojimbo, where the character Tomoe Ame is supposed to be based on Tomoe Gozen.

Tomoe Gozen has not been proven to be a real historical figure, but if she was, she would have belonged to the Kamakura period. During that time, there was another woman who actually ruled, Masako Hojo (1156-1225). She was the wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo and the mother of the second and third shoguns. She is the only woman and the only person to have an era named specifically after her. Despite this, she is not mentioned. Bringing in the Kamakura period might have benefited viewers because some of the anime and manga draw from the muscular active figures and stances of that period of art as opposed to the more serene peaceful imagery and statues of the Heian period.

Of course, Seven Samurai and Gundan are mentioned, as well as the samurai in space. That gets you to Star Wars. Some of the children watching the video sequences didn't quite get the references. And it is confusing. The 1954 Seven Samurai, of course, brought America The Magnificient Seven in 1960, making gunslingers samurai. And actually, Kurosawa's 1958 The Hidden Fortress is considered the precursor or cinematic godfather of the 1977 Star Wars.

Here what is missing is the 2002 The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) by Yoji Yamada, which shows the life of a low-ranking samurai. This was not a small film. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and won 12 Japanese Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. The beautiful film was given good reviews by Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.

In an interview I had with the director, he said he was tired of seeing the glamorous image of the samurai. He wanted to show the truth, a new sort of realism. Yamada wrote the screenplay based on novels by Shuhei Fujisawa.

Instead, the exhibit gives us Kill Bill, which is essentially a Chinese revenge drama set in Japan. What makes Bill and the rest of the slashers samurai?

What about the animation of Hayao Miyazaki, who often chooses a female protagonist? Certainly one expected to see something about "Princess Mononoke," but Miyazaki's animation is totally left out of this exhibit, although these anime were wildly popular in Japan and America.

Perhaps the greater question is: how does the curator define samurai? The seven samurai in Kurosawa's film were ronin. So was Yojimbo and thus Usagi Yojimbo. The concept of the loner is contrary to what the samurai represented within the Tokugawa system. The samurai life was confined by duty and honor. Likewise, the samurai in the exhibit were represented by the actors in ukiyoe, usually Kabuki.

Yet the samurai class openly supported Noh, not Kabuki. This is the samurai as represented for the consumption of the masses, not the actual samurai themselves. The themes were often about the double suicides and the competing forces of aijo (romantic love) and giri (duty).

It should be pointed out that the play Chushingura was important because at the time, such feelings of duty and honor had been losing ground, and so this was a revival, perhaps even a nostalgic one, of the bushido code. Chushingura is the name of a fictional account for the revenge of 47 ronin. Although officially ronin, they considered themselves loyal vassals to their lord even after his death (which is what made them ronin).

The historical events took place in 1701. The act of revenge took place two years later. The puppet play called Kanadehon Chushingura was first performed in 1748, yet in order to avoid censorship by the Tokugawa shogunate, the events were set a few centuries earlier. The Kabuki play sets the events in the Muromachi period (1333-1568).

Twilight Samurai represents the samurai class as what they had become during the later Tokugawa era. Although poor, Seibei is still bound to his lord and loyal. He is a fine swordsman and will end up dying in a war. The kind of samurai that Bermudez looks at in anime and manga is superficial, and he also doesn’t indicate how this comes to terms with the Western vision of the salaryman as the new samurai in the English-language business rhetoric of the 1980s or the manga Salaryman Kintaro. He also conveniently forgets the image of the samurai, very kabuki-esque, in the cult classic Brazil.

For those interested in Japan, manga, anime, or the concept and history of samurai, this exhibit is simplistic at best and misleading at worst.

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  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    Sounds like a great exhibit. Too bad it will be gone by the time I get to the area in the end of August.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’m glad you listed The Twilight … as the definitive movie. I haven’t seen it but heard it was the original.
    Thanks.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Apropos your Polanski review (your weblog), what do you think of “A Pure Formality”?