Hand-Colored 1860s Photographs Reveal the Last Days of Samurai Japan

Samurai Japan 1

Any fan of samu­rai movies knows the elab­o­rate lengths some pro­duc­tions can go to in order to recre­ate the look and feel of old Japan, but glo­be­trot­ting Ital­ian-British pho­tog­ra­ph­er Felice Beato (1832 — 1909) actu­al­ly man­aged to cap­ture those days on cel­lu­loid first-hand. He arrived in Japan in 1863, at the very twi­light of the era of the samu­rai, a time he doc­u­ment­ed evoca­tive­ly with a series of hand-col­ored pho­tographs of sub­jects like “kimonos, para­sols, baby’s toys, bas­ket sell­ers, cour­te­sans at rest and a samu­rai gang ready for action,” as the Guardian lists them in their gallery of Beat­o’s Japan­ese work.

Samurai Japan 2

“After spend­ing over two hun­dred years in seclu­sion, Japan was being forced by the Amer­i­cans — under a mis­sion led by Com­modore Matthew C. Per­ry — to expand its trade with the west,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds’ Paul Gal­lagher, describ­ing the unprece­dent­ed moment of Japan­ese his­to­ry in which Beato found him­self, one that pro­vid­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pho­to­graph not just the last of the samu­rais but also the cour­te­sans they loved. But all this had its risks: “Trav­el was dan­ger­ous in Japan,” Gal­lagher adds, “with many of the Shogu­nate samu­rai war­riors killing west­ern­ers,” a fate Beato nar­row­ly avoid­ed at least once.

samurai in color

Hav­ing pho­tographed in Con­stan­tino­ple, India, and Chi­na before Japan, Beato moved on after it to oth­er parts of Asia, includ­ing Korea and Bur­ma, before return­ing to his native Italy at the very end of his life. But his pic­tures of Japan remain among the most strik­ing of his entire career, per­haps because of their artis­tic use of col­or, per­haps because of a his­tor­i­cal time and place that we think we’ve come to know through so many sword-and-sui­cide epics. Their char­ac­ters, from the hon­or-bound samu­rai to the sly cour­te­san to the sim­ple mer­chant, can seem to us a bit the­atri­cal as a result, but Beat­o’s pho­tographs remind us that they all began as very real peo­ple. Who might they inspire to make a film about their real lives?

Samurai Japan 4

Samurai Japan 5

Samurai Japan 6

via The Guardian/Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Adver­tise­ments from Japan’s Gold­en Age of Art Deco

Glo­ri­ous Ear­ly 20th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902–1954)

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

A Pho­to­graph­ic Tour of Haru­ki Murakami’s Tokyo, Where Dream, Mem­o­ry, and Real­i­ty Meet

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Laurie says:

    awe­some beau­ti­ful haunt­ing

  • Emily says:

    If they are from the 1860s they are glass plate most like­ly (wet or dry plate) — not cel­lu­loid, which doesn’t come into usage until the 1890s.

  • James Bedu Kodjo Eric Graham says:

    In the 1870s Pho­tographs were already In fash­ion and in progress.

    To the Tal­iban in Afghanistan I say this give your Afghan Peo­ple their Free­dom as they see fit with­out any sense of con­fu­sion and trou­ble
    In 2021 we can only dis­cuss the way Pho­tographs were tak­en out in the late 19th Cen­tu­ry.

    Islam and Free­dom can go hand up and hand along with West­ern­iza­tion,

    In 2022 the mater will be an aspect that must sur­prise and shock all the time.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.