Akoan for Action Man: What kind of expensive military hardware took its form, according to the bearer's whim, from a cow's head, a rice bowl, a pair of rabbit ears, a water plantain, a whirlpool, a pumpkin, a canyon, or the cone-shaped head of the God of Longevity? The answer is kaware kabuto, which translates from the Japanese as "conspicuous helmets." These were the singular headgear worn into battle, or during the formal maneuvers preceding it, by Japanese clan leaders, before the accurate, quick-firing arms of the 19th century rendered the helmets, their wearers and the samurai ethic they stood for irrelevant.
The great age of the conspicuous helmet began around the middle of the 16th century, when the old pattern of warfare--a field of small semichivalric duels between single combatants--gave way to clashes of massed troops under the command of daimyo, or warlords, who had conscripted them from their estates. These armies could be enormous, siphoning up the manpower of whole provinces. In his last major battle in 1590, the warlord Hideyoshi led 100,000 men at the climax of a five-month siege.
On horseback, the warlord had to stand out from the anonymous mass of his footsloggers, archers and pikemen. In full rig, cased like a land crab in the formal armor that was designed to protect him against sword cuts and even the slow-flying lead balls of a matchlock, he was a sight: the armor consisted of hundreds of lacquered leather platelets, like fish scales, bound together with silk cord. But his mask, finial, badge and troops' standard, all in one, was the helmet, on whose design much fantasy and theatrical cunning were expended. Because they were an inviting target for the other side, not many helmets survive. The best that do, considered as sculpture, are unique in their formal beauty and dramatic power.
Cinema aficionados will recall what Kurosawa did with them in Throne of Blood. Probably they gave Eisenstein his idea for the Teutonic knights' helmets in the battle on the ice in Alexander Nevsky. Certainly they were the source for Darth Vader. Hence, if one were to pick a single exhibition not to miss in New York City this month, it would be "Spectacular Helmets of Japan: 16th-19th Century" at the Japan House Gallery.
Beneath its distinctive decor, the conspicuous helmet was a cap of riveted metal leaves, weighing up to 11 lbs. and meant to protect a man's skull against sword and club. But was ever a martial object more drenched in symbolic fancy? The helmet had to convey no meaning to the warlord's troops except its own singularity. It was the exact reverse of a "uniform"; it was a portable spectacle. Its shape was not determined by the kind of functional rules that governed the making of a samurai's main emblem, the katana or long sword, whose basic form was fixed by the 13th century and did not alter much in the next 600 years. Instead, the helmet--his secondary emblem of power--could mean anything its owner wanted. It was as personal, in that sense, as the poetry whose writing was also one of the skills of an educated warlord.