The Several Samurai

Samurai history and material culture have gripped the popular imagination for centuries. Ever since  Japan was forcibly opened up to the rest of the world in the mid 19th century European and North American collectors have voraciously consumed Japanese objects, none more so than that relating directly or indirectly to the romantic notion of the samurai.

Samurai sword used by the Fujiwara clan. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection.

The Living Cultures collection has an internationally important collection of samurai and other Japanese objects, particularly netsuke and inro. Netsuke are small ivory carvings used like a toggle to secure the lid of the inro which is an intricately carved segmented box. These were strung around the waist and used from the 17th century onwards because kimonos, the traditional Japanese dress , didn’t have any pockets.

Rabbit netsuke. The Manchester Museum Living Cultures collection. Photo: Abby Stevens

This afternoon Sam Dunn, an archaeology undergraduate at the University of Manchester, has been interviewing visitors in the Living Cultures gallery to gauge their familiarity with samurai culture.

Sam Dunn conducting research in the Manchester Museum Living Cultures gallery, 2009

Sam is preparing a body of research for his forthcoming essay which will focus on the samurai sword, or katana, in the collective consciousness and how it has been culturally transformed. In recent history Hollywood has demonstrated an insatiable affection for the samurai, films like the Magnificent Seven and Kill Bill spring immediately to mind. Similarly Japanese film makers and artists have been  able to transport familiar American characters and concepts back to feudal Japan. Most recently Marvel comics commissioned a Japanese animation  studio to reinvent one of it’s most popular superheroes, Wolverine, and they did so with particular samurai flare.

 Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures

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