A long time ago, far far away… the land of the rising sun inspired the ambitious young George Lucas to make the ultimate space opera saga – Star Wars. Those born after the initial release of A New Hope (1977) may not be aware that Lucas was a big fan of Akira Kurosawa; the master of cinema and samurai. In fact, much of Star Wars borrowed from Kurosawa’s work: including characters, plot lines and even entire scenes from The Hidden Fortress (1958). Notable examples include the two arguing peasants providing the comic relief element, clearly lifted onto our favourite droid-duo, or the feisty princess fighting an overpowering enemy. The warlike ‘Vader’ villain even switches to the good guy’s side.
The term “jidaigeki” is Japanese for period drama, often told from the perspective of samurai and peasants caught between petulant warlords. The word itself gave birth to Jedi and, like samurai, led to the similarity in clothes – like Vader’s armour or Luke’s robes, and the obvious wielding of the sword-like light sabre. They represent a peace keeping presence and share the spiritual likeness to the Bushido code or Shinto belief that everything is connected. This is one of the main reasons why Star Wars is such a successful saga, precisely because the melodrama is universal and the space backdrop can easily be replaced by any setting – especially a feudal Japanese one. Even in the later Star Wars ‘Episode’ installments the Sith Lords can be seen as a substitute for rogue samurai or rōnin – lawless and devoid of any true master or sense of honour.
Generally, there has always been a healthy dialogue between western and Japanese cinema. Kurosawa himself was heavily influenced by Shakespearean characterisation and famously declared his western counterpart, John Ford, as his idol. Their professional relationship was enough to have shared and developed many filmic techniques respectively. The parallels in the cinematography are laden with wide landscape shots, sweeping screen wipes. His movement and framing techniques are especially recognisable in Ford’s westerns. There’s even an X-wing trench run equivalent – but on a high-speed horse with the background racing past.
A slightly less obvious but possible influence stems from early anime of the 70’s. Coincidentally or not, before there was Star Wars, there was Space Battleship Yamato (1974). Released in the west as ‘Star Blazers’ some ambitious fans have drawn parallels between the two including: star ships, the militant empire and blue-prints containing ship designs delivered by a female lead. The droid companion equivalent in Yamato is Analyzer, whose design and narrative function bears a very strong resemblance to R2D2. Space battle themes in general were enormously popular in Japan at the time – to the point where the Yamato movie surpassed the local release of Star Wars.
A more recent example is through the introduction of Rey in Force Awakens. It’s reminiscent of the opening scenes in Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal anime Nausicää of the Valley of the Wind. Both Rey and the titular Nausicää are scavengers and both are masked isolated figures exploring a hostile environment. Rey reveals herself to the audience beneath the vast wreck of a star destroyer, much like Nausicää reveals herself in the immense chamber of an Om corpse. They then speed off in their respective vehicles: Rey’s speeder and Nausicää’s glider. Eventually they both seek to understand their true purpose as unstoppable heroines. If in some bizarre alternate universe these two characters met then they’d find they had a lot in common.
A lot can be owed to Star Wars for its discourse with Japanese film and the invaluable cross-cultural exchange it continues to represent. The influence of Japanese culture and cinema in western film remains unmistakeable in the likes of Tarantino’s works, which consistently pay homage to samurai epics and their cinematic tropes. Not to mention the endless stream of disaster movies spurred on by the original Japanese Gojira (1954) and its metaphorical representation of the atomic bomb. Anime master Hayao Miyazaki is a household name and commonly labelled as the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney.
Blockbuster hits Black Swan (2011) and Inception (2010) have plot lines lifted from Satoshi Kon’s works (some may suggest they’re straight up Hollywood rip-offs or remakes!) There would be no Hunger Games (2012) without Battle Royale (2000) or the particular brand of horror influenced by The Grudge (2002) or Audition (1999). I’m optimistic that through cinema we can further understand a culture that chose to isolate itself for over two hundred years. A culture that continues to astound and confound us.
The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme launches this month. Find out more here.
Our monthly 35mm club begins with a screening of Kurosawa’s Ikiru on Sat 13 Feb. Find out more here.