The Bushido of Star Wars

The Star Wars epic has made inroads into Japanese culture much the same way it has ours -- but Luke, Darth Vader and Queen Amidala owe more to Japanese culture than they might realize

by Ridwan Khan

George Lucas' Star Wars, like epic material before it, borrows heavily from many sources. For example, many details in Star Wars, like the desert planet Tatooine and the spice trade, are obviously influenced by Frank Herbert's science fiction masterwork, Dune. Other aspects of Star Wars, like the idea of a farm boy fulfilling his dreams by journeying with experienced teachers, rogues, and pirates, according to Lucas himself, recall the earliest myths and folktales. However, there is another, often unrecognized source for many details in Star Wars. Japanese culture was a major influence on Lucas's films. The heated battles of graceful Jedi knights, the domed helmet of Darth Vader, and the ornate costumes of Princess Amidala, all owe a debt to Japanese culture. Indeed, Lucas borrowed heavily from elements of both classical and modern Japanese culture in creating Star Wars. In turn, Star Wars has become influential enough in Japan to factor into contemporary culture.

Japanese classical culture played an important part in the creation of the world of Star Wars. The most obvious inspiration for Lucas was the samurai. Japanese samurai (from the verb, saburau, to serve) were a warrior class who became "keepers of the peace" (Jansen 8). Inspired by the learned statesmen of China, samurai combined warrior (bushi) ethics with learning, culture, and statesmanship. In Japan's Confucian social stratum, the samurai were charged with keeping law and order. Lucas' Jedi played a similar role in his galaxy; Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Jedi as knights that served as "the guardians and guarantors of peace and justice in the Old Republic" (The Star Wars Trilogy 69). Like the samurai, who follow a strict code of bushido, Jedi knights follow a strict warrior code; Luke and Anakin Skywalker are forced through difficult training.

Also like the Japanese samurai, the Jedi in Star Wars place importance on their weapon of choice, in their case the lightsaber. A lightsaber is

The formal weapon of a Jedi knight...more skill than simple sight [is] required for its use. An elegant weapon. It [is] a symbol as well. Anyone can use a blaster...but to use a lightsaber well [is] a mark of someone a cut above the ordinary (The Star Wars Trilogy 69).

Obviously lightsabers are samurai swords dressed up for a science fiction setting. Like the lightsabers, the katana and wakizashi (collectively daisho) were symbols; they represented the samurai in medieval Japan. In 1588, Shogun Hideyoshi banned anyone but registered samurai from owning swords, so the weapons became emblematic of the samurai class (Beasley 127). The Jedi's elegant sword battles, from Kenobi's battle with Darth Vader in A New Hope to Qui Gon Jin's battle with Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace are based heavily on the Japanese martial art of kendo, which involves using a wooden sword to fence with opponents. Like the Jedi, samurai put heavy emphasis on styles of swordsmanship.

Many costumes in the Star Wars universe also heavily recall Japanese clothing. Darth Vader's ominous black helmet is based on the kabuto helmets that samurai wore into battle. The brown or gray robes that Jedi, including Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui Gon Jin, and Mace Windu, wear suggest a monastic brotherhood similar to that of Buddhist temples. In The Phantom Menace, Queen Amidala wears ornate costumes that are based on Japanese kimonos, while her white make up and hair decorations come from the traditional dress and garb of the geisha. Additionally, the look of Darth Maul, the intimidating red and black Sithlord in The Phantom Menace, is based on the masks used in Japanese Noh drama, especially those of oni or Japanese demons. Qui Gon Jin, the master Jedi of The Phantom Menace, recalls the look of samurai in many ways; his facial hair is obviously influenced by Toshiro Mifune, who wore a similar beard for nearly all of his samurai movie roles. Like Kenobi in A New Hope, Jin wears brown robes and samurai style footwear.

In Star Wars, the concept of the Force also parallels concepts in Japanese culture. In Eastern philosophies, especially in the martial arts, ki (qi in the original Chinese) plays an important role. Best translated as spiritual or life energy, spirit or mind, ki is thought of as an energy arising from matter or life ("Qi"). In addition, the mastery of ki can, according to traditional Eastern beliefs, allow one to "transcend normal physical and biological processes" ("Qi") and "direct and mould matter" ("Qi"). Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as "'an energy field generated by living things...The force surrounds each and everyone one of us...it [is] what [gives] the Jedi his special power'" (The Star Wars Trilogy 70). This special power includes a number of abilities that transcend normal physical and biological processes. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan is able to dissuade Storm Troopers from searching R2-D2 and C3PO using the Force. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda is able to levitate Luke's X-wing out of the bog and onto dry land through the Force. Before he does this, Yoda further explains the Force; "'life creates it and makes it grow...its energy surrounds us and binds us...feel the Force around you...everywhere...even between this land and that ship'" (The Star Wars Trilogy 282). Like ki, it comes from matter and living things and binds to people. Many people have noticed the similarities between the Force and ki and suggest "Lucas may have borrowed the concept" ("Qi").

The master of that spiritual energy, Obi-wan Kenobi, represents a familiar archetype in Japanese history. In A New Hope, Kenobi is a hermit, living in a cave. The exiled hermit is an especially strong archetype in Japanese literature and culture. For example, Japan's most famous swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto, retired to the Reigandou caves where he wrote his Book of Five Rings ("Musashi Miyamoto"). Japanese history has many political and religious figures who, like Kenobi and Yoda, are forced into exile after being defeated. The founder of the influential Nichiren sect of Buddhism was exiled at least twice ("Nichiren"). As mentioned above, Kenobi's brown robes seem very similar to robes worn by Buddhist monks, further strengthening the parallel. Like the Jedi, potential rivals to emperors and shoguns also met with banishment to far off islands.

George Lucas had many reasons for borrowing from Japanese history in creating Star Wars. Most epic material contains elements from pre-existing material in the same genre. Since nothing in Lucas' Star Wars universe already existed, using models from the real world and reworking them into a science fiction setting gave Lucas and his crew a basis to work from. Furthermore, using Eastern concepts and ideas helped Lucas further exaggerate the exotic, alien quality depicted in film. He could not have explored that exotic quality as far if he had based Star Wars upon medieval Europe, for example, as his audience was already familiar with material from that era. However, most of Lucas's audience had never heard of ki or daisho; their inclusion and reworking in Star Wars helped make Lucas's movies unlike anything his audience had ever seen before.

Modern Japanese culture was just as big an influence on Star Wars as classical culture was. Overwhelmingly, the modern influence came from the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and one of his lead actors, Toshiro Mifune. For example, on a mechanical level, Star Wars was heavily influenced by Kurosawa's use of fades and wipes, which Lucas emulates in all his films. Lucas says of Kurosawa's films, "The first one I saw was Seven Samurai and after that I was completely hooked" (Interview with Criterion for The Hidden Fortress DVD). Kurosawa's samurai films, especially Kakushi Toride no San Akunin (literally "Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress," titled in the U.S The Hidden Fortress), served as a major influences on Star Wars.

In The Hidden Fortress, a faithful general finds himself stuck in enemy territory with his clan's princess. As they attempt to escape and return to their own land, they meet a pair of bumbling, conniving peasants. The characters in The Hidden Fortress have obvious analogies in Star Wars; Princess Yuki recalls Leia, the general Makabe is reminiscent of Kenobi, and the two bickering peasants are obviously the sources behind R2D2 and C3PO. George Lucas says,

When I was beginning to write the screenplay [for Star Wars]... one thing that really struck me about Hidden Fortress...was that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is, [sic] the two 'droids (Interview with Criterion for The Hidden Fortress DVD).

The narratives of both films are also similar; in both a princess is saved from the enemy's clutches and returned to her people by a motley crew of adventurers. Even the openings of The Hidden Fortress and A New Hope parallel each other; in A New Hope, we meet R2D2 and C3PO being ignored during a pitched space battle, while in The Hidden Fortress the two peasants watch in fear as a battle between two clans surrounds them. Film professor John Newton, of the University of British Columbia says, "It is hard not to laugh when your students suddenly realize in the middle of the movie that Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress may have contributed more than its share to a 'seminal' American epic" (vanKampen).

When compared to Lucas' The Phantom Menace, the similarities in plot are even more apparent. Lucas borrowed heavily from the Princess Yuki in the creation of Amidala; both princesses find out how life is for the common people during the journey back to their lands. The stoic general Makabe is eerily similar to the resourceful Jedi Qui Gon Jin. Armond White, a film critic says "The episodic story [of The Hidden Fortress] was, of course eventually borrowed by George Lucas for both the initial plot of Star Wars and the revived Princess Amidala-centered narrative of The Phantom Menace" (The Hidden Fortress).

Star Wars is not connected to the works of Akira Kurosawa by plot alone; Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's charismatic and talented star actor, is the source behind nearly every Jedi in the Star Wars universe. Mifune's Yojimbo, a gruff, cunning bodyguard obviously influenced Samuel L. Jackson as the Jedi master Mace Windu. Mifune has played both the headstrong apprentice and patient teacher; his acting in the latter role heavily influenced the portrayal of Jedi masters like Yoda. Mifune's roles as an apprentice, like the peasant turned samurai in Seven Samurai, influenced the portrayal of the young Jedi-in-training, Anakin and Luke Skywalker. In The Hidden Fortress, Mifune plays the brave, cunning samurai that would inspire the depictions of the older Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jin. While speaking about the influence of The Hidden Fortress on Star Wars, Lucas says, "In the first drafts [of Star Wars] I had her [the princess] and kind of a Jedi, an older Jedi, trying to escape" (Interview with Criterion for The Hidden Fortress DVD). Lucas obviously had Mifune in mind for the role of the older Jedi; in fact, he strongly considered having Mifune play the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope.

Despite his not being cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, both Mifune and his director, Kurosawa had an important impact on Star Wars. For George Lucas, Kurosawa's masterful direction and Mifune's spirited acting were a great resource to draw upon when he made his film. Indeed, in all of his films Lucas returned time and time again to the acting styles pioneered by Mifune and the narrative structures crafted by Kurosawa because theirs was some of the best work in their respective fields. In emulating them, Lucas was able to tie his film to some of the most enduring classics in film history, just as in the Star Wars narrative he tied the films to epic works.

Star Wars has not just borrowed from Japanese culture. The popularity of Lucas's space opera has had a major influence on Japanese popular culture. Many areas of contemporary Japanese culture have felt the impact of Star Wars, as fans of Lucas's movie have gone on to both produce and enjoy films and other media. Much of this influence has been on manga and anime, or Japanese comics and animation respectively, many of which have had dealt with science fiction themes since their inception.

The most important series to have been influenced by Star Wars is Mobile Suit Gundam (Kidou Senshi Gundam), which is often called the Star Wars of Japan. The story revolves around Amuro Rei, a teenager from Earth, who when his home is under attack by the space separatist forces, stumbles upon and utilizes the military's newest weapon, a mobile robot known as the Gundam. He becomes the Gundam's pilot and battles through space and Earth in this politically and socially complex series. Star Wars had a major influence on Mobile Suit Gundam. Yasuhiro Imagawa, assistant director of the original Gundam series and director of later series, has noted that the "robots as superheroes" (Imagawa) plot that characterized much anime before Star Wars had become, in his words, "redundant" and "hackneyed" (Imagawa). Science fiction anime before Star Wars and Gundam had been a black and white affair of good versus evil, with the good guy winning every week. The influence of Star Wars changed that. Gundam was the first major science fiction anime to move away from the episodic "battle of the week" and towards more complex narratives. This shift was directly influenced by the popularity of Star Wars in Japan. Many of ideas first present in Star Wars, from the political maneuvering of the Emperor, to the revelation that Vader is Luke's father, which were teasingly hinted at in A New Hope, served as seeds that germinated in contemporary anime.

The plots of both Mobile Suit Gundam and Star Wars are similar in many different areas. Like Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Amuro Rei is "the one," an individual with the ability to win the war for the Earth Federation, against the space separatists, the Zeon. Also, like Star Wars, Gundam's enemies were not completely evil, which was, as Imagawa mentioned, unlike previous robot anime before it. Amuro's archrival in the Zeon camp, Char Aznable finds out that a crewmember on Amuro's ship is his sister, much like Luke finds out that Leia is his sister. Darth Vader had fallen from grace in Star Wars, while the Zeon fought back against an oppressive Earth government. Neither was completely evil. Gundam also borrowed the concept of Jedi in the creation of Newtypes, a race of people with enhanced abilities that allowed them to pilot Mobile Suits. Like Luke discovering he is a Jedi, Amuro slowly finds out that he is a Newtype.

Details in machinery in Mobile Suit Gundam were also directly influenced by Star Wars. In Gundam, the robots were not superheroes like in previous anime; they were mass produced military weapons, like the X-Wing and TIE Fighter spacecraft in Star Wars. Star Wars, unlike science fiction before it, sported space ships with visible damage, wear and tear, which made the ships look like real military equipment. This was not only important to the creators of Star Wars; it became a major innovation in anime. Imagawa has said that the original Gundam was a "watershed" series (Imagawa) for that very reason. Additionally, Amuro's Gundam was the first character in anime to use a Star Wars style weapon; the "beam saber," a neon green sword of light, was an obvious reference to the Jedi's lightsaber.

If the Gundam was the first anime character to copy the look or the exact sound of a lightsaber, he would not be the last; Tenchi Muyo, a science fiction romantic comedy (begun as a parody of the American sitcom I Dream of Jeannie) borrowed many aspects of Star Wars. Tenchi Masaki is another "chosen boy" who must fight the Emperor of the universe. Like Luke, Tenchi lives in the middle of nowhere (Earth, rather than Tatooine) and is hidden away by his grandfather. Tenchi has no idea that he is the descendant of the galaxy's true ruling family, the Jurai. His weapon of choice is, of course, the lightsaber; Tenchi's weapon matches the Jedi's in both look and sound. Tenchi even fights a battle against the Emperor on his ship, recalling the battle between Luke and Darth Vader that ends The Empire Strikes Back. Like Gundam, Tenchi Muyo borrowed heavily from the design of starcraft in Star Wars. The Jurai's space vessels mirror the Mon Calamari Cruisers that the Rebels use during Return of the Jedi. The creators of Tenchi Muyo were fully aware of how much they were borrowing from Star Wars; art from the series parodies the classic Return of the Jedi movie poster, where on a background of inky black space and stars, the space princess Ayeka stands looming in the background, wearing a gray domed helmet. In front of her, Tenchi stands with his lightsaber held high, and the space pirate Ryoko holds a ki energy blast, aimed at the audience, wearing clothing suspiciously like that of Han Solo. Further in the foreground, Ayeka's sister Sasami stands wearing Leia's slave outfit from Return of the Jedi.

Other anime directly benefited from the popularity of Star Wars in Japan. The late 1970s anime Space Battleship Yamamoto, a revisionist retelling of World War II set in space (casting the West as invading aliens), began to air before Star Wars was released, but only gained popularity after the release of Lucas' films. The popularity that the space opera Yamamoto found allowed its creator, Reiji Matsumoto, to create more science fiction anime, including Captain Harlock, whose lead character was a roguish ship captain heavily indebted to Han Solo, and Galaxy Express 999, whose world hopping adventures were inspired by the myriad of planets in Star Wars.

The popularity of Star Wars had an even more profound and direct effect on Japanese film during the 80s. During the 70s, Kurosawa directed several films that, while critically acclaimed, were commercial flops. His films were constantly over budget and he could not find a Japanese distributor. He even attempted suicide in 1971. During this time, Lucas became rich and influential from the success of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. When Kurosawa could not find a studio in Japan, Lucas both funded Kurosawa's movies and helped him find a distributor in the U.S. The results were, of course, two samurai films; Kagemusha and Ran. Because of Lucas' intervention, Kagemusha became the first Japanese film to be released worldwide during the 80s. On his 1990 film, Dreams, Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special effects team helped Kurosawa in the making of his film.

The influence of Star Wars did not stop at anime and film, as the films also influenced video games. Final Fantasy VI, for example, features a group of adventurers in a psuedo-fantasy setting coming together to defeat the head of an evil Empire, a plot repeated often in the series. The game also has minor characters named Biggs and Wedge (as did every Final Fantasy after it), named after the two pilots who accompany Luke into the Death Star trench run in A New Hope. The English translation of Final Fantasy VI further recalls Star Wars; a number of times, characters parrot classic lines from Lucas's films, including "I have a bad feeling about this," and "It's not my fault!" Another role playing game, 2003's Disgaea features the "lightsaber" as a weapon. Its coy description reads "The Force May Be With You."

Indeed, the Force has certainly been with Star Wars in Japan. It's easy to see why; the Japanese easily saw many elements of their culture in the films. While the samurai in science fiction clothing had been something new and exotic in the West, Star Wars resonated with the Japanese by imitating some of their most classic stories. Star Wars had an immediate impact on Japanese TV; it made science fiction fashionable, and shows like Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamamoto which were facing low ratings and cancellations rode the wave of popularity to success. In the longer term, the science fiction fans that grew up watching Star Wars began to create works like Tenchi Muyo, Final Fantasy, and Disgaea, which if not heavily influenced by Lucas' films, they coyly refer to them like an old friend. Indeed, Lucas' nearly thirty year old films are like dependable old friends in Japanese culture; collectibles, toys, and other Star Wars knickknacks have been popular in Japan since the films first came out. As The Phantom Menace was being released in Japan, Dark Horse comics commissioned a complete manga or comic book series based exactly on the original three Star Wars films, an unprecedented move for such an old franchise, since most manga are either original stories or new stories based an existing franchise. Dark Horse also hired noted manga artist Kia Asamiya to work on a Phantom Menace manga.

Star Wars manga almost brings the cultural influences full circle; a Western story that borrowed heavily from Japanese culture is again worked into a Japanese medium. However, in influencing a generation of directors, manga artists, video game producers, and audiences in Japan, Lucas has certainly paid his debt back. By borrowing from Japanese history, Lucas's films follow the tradition of epic material by coming from many sources. The influence of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune on Star Wars helped elevate the films out of the realm of cheesy space opera to a seminal works of American film. Because Lucas so heavily tied Star Wars to the traditions of world epics and classic films, it is no surprise that his films have gone onto to be as influential as previous works in those genres.

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