MASKED WARRIORS at the Japan Museum SieboldHuis in Leiden.


In case you are unfamiliar with this small Leiden museum: it is the former house of a German physician who worked for the Dutch government. It dispatched him to Dejima at a time when Japan was closed to most Western visitors. Like many, Siebold became totally fascinated by Japanese culture, history, art, nature and more.

After six years, he was forced to leave. He took an impressive collection of items with him and settled in Leiden. Part of his collection is now permanently displayed in Japan Museum SieboldHuis.

This small museum also hosts temporary exhibitions. Masked Warriors is the latest in a series of fascinating ones. This exhibition is based on PhD research by Bas Verberk. He is an art curator and expert on the culture and arts of the Samurai.

The exhibition shows changes in Samurai armour. Mr. Verberk was fascinated by similarities between masks used on stage in the Nō-theatre and developments of face masks in Samurai armour.

On the first floor, visitors are introduced to the exhibition through a short video. An exhibition catalogue can be bought at the museum shop, for visitors who crave more information about Japanese history, the Samurai, Japanese theatre, the armour exhibited.

After watching the video introduction, visitors enter the exhibition proper by crossing the corridor. Many private collectors kindly lent items. Exhibited are not just armour but theatre masks, robes and costumes, helmets, excerpts from films and more.

At the start, armour on show is practical. The obvious aim is to protect and shield the human body in battle, on the battle field.

Things change, once the Samurai carve out a place as Japan’s rulers. The exhibition explains why Samurai started patronizing the arts, including the Nō-theatre. Mr. Verberk’s research uncovered a strong influence between Nō-theatre masks and armour face masks.

Similarities between theatre masks and Samurai masks are overwhelming. Both versions hang next to each other in this exhibition. Frowns, fake hair, even number of teeth: armour and wooden theatre masks are interchangeable.

Every possible means is exploited to impress, dominate, install fear and convey character traits. Of course, many theatre plays were based on historical events. Actors portrayed heroes showing emotions ranging from bravery, to anger and madness – wearing masks.

Emotions, character had to be conveyed across space to a theatre audience. Small wonder masks of certain roles started to be adopted by Samurai to convey similar traits and emotions on a battle field.

Walking through the exhibition, visitors notice how the armour changes. This exhibition covers two floors and several centuries. Towards the end, Western influences and even female theatre masks – implying not sweetness, but mad rage – are exhibited.

By then, helmets and face masks have become rather impractical to wear into battle. The complete armour has become more fit for the stage and ceremonies. Armour is no longer used to protect vulnerable human bodies in a battle.

I stupidly postponed visiting this exhibition wrongly presuming it was all “toys for boys”. Sure, that’s what it is but, like other visitors, I left completely dazzled – and so will you.  Kate Den    31st January 2018

Photograph by Jan van Esch

Masked Warriors; Battle Stage of the Samurai continues at the Japan Museum SieboldHuis in Leiden until 27th May.