Japanese armour is compositionally complex in its intricate combining of metal and rope to create movable parts. These two materials were knotted and threaded together to form flexible articulations that provided the protective layer for Samurai going into battle. The armour was required to be strong enough to protect a body from sharp weapons yet supple enough to retain the sort of elasticity required for movement in battle. The joining of these perfectly measured components is a complicated balance that required technical craftsmanship of the most highly skilled. One of the most profound schools of armour makers, the Myochin school, also applied their metalworking expertise to bronze and iron figures.
Since the middle of the Edo Period (1600-1868), representational sculptures of animals and insects were made to inhabit the interior alcove where works of art were to be displayed - the tokonoma. Most exceptional of these representational animals are the jizai or articulated figures of animals. Perfected at the Myochin school, jizai are realistically shaped figures of animals made from iron, copper, shibuichi (copper and silver alloy) and shakudo (copper and gold alloy). They move like real animals, as their bodies and limbs are composed of metallic articulations. Their lithe and flexible bodies emulate the movement of actual animals and they are commonly found as birds, fish, snakes, lobsters, crabs, insects and dragons.
If you've ever wondered what it might feel like to hold a writhing, slithering snake in your own hands then these animals may very well come close to the actual experience. Their movement is so naturalistic it makes the material composition of metal almost implausible. Our favourite of these incredible figures are the impressive snakes below.
An Articulated Iron Snake, Myochin School, Edo Period (1750-1800), Victoria & Albert Museum
A Myochin-School Iron Articulated Model of a Snake, signed Muneyoshi, Meiji Period (late 19th century), lot 248, Sale 2596, Christie's South Kensington, 09 November 2011
This figures long, fully articulated body is made of russet iron and constructed of numerous hammered plates joined inside the body. Its head is carved with naturalistic scales and a fitted hinged jaw, inside which is a movable tongue in gilt.
Sold for an impressive £21,875 against an auction estimate of £1,500 - 2,000 proves these objects remain competitive finds amongst collectors. Similar examples sold in Christie's New York 18th September 2007, Lot 188, and 23rd March 1999, Lot 133 (as below).