Honor Bound

A famous samurai tale is immortalized at the UAMA

More than 300 years ago, on a winter night laden with snow, 47 samurai attacked the home of the man they held responsible for the death of their lord, En'ya.

They didn't hesitate to take his life, even though they knew it meant that they themselves would have to die. As samurai, they were honor-bound to seek revenge. They sliced off his head and brought it to En'ya's grave, then sat quietly and awaited judgment. They accepted the sentence of seppuku, and committed suicide.

At least that's how the story goes. The legend of The Faithful Samurai is a crucial myth in Japan, according to an exhibition of the same name at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Teaching the essential samurai virtues of "honor, loyalty and sacrifice," the legend has been told in every possible form, from puppet shows and kabuki theater to books, opera and television.

But a master 19th-century woodblock artist made the tale his own. Utagawa Kuniyoshi designed at least 12 series of prints on Chshingura, as the tale was known in the kabuki theater, and 20 triptychs. These original works of art were reproduced by artisans and published in hundreds of editions over the years, becoming popular collectibles. Some 53 of these reproductions on paper, dating from the 1840s and '50s, are exhibited in the handsome traveling show at the museum.

A small companion show by a contemporary African-American artist reworks the conventions of Japanese woodblock prints to take a look at the obsession of some young Japanese with black American hip-hop.

Despite the violence of the strange samurai tale, Kuniyoshi's representations of it are beautiful. He worked within a fairly rigid art convention: The pictures had to be a mix of line drawings and flat fields of colored inks, in a narrow range of muted blue, red, brown and black. (In a number of the prints, interestingly, Kuniyoshi experimented with Western-style foreshortening and shading.)

But even with these constraints, Kuniyoshi's drawings are lovely and distinctive. He's able to evoke a particular face with just a few lines, hinting at trepidation in one warrior with a tilt to his eyebrows, or sketching out another samurai's steadfastness in set lips and a fixed gaze. He's fond of the curve of a tree branch, and he's a master at architectural perspective.

Many of the prints are full-length portraits, their stylized gestures and costumes drawn from kabuki. They picture either individual warriors or their "faithful hearts"--the mothers, widows and others they left to mourn them. These drawings may be flat, floating on blank paper, but their characters leap to action. In one, the warrior Yukukawa Sampei slices at a lantern with his sword. A grieving mistress bows her head. Elsewhere, the samurai leader, Oboshi Rikiya, is at rest, but his two swords, which a samurai carried at all times, poke out from his voluminous robes.

The most dramatic prints are the large-scale triptychs--some of them double-size, with six panels--representing the big action scenes, and set within a landscape or architecture. Drawn almost like stage sets, they're panoramas full of great dramas as well as intricate details giving a peek into traditional Japanese life.

In a triptych memorializing the original insult to Lord En'ya (an official apparently treated him disrespectfully), a side panel pictures a half-dozen women in kimonos and elaborate hairstyles; they sit secluded within a room closed off with painted screens. A pleasant-faced old man walks outside along a wooden deck, and beyond him, in the far distance, a placid blue lake is framed by trees.

Only Lord En'ya's angry face hints at the violence about to erupt. (The young lord's honor forced him to stab the other man, and justice required that En'ya then commit suicide.) The same is true for the great scenes of vengeance: Battles rage side by side with tranquil scenes of daily life. And always, nature's beauty emerges.

In the lush triptych "The Night Attack--Outside," throngs of hell-bent warriors are racing down a street, climbing up a ladder and pouring over the roof. But the snow-covered mansion glistens under a blue-gray sky lit by a full moon, and the roof veers in an interesting diagonal down to the lower right.

Similarly, in the six-paneled "The Night Attack--Inside," warriors lay siege to the house, chasing its partisans with swords raised. But they tumble outside into a winter wonderland. Its graceful dark trees are edged with snow, and a blue waterway meanders between snowy banks. The villain is captured in a corner, almost unnoticed, far from center stage.

It's odd to deploy such loveliness to tell a tale that has a little too much blind devotion, a little too much staying the course for current tastes. One print chronicles the destruction of En'ya's household after he avenged the insult to his honor; his family and servants were cast out, his castle confiscated and his goods scattered. And, of course, 47 men died out of loyalty to him.

If the philosophical underpinnings of these historical works remain alien to an American audience, a contemporary Japanese phenomenon is even more puzzling. Iona Rozeal Brown, a female artist with an MFA from Yale, learned that cool young guys--and gals--are into gangura, literally "black face."

These Japanese trendies deliberately tan themselves to darken their skin as much as possible, wear their hair in cornrows and Afros, and sport "ghettos" duds like headscarves and heavy chains.

Brown says that she was offended by their appropriation of hip-hop style, divorced from its context in African-American culture and economics. So she appropriated right back, making acrylic paintings and collages portraying these Japanese hipsters as Kuniyoshi-style samurai sporting urban bling.

"a3 blackface #54," one of eight pictures in a show put together by UAMA curator Lisa Fischman, depicts a young Japanese with an Afro so gargantuan, the paper can't contain it. His brown skin comes from the tanning salon, and his arms are tattooed. But he's wearing a black traditional Japanese shirt, and he tilts his face like a kabuki actor. And his angry brow is straight out of the strange tale of Lord En'ya and his avengers.