Surreal Samurai

I have had a fascination with all-things-Japan ever since a Haruki Murakami reading kick 4 years ago. It all started with his beautiful, beautiful novel, Norwegian Wood. The effect was like when you learn a new word and suddenly start seeing it everywhere, as if you attract it to you (or, maybe its the other way around, and its attracting you): I found myself incredibly drawn to things relating to Japanese culture, particularly the traditional aesthetic. I will be honest, my interest is unstudied, and perhaps in most ways quite superficial… it is based on impressions, mainly visual but also related to feeling, as well as pure-simple-attraction.

Some things-of-Japan I love are… books by Murakami (especially Norwegian Wood and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, haikus, cherry blossoms, the food (not just sushi… I love country-style food, and am dying to one day visit Kyoto and dine at the original Omen…Japanese food has some of the most special, delicate, subtle, unusual flavors I have ever tasted), the flatware, the calligraphy, the gardens (http://www.japanesegarden.com/visiting/… I have never seen such beautiful light. The garden sculpted it.), the prints, the watercolors, the traditional clothing, all the tea and its ceremony…  it all might sound a bit futile as I have yet to fulfill my dream of visiting Japan. But, I am in love with all its small ambassadors!

How do i describe this feeling? Much of it has to do with aesthetic pleasure. The various elements in the list of things-I-love are united by the clean simplicity, the delicate beauty, the natural, organic tenor, and finally, the careful, ritual intention I see in each of them…

I felt moved to express this attraction of mine for the traditional Japanese aesthetic because I was recently reminded of it. Yesterday evening the Met was gloriously open until 9 PM, so I had a chance to visit a new exhibit there: Art of the Samurai. I found myself utterly absorbed by the armor. Enamel made matte by centuries obscure the defensive purpose of  the metal plaques, together all delicately woven by smoked leather ribbons. The artisanal mesh spreads out to form protective breast plates, strong shoulder pads and beautifully impenetrable sleeves. Even the swords seduced me, with their long, elegant curvature.

And then, there were the helmets. They were surreal, beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. Some bore immense gilt horns, soaring like a terrifying halo, 5 feet in diameter. Another supported giant clam shells, shining with enamel and positioned outward and upward, for aural vigilance. One resembled a garden gnome hat or dunce cap… but in place of a whimsical, conical point rose an angry, menacing fist.

The artifacts on display are some of Japan’s national treasures. Some are so delicate and old they can only be shown for small segments of days, at most weeks, every five years. The exhibit is in constant rotation, to protect ancient fabrics and materials from the prolonged intrusion of light. Even this I found charming and beautiful in its transience. Like ikebana.

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