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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

'Kill Bill' meets the MFA in new exhibit

It turns out that Kill Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad are not the only ones educated in the way of the warrior. Since the rise of the warrior class in twelfth-century Japan, samurai were fascinated by the sport of falconry, the training of hawks and falcons to kill smaller animals for them. But Japanese interest in the falcon did not stop there. These birds of prey developed into a much larger symbol within society. Artwork that explores the falcon's relevance to Japanese society is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, in an exhibition entitled "Pursuits of Power: Falconry and the Samurai, 1600 - 1900."

With the appointment of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 came the Edo (Tokyo) period of Japanese history. This period marked, among other things, progress in economic development, urbanization, foreign trade and stability. And it is due to this time of relative peace that the samurai educated themselves not only in martial arts, but in literature and the arts, and began commissioning and collecting artwork themselves. In this artwork, the falcon and hawk came to represent the authority and power held by the Samurai.

On the museum wall hangs a series of large flat wooden panels covered with cloth, which are decorated with ink drawn scenes. When viewed in order, these panels make up a hunting tale. The narrative style of story-telling is used often in the artwork of this period, and is effective in portraying the partnership established between the warrior and falcon, a physical and mental balancing of power that the samurai came to be known for.

Edo was the center of all art and commerce during these years. In order to foster growth in Edo, provincial rulers were required to spend every other year there, and brought artwork back to their respective provinces.

Visitors can view popular prints called Surimono, which were privately commissioned during this period. These prints celebrate the intellectual power that flourished with Japan's

developments. They contain images and scenes, typically of falcons or hawks in nature, which are accompanied by literary references and puns that have some correlation to the image. Unfortunately the museum does not offer translations, and a working knowledge of Japanese characters is necessary to interpret them.

Other birds appear in the artwork of this period as well, and are presented in the exhibit as a symbol of change. Birds depicting a panoramic scene on an elaborate hand scroll situated in the center of the room reflect the different seasons in which the warriors hunted. For example, the presence of chicks would mark spring or early summer, as this was the time they were taken from the wild for use in falconry.

Temporal change is not all that is mirrored, however. The exhibition draws a parallel between the falcon's evolution into a symbol of authority in Japanese artwork, and the shift of the government from a physical power to a political one.

As the political economy developed, so did the art and culture. Two 6-panel folding screens, used to divide rooms during social events, stand side by side in a glass case, on each panel the image of a different bird of prey. Owned by a warrior, the screens showcased the number of birds he had obtained and trained and were symbols of his status. When falcons could not be afforded, such panels as these would be an admissible backup.

And like every glory-signifying symbol in society, falcons and hawks became popular emblems on clothing and accessories (see Woody Allen's "Picking Up the Pieces"). Silk embroidered hawks decorate robes called uchikake, typically worn by warriors' wives. Jewelry and figurines are also on display.

This exhibition is a great example of how the tracing of one object or symbol can uncover much larger trends in society. The political shifts in Japan during the Edo period and the relationship that existed between art and society at the time are well represented by the falcons presence in Japanese artwork.