From Samurais to Gunslingers to Jedi: the Long Shadow of Akira Kurosawa
December 04, 2012
Yes, we’re still looking at the symbiotic relationship between post-war American and Japanese pop cultures. For the Japanese creators of anime, Walt Disney was an inspiration, as he made animated films that were great works of art, appealing to both adults and children. However, Japan produced a filmmaker that was to inspire generations of filmmakers in America and around the world. His name was Akira Kurosawa.
You may not have seen an Akira Kurosawa film. Chances are that you’ve seen a film either based on, or heavily influenced by one of his films. I would wager that almost everyone has seen the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodse IV-VI). Watch the following video, and you’ll see just how much influence Kurosawa’s hit action-comedy film Hidden Fortress (1958) had on what is possibly the most successful film franchise of all time.
While Star Wars is not a direct remake of Hidden Fortress, some characters and scenes in the former are directly inspired by the latter. George Lucas makes no secret of this. R2D2 and C3P0 are modeled on the bickering pair of peasants, Tahei and Matakishi. Princess Leia and Princess Yuki Akizuki are cut from the same high-maintenance cloth. Darth Vader strongly resembles a Japanese samurai in armor. Why are there lightsabers in Star Wars? So there could be samurai-style sword fights! Lucas even name drops the film in a memorable scene:
Admiral Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they have obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it!
Darth Vader: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Admiral Motti: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you enough clairvoyance to find the rebels' hidden fortress... *makes choking sounds*
Darth Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.
Governor Tarkin: Enough of this! Vader, release him!
Darth Vader: As you wish.
Lucas wasn’t the first filmmaker to take inspiration from Kurosawa, or the last. Earlier filmmakers had directly transferred some of his samurai epics into the Wild West: John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven is a remake of The Seven Samurai, and Martin Ritt’s The Outrage is a remake of Rashomon. Serigo Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars goes one step further, being an almost shot-for-shot duplicate of Yojimbo. Walter Hill revisited Yojimbo in Last Man Standing, except this time setting it in the Depression era. And the nonlinear storytelling of Rashomon has influenced countless films, not the least of which is Pulp Fiction.
Kurosawa earned Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Awards of the Japanese Academy, the Directors Guild of America and was named Asian of the Century for Arts, Literature and Culture by CNN/Asian Week. Kurosawa died in 1993, but his legacy will likely linger for as long as films are made.
In writing this, I realized that we’ve stumbled across something big that has been in the entertainment news lately. We’ve had a mention of Disney and a mention of Star Wars. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that the Walt Disney Corporation bought Lucasfilm for a mere $4 billion dollars, and that new Star Wars films are in the works as you read this. Some people think this is the greatest thing ever, and others think it is the worst thing ever. I’m in the former camp, and I’ll explain why in my next blog post.