Smile Politely

Art meets mythology at Spurlock Museum

In order to set the stage for the actual subject of this article — the Warriors, Guardians, and Demons exhibit at Spurlock Museum — as well as just for the fun of it, I’m going to tell a favorite story of mine from samurai folklore. I’m telling this tale from memory and putting my own spin on it, and this is a Smile Politely article not an academic dissertation, so cut me some slack if you’re a purist who knows the original.

“The Bandit”

In long ago Japan, during the samurai days, there was a bandit who was doing pretty much whatever he pleased out in the countryside. He was robbing and stealing, but — even more seriously — he was doing it from samurai lords who were his betters; the bandit himself was from a humble lineage.

So the aggrieved samurai lords got together and discussed the situation. Enough was enough, the samurai lords all agreed, and they headed out to collect the head of the bandit; however, the bandit — who had friends everywhere — heard that they were after him. He waited in ambush by the side of the road he knew they were traveling, and — covering himself in leaves and branches — disguised himself as a tree.

As the samurai lords walked down the road, they talked among themselves about the bandit — about how tough he was rumored to be. “Better practice our archery skills before we fight him,” said one. And they all took out their bows, taking aim at … a tree by the side of the road. The tree that happened to really be the bandit in disguise.

The samurai lords fired in unison. They all hit the tree/bandit. The bandit didn’t move or make a sound when he was pierced with the many arrows. Instead, he waited until the samurai lords came to collect their arrows. When they were close, the bandit let out a hideous shriek and attacked with his sword. The samurai lords, while shocked that the tree was actually the bandit, recovered quickly and fought back.

Despite the bandit’s skill with his sword, he was outnumbered. At last, the samurai cornered him and chopped off his head, which rolled into the ditch. The fight was over. Or so it would seem, because — suddenly — the detached head rolled itself out of the ditch, bounced up and clamped its teeth onto the leg of one of the samurai lords. The bandit was simply too tough to give up, even when his head was separated from his body.

Finally, the samurai lords managed to pulverize the bandit’s head with rocks and hack the rest of his body into pieces with their swords and the fight was truly over. And that’s where our tale comes to a happy ending, because the samurai lords — impressed by the toughness of the bandit — buried what was left of him with full samurai honors, an honor to the bandit and his ancestors to this day until forever.


The Warriors, Demons, and Guardians exhibit is in the lobby of Spurlock. It features a number of small wood carvings done by Japanese artists between roughly 1700 AD and 1900 AD. There are carvings of figures from Japanese folklore and mythology (legendary figures like Shoki the Demon Killer), carvings of bokuto (wooden swords), a carving of a traveler with an oni (demon) on his back, and more. The carvings are highly detailed — down to facial expressions.

The exhibit carvings are all part of a larger collection of similar carvings at Spurlock donated by collector Fred Freund. The exhibit is free and runs until Sunday, February 26, 2012. There’s also a kiosk where you can watch and listen to storyteller Dan Keding tell some of the stories associated with the exhibit — The Story of the Forty-Seven Ronin, for one — on a computer screen.

The exhibit was put together by two UI students, Rebecca Chan and William Armstrong, and has a general theme of protection to it — mythological figures who guard against evil, and samurai who protect their masters. Kim Sheahan, Assistant Director of Education at Spurlock, explained the connection between samurai culture and mythology:

Both the deities and samurai are protectors, and we wanted to cover the whole idea of protection — not just physical people, but mythological characters. Also, some of the mythological characters are based on real people, so it all just kind of blends together.

I asked Sheahan to talk about any carvings in the exhibit that really stand out, and she focused on two crabs (see images) — the creatures are characters in one of the folktales Keding tells. From the exhibit literature:

The Heiki-Gani crab dwells at the bottom of the Inland Sea of Japan. Features of the crab’s shell structure are thought to resemble the face of a samurai. In the 1185 sea battle of Dan-no-Ura, the Minamoto clan attacked the Heike in an attempt to gain the imperial throne. When the ship carrying the six-year-old Heike emperor was about to be captured, the boy’s grandmother told him of a kingdom under the sea, then threw herself and the boy overboard. The Heike samurai followed their emperor into the depths. Their ghosts, transformed into crabs, protect the Inland Sea of Japan and their emperor forever.

Sheahan said of the crabs:

All of these carvings are magnificent. It was very difficult for the two students who put together this exhibit to choose from the many pieces Mr. Freund has given. Of all the things they chose to put into this exhibit, these two crabs really capture the imagination of our visitors, especially since their story is told also in the exhibit. Any time that we have a piece of art that we can show in terms of culture and tell the back story, that’s worth keeping.

She told me why the crabs are personal favorites of hers:

I love those crabs because they have a story — I’m a professional storyteller. Having a story helps to teach more. Any time you can tell a story, the story gives you 27 different directions you can go out into to discuss that culture. You can talk about samurai. You can talk about modern fisherman; in Japan they’ll throw these crabs back because they’re protectors of the sea. And plus, they’re just plain beautiful.

Detailed histories of individual carvings in the exhibit are not known, but Sheahan explained that these types of small wooden carvings were done originally for Japanese to be both practical and decorative, and then were later made to be sold to westerners, who were attracted to them aesthetically:

As kimonos had no pockets, a system of hanging items from the obi, or kimono sash, was developed. Netsuke carvings were a decorative part of this system that helped hold the hanging objects in place. The netsuke, like the ones seen in this exhibit, were done for Japanese people of a higher class. As these sculptures themselves became desirable in the West, the carvers — to please the western market — created things that were larger, things that are more artwork and decoration.

Sheahan said the exhibit itself is notable because it was put together by students — who selected which carvings to include and wrote the exhibit literature — and because it consists of pieces donated from a single collector:

This is the first time we have done an exhibit that was based on one person’s collection. We thought that was really appropriate to do during our Centennial. We really wanted to show our appreciation. Eighty percent of what we have in the museum is donated, and Mr. Freund is superlative at that. Every year Mr. Freund gives us from a dozen to twenty pieces. So at the end of the year it’s like a present — it’s always something that you’re gasping over. They’re beautiful.

In conclusion, this lobby exhibit is small, smart, and fun — kind of like the carvings themselves, which are little, pretty, and nifty. Check it out if you get a chance.

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