Saturday, July 18, 2020

Warrior Ostentation in Ukiyo-e Woodblocks

Summary: Ukiyo-e samurai prints convey an attitude and an aesthetic that is mostly absent (in degree, though not in presence) from 20th and 21st century samurai-adjacent fiction in both Japan and the West. They depict a world in which warriors compete to have as striking an appearance as possible.

Vast, layered swathes of disparately patterned fabric. Hairy bodies, knobby knees, knotted muscles, fulsome bellies. A snarling, suspicious, steely-proud countenance. Weapons ringing voluminous forms, kneeling like mountains, poised like predators, swirling in battle, men with the bright coloration of poisonous beasts. Poison dart frogs, blue-ringed octopi, monarch butterflies. Tigers, cheetahs, tropical birds with killer eyes.

They yearn to be seen; they do not hide. Every inch of them screams don't tread on me.

Nothing at all like what we usually see in samurai fiction: armored myrmidons, neat, hairless, thin, tattoo-less and rigid. Perhaps a crescent upon the helmet if we're lucky; nothing of the centipedes, wolves and squids of historical record. Weirdly, the most ostentatious samurai dress I can recall seeing in a major media depiction was of the samurai villains in The Admiral: Roaring Currents, a South Korean film about the 1500s Japanese invasion of Korea; the sneering, malign, garish-garbed foes of the staid, sober, plebeian Korean fleet. Even in Western samurai fiction such as Legend of the Five Rings, samurai normally appear in robes of 1-3 colors, or armor with a few spikes and a tasteful fantasy headdress.

What we see in these prints is the OPPOSITE of how we usually see samurai depicted, even in 20th and 21st century Japanese film and fiction. Even works that come close or have a lot of traditional garb lack the quantity and overwhelming coloration of the fabric in these prints. You see this with warrior classes who can dress however the fuck they want and socially profit by grabbing attention and peacocking. English Royalists and tournament knights are other examples. These guys are AS OSTENTATIOUS AS POSSIBLE. How often are fictional warriors of any type allowed to just let their nuts hang like this? What a chance for expression we miss; the justification for such experimentation is right here on this page.

Samurai hunting tigers on foot during their invasion of Korea, as if  Yi Sun-sin wasn't dangerous enough.

It's sometimes observed that if you're a dyed in the wool warrior, no one is questioning your manhood. It's a grim thing to be a killer who could be stabbed or shot at any time but to still dress (and live) severely. So for most of history we have had the aesthetic duality of severe servants of state on one hand (standing armies), and peacocking warriors who will not serve if their right to primp and display is abnegated- landsknechts, tourney knights, Viking plunderers, condottieri, Early Modern aristocrats to include samurai, pirates as classically depicted, and 20th century gangsters who made the big time and donned sumptuous fur coats, luxuriant cashmere scarves and suede shoes. You can wear something fruitylicious if you will kill over insults, the former reinforcing the effect of the latter and vice versa. These are killers who will cut you down just to test a sword; much of Japanese history is the story of trying to control, corral or channel men like this, and gradually the symbols of their rampancy fell away from high culture.

I'm aware that the garb of these warriors is still culturally bounded, but fabulousness is universally perceptible, whatever the details.

To draw something of a parallel, here's a picture of a couple of Royalist lords killed in English Civil War, aged 16 and 17; they fought to the death under conditions that were essentially as hazardous as the uniformed millions who have gone to their graves since the decline of aristocracy, and yet they forwent the quiet garb and disposition moderns associate with warfare between developed populations (and Parliamentarianism).

Contrasting with the English lords, modern depictions of samurai often lack the profound roughness that characterizes these men (with the exception of Mifune and certain anime characters), an earthy ruggedness that exceeds common renditions of knights from any culture, whether they be European, Persian or Chinese.

Often when we think of bushido or chivalry, the idea of a staid and arbitrary world of duty and honor comes to mind, but remember that honor is based upon personal honor, and personal honor is based on fierce pride and an uncompromising sense of proprietorship. Consider the neologisms "Honor Culture" or "Honor Killing"; "It was a matter of honor."

Accounting was part of a samurai's life

Pride at being a warrior goes underground when a warrior class becomes a state army; the aspirational adjacency shifts from being a gangster or a mythic hero to being a terminator. Privileges are gradually scaled back as the warriors come to depend more on the system than vice versa. Barons are subordinated, titles are made titular, lands appropriated with the rise of absolutism; and with the fall of absolutism comes Republicanism, Communism, Fascism, Theocracy, all of which seek to create in the soldier an agent or element of the ideal, into which his individuality must be sublimated lest it endanger the golden path forward. Today only the most elite are permitted beards or a personal choice of equipment, and even those concessions are instrumental and utilitarian. Gone is the time of warrior-as-proprietor, warrior as dandy; he is a symptom of anarchy, of Might Makes Right at the individual level.

I know that there might be reasons that these samurai are depicted in this way when perhaps they didn't look and behave exactly like that historically, but it doesn't matter. These scenes convey such a potent and untrammeled concentrate of pride, ferocity, adventurousness and desire, occasionally tempered by a degree of humanizing oafishness, that they're worth bringing to light as is; it's worth taking this spirit and all of the ostentation that goes with it to so that you can instill it in your own fiction when it's needed. It doesn't matter if these depictions were not contemporary; these depictions make perfect sense to the eye and have a unified aesthetic which would still work even if you changed the context. Ideally, in my opinion, what happens when an artist sees a plurality of content like this is that he or she can perceive compelling elements and then construct or enhance something in a novel or beautiful way as a result.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the big cheese

Modern ukiyo-e style paintings with the Avengers or the Mario Bros or whatever usually lack the explosion of color and whirling movement that often characterizes these scenes.

One thing that's interesting about these is not knowing who the good guys or bad guys are supposed to be (unless they're fighting Koreans), although I suppose that distinction is not always so important in these stories; good men bound by duty may fight each other because the vagaries of fate have set them at cross purposes.

These pics GLORY in how ROUGH these guys look

Ancestor of the rock-wielding guy in the last post

Space Marine Terminator of the Chrysanthemum Chapter

Sleeves tend to make people look swole

Do your characters ever just lean on their swords like this?

Peacocking defined

Pretty sure he's sitting on the dude's corpse which is just hard as fuck

Look at those fucking gauntlets

Fighting Koreans during the invasion.


  1. A wonderful image post. I tend to think of 'Warrior in Unfashionable Historical Dress' as 'Vikings in Clown Trousers' after this essay:

    One interesting example to consider (on the wide theme) might be the Ridley Scott film The Duellists ( The two leads are officers of Napoleon's Army, and we see them often enough in full uniform - sabretache, pelisse, czapka and all. They even have (for part of the film) the faintly ridiculous set of plaits over the temples (

    The look of the Chrysanthemum Chapter already beats into a cocked hat any Japanese-inspired Space Marine I've ever seen.

    1. My apologies! I haven't been checking for comments awaiting approval. Thank you for the recommendation, that is exactly the kind of thing I'm interested in; the psychology of being a warrior historically is in so many cases so different than today, and the hussar mindset is an example, or the zouave; sometimes one has to infer what is being felt or being meant only by what is being displayed, but of course without being there it's hard to grasp every connotation. In any case, it makes good inspiration for fiction; both aesthetically an in terms of inhabiting an exciting mindset.
      I agree about the Chrysanthemums! Their armor isn't codex compliant but they're certainly for the Emperor

    2. No problem! I've done that before myself.....

      I'm reminded, re-reading the above of watching Rashomon a few years ago. A housemate came in part of the way through (if memory serves) and was half-watching it with me. I'd probably tried to describe it quickly as a samurai film, or about a samurai, or something like that.
      My housemate made some sort of remark about the samurai being a pretty shocking swordsman, and didn't seem to be enjoying the picture much. I'm not sure if the film quite supports that, but the choppy, chaotic fights and livid, distorted faces of Rashomon quite possibly conflicted with her image of steely-eyed warriors from martial-arts spectaculars.


Art - First Run