Is Ripping Off Japanese Cinema Essential to 'Star Wars'?
What is Star Wars, exactly? Obviously, it's a collection of films, books, video games, and underoos. But with the "Skywalker Saga" supposedly ending this year, the future of the franchise is currently one big Aurebesh question mark. So we can't help but wonder: What is it that makes Star Wars tick? What's the common denominator that unites this sprawling mess of stories, characters, and genres? It's not George Lucas; he sold the company in order to buy $4 billion worth of plaid shirts. It's not the music of John Williams; he's quitting Star Wars, presumably to go live in a castle made of royalty checks. So maybe the answer is ... ripping off Japanese cinema?
It's widely acknowledged that the original Star Wars owes a debt to samurai movies, but the connections run even deeper than you might think. And even now, more than 40 years later, Star Wars stories are still cribbing from classic Japanese films, even in ways you might not anticipate.
When the show was first announced, the cast of The Mandalorian acknowledged that the lead character would be a riff on the ronin from legendary director Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. When it came out, there was an added twist that only counts as a spoiler if you haven't been within 50 feet of an internet-capable device in the past month: Baby Yoda. A transient badass with an infant in tow? Sure seems like an unsubtle shout-out to Lone Wolf And Cub, the classic '70s manga which was turned into a series of movies. Instead of a bounty hunter with an adorable green puppet, Lone Wolf And Cub followed an assassin-for-hire who roamed the countryside with his young son, rather than just dropping him off at whatever the feudal Japanese equivalent of a ball pit is.
Lifting elements from Japanese movies might be as intrinsic to Star Wars as lightsabers and goofy names. Most famously, the first film cribs many elements from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Lucas has admitted that his biggest takeaway was the idea to tell the story through the eyes of the "two lowest characters" -- in his case, two catty robots instead of peasants.
And The Hidden Fortress seemingly inspired those iconic Star Wars wipes (the transitions, not Lucasfilm-branded cleaning products).
The plots are similar, but only broadly so. Yes, there's a princess, an evil general, and a bunch of sword-fighting, but there are also a lot of differences. It turns out that the reason for this is that Lucas basically copied a summary of The Hidden Fortress from a book about Kurosawa and rewrote it slightly for the introduction to his early story treatment. By his own admission, The Hidden Fortress is only his fourth-favorite Kurosawa movie.
Which makes sense. There's also a lot of Yojimbo in A New Hope, specifically in the Cantina fight. Meaning that Kurosawa's greatest contribution to Star Wars may be inspiring Lucas' unbridled passion for hacking off limbs. Which is probably why Lucas offered Kurosawa's frequent leading man Toshiro Mifune the role of either Obi-Wan or Darth Vader.
Lucas' favorite Kurosawa movie? Seven Samurai, the 1954 epic considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Not only do similar transitional wipes appear in Seven Samurai, but Obi-Wan also arguably resembles Kambei Shimada, the aging leader of the titular gang, more than he does any character in The Hidden Fortress. And The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan claimed that Seven Samurai is "the greatest film ever made," and that "Yoda is Shimada ... the mentor figure who gets the whole picture."
Seven Samurai's influence continues to ripple throughout the franchise. Its story has been riffed on multiple times in the Star Wars-verse -- in the Clone Wars episode "Bounty Hunters," in the fourth episode of The Mandalorian, and even way back in the original '70s Marvel comic book series. After retelling the events of the movie, the story "Eight For Aduba-3" basically reworked Seven Samurai with Han, Chewie, and the giant green rabbit Kurosawa never thought to include.
Even in the movies, Star Wars never stopped seeking inspiration in Kurosawa. The Hoth scenes in Empire resemble Kurosawa's 1975 Soviet co-production Dersu Uzala, set in the (sadly Tauntaun-less) Siberian tundra.
Similarly, the speeder bike chase in Return Of The Jedi mirrors a chase in The Hidden Fortress, and the Nabooian vistas of The Phantom Menace look straight out of Ran. Even when Disney took hold of the series, filmmakers continued to borrow from Japanese classics. While making The Force Awakens, oddly, J.J. Abrams turned one of Kurosawa's non-samurai movies, the 1962 drama High And Low. Abrams reportedly studied its "unbelievable scene choreography and composition." And you can actually kind of see the influence, such as Kylo Ren gazing out the window of a Death Star, just as Toshiro Mifune did from his luxurious Tokyo apartment.
Even Solo has a tangential Kurosawa connection. Enfys Nest's gang has its origin in that same old Seven Samurai-inspired comic. And Rogue One features a blind martial artist reminiscent of the Zatoichi, the famous blind swordsman from the long-running Japanese film and television series.
And of course, The Last Jedi is positively crammed with movie references, and features nods to later Kurosawa movies like Ran and Kagemusha -- which, incidentally, Lucas was an executive producer on -- not to mention a subplot inspired by either Rashomon or that episode of Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air wherein Uncle Phil and Will have differing recollections of a pool party. Director Rian Johnson also stated that he watched Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai "for the feel of the sword-fighting" before making the movie (sadly, there's no obscure chanbara movie with giant lactating aliens).
So whatever the future of Star Wars is -- whether it's more movies and TV shows, or simply revisiting a baffling line of children's undergarments -- it's safe to assume that future creatives will continue to pick at the bones of Japanese movies like billionaire vultures.
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