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Noble warriors, who dedicated their whole life to serving their master and were loyal till death. A code of conduct based on honour, rigid, but so heartfelt and bound to Buddhism and Zen that many warriors gave up war to become monks. Spice it with an armour whose mere sight would make the enemies’ blood run cold, and you get Samurai. Who were therefore no mere military force, in Japan: they were an out-and-out social class. And now we’ll let you know what’s so special about the masks of Samurai.

The armour and masks of Samurai

If you compare the armours of Samurai – who were established in the 12th century – with the European ones, the former may look odd and much more richly decorated. Each of its pieces was in fact designed to be functional and let the warrior move freely. Indeed, it had to be resistant and pliable at the same time: this is why it consisted of metal or leather plates, tied with silk or leather ribbons.

Somen Samurai | Kartaruga


The helmet – kabuto – was made in exactly the same way and supplied with a protection for the neck, called shikoro. There was then a mengu fastened to the kabuto, a protection for the face, with various shapes, but usually with a terrifying expression.

These masks had different functions:

  • a Hanbo only shielded chin and part of the neck;
  • a Happuri protected forehead and cheeks;
  • a Menpo covered the Samurai’s face from the cheekbones to the chin;
  • a Somen covered the entire face.

How were they then turned into frightening masks? Some of them were added a moustache, a removable nose or fangs. But all of them were characterised by surly looks and mouths twisted into fierce snarls.

Materials and function

Samurai | KartarugaAgain, the materials used to make these masks were either iron or leather, treated with special varnishes that made them waterproof and perfected their aspect.

Besides, they had a twofold practical function: they protected from the enemy’s blows and counterbalanced the weight of the kabuto.

Just like the entire armour, then, the masks of Samurai were thoroughly practical. This, though, didn’t hinder the level of terror they inspired, both in Japan and in the rest of the world. And the dread was such that it inspired the mask of one of the most famous movie villains: Darth Vader’s.

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