According to Japanese ghost stories, swords are haunted by their masters, so I half-expected to see the world-weary faces of battle-scarred warlords reflected in the blades on display at “Lords of the Samurai,” on exhibit through Sept. 20 at Asian Art Museum. No such luck – though one can’t help but image the fearsome daimyo who once ruled feudal Japan while taking in the show’s many suits of magnificent armor, propped in a sitting position as if contemplating past skirmishes. Particularly beautiful: the gorgeous haramaki-type armor, once worn by Hosokawa Narimori (1804-1860). A bold, black, orange, and red throwback to the gilded age of the Hosokawa clan’s first patriarch Hosokawa Yoriari (1331-1390), the suit’s helmet is embellished with crouching gold lion, touched with grey and gold silk, and elaborately laced in orange and red – it’s a brilliantly nostalgic tribute to the past, created at a time when the shogunate was dying and the ground was crumbling beneath Hosokawa Narimori’s feet.
It’s just one of several stunning examples of armor and artifacts from the Hosokawa Family Collection, which otherwise resides in Tokyo’s Eisei-Bunko Museum and the family’s onetime epicenter, Kumamoto Castle on southerly Kyushu island. The embellished weaponry collection impresses – particularly one short sword, or wakizashi, with its detailed openwork depiction of Dragon King Kurikara engulfed in flame and curled around a sword as if about to swallow it up.
But beyond the armor, wooden saddles, cavalry banners, are sword guards, one leaves with a lingering impression of the samurai as men of culture: Noh and Kyogen theater, painting, tea ceremony, and poetry were passions in more ways than one. The cunning lacquer picnic set made by Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1645) is on display, as are tea ceramics by the clan’s latest leader, Hosokawa Morihiro (born 1938), Japan’s former prime minister. How fitting that his forebear Hosokawa Fujitaka (1534-1610), whose portrait by Tashiro Toho is on view, was once saved from imminent death when the Japanese emperor for fear that his huge knowledge of poetry would perish along with him. Depicting the daimyo as lovers of the nobler things in life as well as fighters, “Lords of the Samurai” paints a complicated portrait of a clan and a caste with concision and grace.
“Lords of the Samurai” runs through Sept. 20 at Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, S.F. Hours are Tues.-Wed., Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Prices are $10 ($5 Thurs. after 5 p.m.), $7 seniors, $6 for youth ages 12 to 17, free for 11 and younger. (415) 581-3500. www.asianart.org.