The exhibit, which runs through May 7, displays 130 warrior-related objects, from full suits of armor and swords to battle prints and prayer mirrors. The items date from the 16th through 19th centuries and all are either on loan from Cincinnatian Gary Grose, who lived in Japan for a time and has been collecting for decades, or selected from the museum's permanent collection. The museum pieces retrieved from storage include three full sets of armor, swords and prints.
"Most came to the museum in the 1880s," said Asian Arts curator Hou-mei Sung. "They've been here 120 years and have never been on display."
One set of armor was given to the museum's collection in 1881, five years before the Cincinnati Art Museum opened. Two others arrived in 1892, sold to the museum by Dr. Adeline Kelsey, a doctor who went to Japan as a medical missionary. While there, she met two young girls, daughters of a samurai, who aspired to be doctors, too. Kelsey sold the armor to bring the girls to Cincinnati for medical school; later, all three returned to Japan and established a hospital.
The suits of armor, set up like ghostly soldiers, are the centerpiece of "Dressed to Kill," and they really are a wonder to behold -- lacquered and embroidered and embossed. Each of the 11 suits includes a facemask, some almost cartoonish, some fierce, many adorned with fake facial hair. The suits appear to be waiting for the order to go into battle.
But the swords, matchlock guns, woodblock prints, ceramics and banners, arranged around the edge of the exhibit, also are fascinating, intricately crafted and sometimes dangerously beautiful.
Alongside the traditional curved swords, katanas, and long bows, the exhibit also includes curiosities like a "sight-remover" box, an apparatus that allowed a warrior to incapacitate an attacker by blowing pepper powder into his eyes, and knives hidden in walking sticks and fans.
Together, the pieces offer insight and explanation beyond the pop cultural idea of samurai. Take time when you go through the exhibit, which is free from 5 to 8 p.m. each Thursday, to read the display cards, and you'll learn how the warrior caste and its traditional moral principles, called bushido, affected every part of life in Japan.
"This culture is really part of the whole of Japanese history," Sung said. "Japan was under military rule for centuries -- from the 12th to the 19th centuries -- and that had a tremendous impact on their behavior and culture, even today."
After the "Dressed to Kill" closes, the pieces from the museum's collection will return to storage. (You can get a look at the museum's 67,000-item permanent collection online.)
Your admission to "Dressed to Kill" also gives you entry to the concurrent exhibit, "Transcending Reality: The Woodcuts of Kosaka Gajin," which offers more views of Japan as well as additional Cincinnati trivia. Cincinnati Art Museum's Howard and Caroline Porter Collection is the largest repository of Gajin's woodcuts outside of Japan, and this exhibit is the first solo show of the artist's work in the United States.
"They're beautiful and also a little heartbreaking," Communications Director Jill Dunne said. "Living in Japan during World War II, his entire collection (of work) was destroyed, and he had to start over from scratch."
Admission and hours
Cincinnati Art Museum admission and parking are free.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Admission to "Dressed to Kill" and "Transcending Reality" is $10 for non-members -- unless you go on Thursday evenings, when both exhibits are free.
If you'd like to learn more about the exhibit, make a free reservation for "Samurai Culture: Multiple Perspectives" on April 2. Sung and Grose will be joined by conservator Betsy Allaire and scholar Nancy McGowan for a discussion about samurai arms, armor and culture.