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The Asian Roots of a Galaxy Far Far Away

“You may not be able to travel to Tatooine,” reads a comforting announcement currently circulating planet Earth.

The Force may lead you instead to the Star Wars Celebration held at the Convention Center in Anaheim, CA, from May 26 to 29, 2022: “Star Wars Celebration,” according to the promise of the ad, “is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience where memories are made – all in the setting of the ever-evolving Star Wars universe.”

Since the Big Bang of the Star Wars universe in 1977 and during the rapid expansion that has followed, there have been countless celebrations. Elements of this most enduring fantasy saga of our time have been displayed and played with. Every aspect of its intergalactic adventures – spaceships, costumes, robots, creatures – became tokens of unabated worship.

But one element was mostly absent, ignored, forgotten: the franchise’s Asian roots.

To be sure, many fans of George Lucas or Luke Skywalker probably know that Star Wars was inspired by a Japanese film, The Hidden Fortress by Akira Kurosawa, in 1958. But to what extent Lucas owes Kurosawa might be surprising and certainly worth looking into.

Let’s start with Hollywood’s wunderkinder of the Sixties, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas. They all respected the old masters and the well-established studios which had nurtured them. But they also gasped for fresh air, craved new visions, and looked for an expansion of the cinematic language.

They found electrifying impulses coming from the far East. There was the Bengali Indian Satyajit Ray, whose 1958 fantasy comedy Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) was intensely studied. But above all, there was Akira Kurosawa. In an interview in 2009, Martin Scorsese spoke for all of them when he said, “Kurosawa was my master.”

What George Lucas found so inspirational in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was its highly unusual mix of seemingly diverse styles. It was a war movie, certainly. But it was also funny. It was comedic, but it had fast-moving life-and-death action. Swashbuckling and slapstick. But this was all surface. Beneath lay the themes of fate, doom, and redemption.

Traditionally, Hollywood would have told this story through the eyes of a dashing young lieutenant or a silent stranger with a gun. But not here. The point of view comes from two constantly blabbering simpletons who stumble through the scenery filling the air with comments and complaints about themselves and their circumstances. That was fresh air.

The names of those two nobodies, one tall and the other short, were Tahai (Minoru Chiaki) and Mataschichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). But they could have easily been called C-3PO and R2-D2.

Lucas confirmed, “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the viewpoint of the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. To take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.”

Later in The Hidden Fortress, those unlikely heroes were ordered to accompany the powerful General Rokurate Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) while he escorts Princess Uki (Misa Uehara) to her homeland. Again, they could have easily been called Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia. Didn’t the lovable chatting droids help Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi guide Princess Leia to the rebel base? 

George Lucas made no secret out of his original plan to cast Toshiro Mifune as Obi-Wan Kenobi, who, of course, like General Makabe, has also seen military service (in the Clone Wars).

More references to the Japanese original? There is the damp forest later seen in Endor, populated by the Ewoks. There is the grotesquely obese slave dealer who seemed to have later morphed into Jabba the Hutt. The swords of the Samurai fighting style were technologically updated into Laser Swords. There is the horrifying villain, his face disfigured, who at a most crucial moment changed his loyalty and saved our heroes. Didn’t Darth Vader act similarly in Return of the Jedi?

And how about a special homage George Lucas sneaked into the film: the technique of horizontal wipes?

Wipes, the cinematic leftovers from the brief darkness during theatrical scene changes, had by then given way to “hard cuts.” But Kurosawa used them, and George Lucas, aware of the prevalent anachronism in sci-fi, followed suit. Those horizontal wipes are his hidden references to The Hidden Fortress.

Those wipes were, of course, only gimmicks. But they were also his thank you to the master Akira Kurosawa. And all the other references, overt or subtle, were tributes to the Force behind Star Wars – its Asian roots.