Japan and the Jedi: How Japan Influenced ‘Star Wars’

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December 20, 2016

Since last year, the festive season in Japan just got a whole lot more interesting, due in large part to the greatest movie franchise ever made. No, I’m not talking about the Police Academy movies (a close second place… ). Now, December doesn’t just mean holiday festivities — it also means a new Star Wars movie.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened at the end of last week.

The film is something of a departure from the norm for the franchise. It promises no light saber battles and no Jedi knights, instead focusing on a new team of  heroic Rebel Alliance characters in a story set between the times of 2005’s Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and 1977’s original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Following on from last year’s record-breaking Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Japan has once again caught the Star Wars bug, with everything from hand towels to fridge magnets showcasing the characters of that “galaxy far, far away.”

Now that Disney has acquired the license and set about monetizing it in just about every way imaginable, its iconography can be seen everywhere. I sit here at my desk with my phone plugged into a Darth Vader charger, its case emblazoned with the insignia of the Galactic Empire as I sip my morning coffee from my cup adorned with the Dark Lord’s menacing visage in front of the equally iconic Death Star.

Just last week when a friend of mine announced he would be moving to Kyoto from Osaka, one of my other friends, an Osaka native, quipped that he was “turning to the dark side!”

But the links between Star Wars and Japan go far deeper than that.

It’s a well-known fact that the movie’s creator and director, George Lucas, was influenced heavily in his early career by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

A remake of The Hidden Fortress?

Many pundits assert, though Lucas himself has never officially acknowledged this, that the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is, to all intents and purposes, a sci-fi remake of Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.

One of the main pieces of evidence is the narrative device of telling the story from the perspective of seemingly minor characters.

In The Hidden Fortress, the story was told from the perspective of two lowly peasants who find themselves in service to a princess and her general. In Star Wars, it could be argued that the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO are utilized in the same way.

The basic story outline of storming a large enemy fortress, or “death star,” and coming to the aid of a princess against seemingly impossible odds are another similarity. I wouldn’t go so far as to call A New Hope a remake, but there are undoubtedly influences from Kurosawa throughout the saga’s original trilogy. The famous speeder bike chase near the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, shares a number of similarities with a similar horseback chase in The Hidden Fortress when General Makabe attempts to outrun his pursuers.

Using tropes from Japanese history and tradition

Star Wars also borrows a great deal from Japanese history and traditions. The fabled Jedi knights with their long flowing robes, lightsabers and religious dedication to their craft are part samurai and part Buddhist monk. Also, the design of the iconic villain Darth Vader is more than a passing nod to the fearsome armor worn in battle by Japan’s feudal warlords.

Re-contextualizing contemporary Japanese culture

The Galactic Empire, the villains of the original trilogy and also the upcoming Rogue One movie, also show clear influence from contemporary Japanese culture.

Whilst the militarist, dictatorial nature of the Empire is a clear reference to Nazi Germany, many of the Empire’s weapons and gadgets look like they’ve come straight out of Japanese anime. Darth Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, accompanied by its fleets of TIE fighters, along with the likes of General Veer’s AT-AT walker, from the legendary snow battle scene at the opening of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back , wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Gundam, Robotech or any other similar shows.

Perhaps it’s this mix of Japanese traditional storytelling and futuristic anime tech that makes the saga such a big draw to Japanese audiences. Either way, Rogue One looks set to be every bit as successful in Japan as any of the Star Wars movies that have come before it.

Have you seen the movie in Japan yet? Do you see Japanese cultural influences in the franchise story? Let us know in the comments below!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened in theaters across Japan on December 16th.

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  • Ganko Ray

    the article and what some people missed completely is the real influence came from professor Joseph Campbell .. whom taught mythology and theology at Sarah Lawrence College.
    Read this then do some real research and of course you do see Japanese culture used but it came via professor Campbell:
    George Lucas was the first Hollywood filmmaker to credit Campbell’s influence. Lucas stated, following the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, that its story was shaped, in part, by ideas described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of Campbell’s.

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