MANCHESTER, N.H. — For as long as men have fought, they have preened. A uniform is no less a form of costume than a tutu is. Plumes, banners, frogging, epaulettes, braid, medals: The list of military regalia is as long as the line of battle at Waterloo. The invention of the machine gun instantly made clotheshorses and cavalry horses equally obsolete on the battlefield. Until then, though, the soldier has been the most dandified masculine archetype. Camo and olive drab are very much a recent development in the history of military clothing and accessories.
That history makes the Japanese samurai all the more impressive aesthetically. With all due respect to knights and zouaves and janissaries, no martial tradition can rival the samurai for enduring style. What other warrior class ever carried a gunpowder flask shaped like a pear, let alone made from (among other materials) hawk eggshell, lacquer, ivory, and silver?
That flask is among the 60-plus objects in “Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor.” The show runs through May 5 at the Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, N.H. Those objects include armor, helmets, hats, masks, swords (“katana”), sword fittings, daggers, matchlock guns, two six-fold paintings showing battles, and a conch-shell trumpet. All of those items are handsome, many are exquisite. All but six range in date from the 13th to 19th centuries.
The show concludes with those half-dozen exceptions, all from the 20th century: vessels, pillboxes, a basket. What could be less warlike? That’s the point. They’re an example of literal swords being beaten into figurative plowshares. The samurai were officially disbanded in 1876. These objects were all made from their weaponry. The most striking example, a basin for plants, consists of pieces from 40 scabbards. This is recycling at its most pacific.
“Lethal Beauty” is the first of two samurai shows that will be seen in the region. “Samurai! Armor From the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” opens at the Museum of Fine Arts in April. The aesthetic appeal of the samurai isn’t hard to grasp. It’s that rare style which manages to seem at once timeless, ancient, and contemporary.
The timelessness is a function of precision. The completion of a samurai blade could take up to a year. Throughout “Lethal Beauty” one senses a similar quality of exactingness — of things gotten just so.
The ancient part is obvious. Samurai seem far away in time — very far. Even their matchlocks look as much primordial as premodern. As for samurai armor, the way it’s at once padded and sculptural makes it appear as alien (and imposing) as a megalith.
Yet that same armor has the look — and brooding sexiness — of a sci-fi fetish object. That comparison isn’t so far-fetched. George Lucas has never concealed how much of the plot of the first “Star Wars” movie derives from Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” (and, it must be said, R2-D2 and C-P30 improve on the pair of quarrelsome peasants they’re modeled on). Kurosawa’s most famous film is “Seven Samurai.” Might samurai protective gear provide much of the inspiration for Darth Vader’s get-up? Looking at something like the suit of Domaru-type armor with Chinese magistrate’s cap, from the 1700s, one wonders. Also, as regards contemporaneity? Let’s face it, with katana or without, you can never go wrong wearing black.