Samurai Photographs

Yesterday I went to a photography exhibition, titled “Last Samurais, First Photographs” near the Imperial Palace. A number of 150-100 year old photographs of samurai were display, and I found them very interesting and beautiful.

Apparently, photography was introduced to Japan only in the last decade of the Edo period (late 1850s), but it spread relatively quickly, and by the late 19th century, there were both foreign and Japanese photographers working in Japan. The exhibition – from the collections of the French Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts – showed photos for example from the Japanese photographer Kusakabe Kimbei, a protegé of the Austrian photographer Baron Raimund von Stillfried who worked in Yokohama for 20 years until he returned to Europe in 1883.

Of course, at that time photographs were black and white, but almost all of the exhibits were carefully hand colored, which gave them a somewhat dreamy appearance. The interesting part about this is that they show the samurai’s armor as very bright and colorful in yellow, red, and blue, with brightly patterned kimono underneath.

Although the exhibition started with two photographs of the then shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, most of the pictures did not show real samurai, because they had been taken after the shogunate had ended and the samurai class was abolished. Although the armor is real, the people wearing them were normal people without samurai ancestry, or actors of the kabuki or noh theatre.

This can also be seen by the choice of subject. Most of the photos were just portraits, focusing on the armor and different weapons. However, a whole album was on display that depicted – again, in carefully hand colored photographs – the famous story of the 47 ronin, who avenged their master who had been forced to commit suicide. Once they had achieved their goal, they went to his grave and also committed seppuku. Another example is the photo below. It depicts two famous people from the Heike Monogatari. At the left is the accomplished female warrior Tomoe Gozen, who followed her lover Minamoto Yoshinaka (right) into the war with the Taira.

Exhibition Postcard with photo.As I said, the exhibition, although small, is certainly worthwhile. It takes place in the Toraya Gallery on Ichijo dori, near the crossing with Karasuma dori, and will be open until the end of May.