How Akira Kurosawa inspired Star Wars & The Last Jedi 40 years apart

Jan 25, 2018
akira kurosawa

Film director Akira Kurosawa, his Hidden Fortress and his effect on George Lucas


Legendary Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress was released in 1958.

The movie tells story of a general and a princess, fighting their way home through enemy lines in feudal Japan with the help of a pair of bumbling peasants.

Does that sound similar?

What if you replaced the pair of peasants with the bumbling R2D2 and C3PO?

A princess?

A General who fought in the Clone Wars?

That's right, young George Lucas took the two bickering peasants and traded them them in for C3PO and R2D2 - it was his intention that his Star Wars story be told from their perspective. And it many ways it is, the start of the story features them setting everything off in motion.

George Lucas explained in an interview how he gained his inspiration:

“I remember the one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress,” he said, “the one thing I was really intrigued by, was the fact 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 the two droids, and that was the strongest influence."

At so it began that George Lucas would make reference and homage to one of Japan's greatest film makers, Akiro Kurosawa.

You know how in The Phantom Menace, Padme fakes out everybody by pretending to be a servant of the Queen? That's a direct plot point taken from Hidden Fortress.

Akira's Yojimbo film also served as inspiration for the famous Cantina scene.

Yojimbo featured a bar scene where a group of men threaten the film's hero and brag how they are wanted by 'the authorities' and then suddenly swords are drawn and an arm is left lying on the floor of the bar.

It's almost a play by play account of what happens to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan before they are introduced to Han Solo by Chewbaca!

Did we mention the famous scene ending 'swipes'? Another idea totally taken from Kurosawa.

Have you ever heard of the film, The Magnificent Seven?


It is one of the great Westerns films in cinema history.

But guess what?

The John Sturges directed film was actually a remake of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, which at the time, was the biggest box office grossing film in Japan.

Lucas said of the original: "I think Seven Samurai influenced me a lot more [than Hidden Fortress], in terms of understanding how cinema works and how to tell a very exciting story and still have it be very funny and very human.'

Which is a long way of saying that in Revenge of the Sith, Lucas deftly slipped in a visual reference The Seven Samurai film. In the below image, as Yoda brings his hand to his head, this is directly referencing Akira's movies.


But that's just a subtle nod. The Phantom Menace had a great and direct nod to the Seven Samurai:


As Star Wars Analysis Expert Mike Klimo points out - this iconic shot above of the attacking army on Naboo coming over the hill is a direct lift.

Here's a couple of other moments that inspired Lucas:
  1. The Han Solo hiding-under-the-floor trick is a lift from Yojimbo's sequel, Sanjuro
  2. The Empire Strikes Back features a lot of the plot and imagery from come from the Oscar winning Dersu Uzala.

And what of The Last Jedi?


When Lucas handed over his franchise to Disney, no one would have ever guessed that Rian Johnson would deliver a script for The Last Jedi that would also make deliberate nods to the Kurosawa films - this should have actually surprised no one for Johnson had made it clear he understood the rhyming rings of Star Wars.

In referencing Kurosawa, Rian also honours the spirit of George Lucas original movie making adventure.

Let's talk about what people are calling 'The Rashomon Sequence'


In a crucial flashback moment in the film, we learn that Luke had intended to kill Kylo Ren but at the last second decided not to.

We later learn in another flashback why Kylo Ren destroyed Luke's Jedi Training Academy - he believed Luke had arrived to kill him and was about to do so - so he struck first (just like his father Han Solo when he shot first!)

The two differing views are important because they each affect Rey's understanding of her relationships with Luke and Kylo and of course explain the path that Luke and Kylo set themselves on.

This story telling technique of utilising differing perspectives was first used as device by Kurosawa in his film Rashomon. The film was the tale of a murder that described in four mutually contradictory ways by its four witnesses.

Rashomon had a large success in America and the 'Rashomon Technique' has been copied by many a director ever since - Edward Zwick's, Courage Under Fire is a pretty good modern day example.

In the book The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi Rian reflects on how the flashbacks came to be

“The three flashbacks were a late addition – one of the last things that went into the script before we started shooting. It’s similar to Rashomon, but the actual story motivation was that I wanted some harder kick to Rey’s turn: ‘You didn’t tell me this.’ I wanted some harder line that was crossed – a more defined thing that we could actually see – between Luke and Kylo. 

I didn’t want to do a big flashback. So one flashback that you repeat three times but that’s just one moment seemed more right. Ultimately, the only one who lies is Luke, in the very first flashback, where he omits the fact that he had a lightsaber in his hand. Kylo is basically telling the truth about his perception of the moment.”

In this context, it’s probably not a coincidence that The Last Jedi shows one of its most pivotal scenes, the encounter between Luke and Kylo Ren that drove Kylo Ren to the dark side, at least three different times, from competing perspectives, before resolving them, just as Kurosawa does in Rashomon.

From my point of view the Jedi are evil, indeed.... 

The Last Jedi ending compared to Kurosawa's 'Ran'

Rian Johnson, in the tradition of Lucas, was perhaps inspired by how Kurosawa used red in Ran and Kagemusha (see above) iamge.

Rian uses of the crimson red on Crait's surface to make it looks like it is bleeding when the characters move (this actually is used as a device to show that Luke is not actually present). Kurosawa often used thematic color play.

Indeed, when the Resistance's old hunks of junk line up to take on Kylo's Gorilla AT-ATs, they stir up the red, similar effect to the charging red colored soldiers in 'Ran'.

This color use also perhaps further extends to the lightsaber duel Rey and Ren have with Supreme Leader Snoke’s Prateoran guards in the blood-red chambers echoes Kurosawa's Academy Award nominated 1980 film, Kagemusha.

Rian has also publically spoken of how a viewing of Three Outlaw Samurai by Hideo Gosha influenced the character of Benicio Del Toro's DJ:

“This was kind of in lieu of rewatching Kurosawa, because I’m a big Kurosawa fan and I’ve seen his movies lots and lots of times. So I felt we were all familiar enough with Kurosawa, I thought let’s dig into some stuff that maybe we haven’t seen in the samurai genre. 

This is that era where they were trying stylistic things that were a little funky or a little more out there. And just style-wise, it’s got something that was going to push it out beyond what we maybe expected from a samurai film. The direction of that movie is incredible. But then, also, there’s the kind of unexpected camaraderie, this uneasy alliance with these samurai. There’s the whole issue of class in it in its own way, which plays out. 

And this is something that does pop up in Kurosawa films, but there is the flea-bitten samurai who they find in jail and is kind grubby and waking up, ‘Oh, God, really? Do I have to?’ And he is actually the one who ends up having incredible skills. That was kind of the most direct lift from that movie.”


2 comments:

  1. Luke and Sanjuro also both say, "See you around".
    Have you heard of the 'Clone Wars' episode which was an homage to 'Stray Dog'?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a brilliant connection and reference. Cheers!

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