Widely considered one of the greatest film makers of all time, Akira Kurosawa is easily Japan’s most famous director, with a career stretching from the early 1940s to his death in 1998.
Although while he was alive, he was often thought of in Japan as something of a ‘western’ director, in part because his films were as popular in the west as they were in Japan, but also because he didn’t shy away from drawing in bits and pieces from European and American cinema, like music, cinematography and storytelling style. It’s a testament to the enduring power of his films, a ready mixture of fairytales and drama, both historical and contemporary, that his legacy in Japan turned around after his death, to him becoming as venerated there as he had been for a long time amongst film lovers everywhere else. Kurosawa’s work stands entirely on its own as a legacy which will undoubtedly endure for a long time entirely on its own, although even today it seems that there are many who know of his work largely through its connection with Star Wars.
George Lucas’s first encounter with Kurosawa’s work happened while he was still in film-school, when his classmate John Milius, whose love of grandiose spectacle, swords, guns and machismo is legendary, kept pestering him to go to see this one particular film playing at the time. Milius himself, who loved the rituals and the dress of the Japanese films was an avid Kurosawa fan and would carry many of the details and trappings he picked up from Kurosawa’s films with him when he made Conan the Barbarian (1982). Says Lucas:
“He was completely obsessed with Japanese cinema and he kept saying, ‘You know, if you ever get a chance to see [Seven Samurai], you’ve got to see it. It’s the best film ever made.’ And on and on. All film students were like that, they were obsessed, and so I didn’t think too much of it. But then there was a day when it was being shown in the cinema department and I went and saw it, and it basically changed my life.”
Milius and Kurosawa shared another idol in Hollywood’s grand old man John Ford, whose equally impressive career – a total of no less than 140 films - is the very reason for westerns as we know them today. Once when asked by an interviewer which painters and artists Kurosawa studied and drew inspiration from, he answered: “I study John Ford”. Ford’s pictures made exquisite use long lenses, of the landscape of the American west, and often portrayed outcasts and odd balls on the fringes of, or at odds with civilization. All traits Kurosawa himself put to great use, in particular in his period dramas, or jidai-geki (a possible source for the word Jedi). And as was also the case with Ford, Kurosawa had come up in the period of silent films, when the power of storytelling relied solely on the image for its potency, something which undoubtedly influenced Kurosawa’s strong sense of visual style, which matured under the restraints of early cinema and kept pace as it evolved first to widescreen (with Hidden Fortress) and later color with Dodes’ka-den (1970).
It’s not hard to see how the films of Kurosawa, the jidai-geki in particular, would have played to crowded theaters around the USC campus. At once exotic and mysterious, as well as thoroughly impressive pieces of craft, they were also often epic in scope, while intimate in their characterizations and always presented with Kurosawa’s trademark sense of staging and cinematography. But more than a talented craftsman, Kurosawa was an actor’s director. He had come up through the system as a writer, scraping along for years writing for other people before he graduated to making his own films. Kurosawa thought that anyone with an ambition to make films should first concentrate on reading, and more importantly understand the great books and dramas of the world. Something that was reflected in his own inspirations, which were even more literary than they were filmic, with several of his films transposing Shakespeare’s plays from England to Japan.
Others included crime writer Ed McBain and Tolstoy as well as a plethora of Japanese legends and historical figures, and as we discussed in relation to Sergio Leone, Dashiell Hammett, who allegedly, although Kurosawa himself didn’t feel this was the case, lent the plot for Yojimbo. And it is from Yojimbo of course that we get the scene in the Mos Eisley cantina in which Obi-Wan relieves an obnoxious alien (or severely disfigured human, it’s hard to tell) of his arm, mirroring a scene from Yojimbo. In which Sanjuro, the masterless samurai who’s walked into town, picks a fight with an assortment of lowlives at the local watering hole, one more boastful than the other about how scary and wanted he is. Sly and confident, Sanjuro plays with a toothpick as he riles them into drawing on him, and in short order dispatches them – in the process relieving one of the fellows of his arm – before sheathing his katana and walking away to the sound of screams.
It’s remarkable that this scene works in Star Wars, given not only the different circumstances of the scene, but also how it interplays with what is perhaps the densest set of inspirations the movie has to offer. Part Casablanca, part Leone, part Magnificent Seven and part Yojimbo, all set to an alien swing-band, it’s truly a hodgepodge of directions. It’s even more surprising because while in Yojimbo, Sanjuro essentially picks a fight in a village saturated by death. Obi-Wan is simply defending himself, he not only cuts a guy’s arm off in the middle of a crowded bar; he does so with a lightsaber. Yet, a beat later and everyone returns to their drinks, unimpressed (or at least minding their own business). I won’t belabor the point, as we already examined this bizarre relationship with violence when we examined Sergio Leone, except to say that it goes to show just how different the same essential setup can play in two different films (and just how scummy and villainous Mos Eisley is).
Kurosawa’s films often erupted into violence in a way that films simply didn’t do at the time. When Seven Samurai was first released, no other film had ever put on screen the kind of kinetic, frantic bloodbath that ends the bandit’s terrorizing of the town. And in Yojimbo, aside from the dismembered arm, one of the first things we see as Sanjuro enters the village, is a dog carrying a dismembered hand! Kurosawa’s jidai-geki were worlds of violent and harsh realities, in which the pleb were ever the victims of ruthless oppressors; probably not an unrealistic assessment of life in feudal Japan. Opposing these antagonists were the ronin; the masterless, but well-trained samurai who were left to find their own place in the world, and who in films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro stood with the oppressed. Simple universal concepts which helped his films gain a wide audience, both in and out of Japan. As his films reached the height of the popularity in the 60s, up-and-coming filmmakers in the US (and Italy) started to sit up and take notice, and it wasn’t long before young filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) as well as of course John Milius and George Lucas started to take notice.
The same ronin from Yojimbo (meaning ‘Bodyguard’), as played by Toshirô Mifune, returns in the followup, 1962’s Sanjuro, in which the eponymous Sanjuro finds himself embroiled in a rebellion against corrupt city officials. Early in the film, the nine conspirators seek refuge in a secluded temple to discuss their plans, when after a short while Sanjuro emerges from the other room, having been asleep in there and having overheard everything. And what happens but the corrupt official arriving with a swath of men, looking for the conspirators. Sanjuro doesn’t suffer oppressors lightly, and throws the official’s men out of the temple before they can find any of the hiding conspirators. As the officials and their men leave, Sanjuro enters the temple where it’s revealed that the conspirators have been hiding below the floorboards the whole time, in shots very similar to the shots in Star Wars, in which the heroes have stowed underneath the floor panels of the Falcon as it was being searched by stormtroopers.
Worth noting is that the short melody that plays as the hideaways come up from the Falcon’s smuggling compartments, is note-for-note a piece of Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho. Paul Hirsch, the editor of Star Wars, had put it in the temp track:
“The scene where they pop out of the hatch in the Falcon, I laid in a very famous piece of Psycho music there,” he says. "It was a three-note motif that Scorsese had insisted that Benny use in Taxi Driver. It was a dark, ominous three-note motif. Curiously enough, Johnny—I don’t know if he did it deliberately or what—but it’s now incorporated into his cue for that moment in the film. He’s got the very same notes that appear in Psycho. they appear in Taxi Driver—and now they’re in Star Wars.[p226, 2]
In 1945, early in his career, Kurosawa directed The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, the story of a mid–13th century prince and his entourage as they cross through enemy territory accompanied by an oblivious travel companion. The screenplay was based on Kanjinchō (The Subscription List), a kabuki play from 1840, which in turn was based on Atak, a noh play from 1465, all of which tell essentially the same story, and all of which climax in the recitation of a non-existing letter which convinces the border guard to let the band through to their destination.
Twelve years later, in 1958, he would release an updated version of that tale, titled in english The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa had come off of a streak of serious, dark films and felt the need to do something very different, and the result is the perhaps most light-hearted film of his oeuvre. An action-filled adventure of a princess, her loyal general and their entourage attempting to pass through enemy lines to safety with the last of the royal gold in tow. Along the way they run into two bickering peasants who have been unfortunate enough to become involved with the ongoing civil war around them. Aside from Flash Gordon, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress is the perhaps most oft quoted inspiration behind Star Wars, a comparison which is both warranted, yet often overplayed. While the final film retains several key elements, in particular the two bickering peasants, there is much that it leaves out or changes to the point where it can’t even be convincingly argued to still be similar. For the full impact of The Hidden Fortress on Star Wars, we must go back to the earliest drafts of the screenplay.
“Hidden Fortress was an influence on Star Wars right from the very beginning,” Lucas says. “I was searching around for a story. I had some scenes–the cantina scene and the space battle scene–but I couldn’t think of a basic plot. Originally, the film was a good concept in search of a story. And then I thought of Hidden Fortress, which I’d seen again in 1972 or ’73, and so the first plots were very much like it.”[p9, 2]
Having thrown around some of his initial ideas in the obtuse two-part Journal of the Whills plot synopsis to little success, Lucas turned turned to The Hidden Fortress, and, according to Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars, “relied on a plot summary of Kurosawa’s film, copying entire passages from Hidden Fortress‘ synopsis in Donald Richie’s authoritative book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, first published in 1965”.[kl1207, 3] In fact, the eagle-eyed viewer can spot the mis-remembered title of the book on one of Ralph McQuarrie’s drawings from the time on the blu-ray extras. The opening of the treatment reveals just how close it was the Kurosawa’s film:
It is the thirty-third century, a period of civil wars in the galaxy. A rebel princess, with her family, her retainers, and the clan treasure, is being pursued. If they can cross territory controlled by the Empire and reach a friendly planet, they will be saved. The Sovereign knows this, and posts a reward for the capture of the princess.
She is being guarded by one of her generals, (Luke Skywalker) and it is he who leads her on the long and dangerous journey that follows. They take along with them two hundred pounds of the greatly treasured “aura spice”, and also two Imperial bureaucrats, whom the general has captured.
Most of the treatment follows The Hidden Fortress beat for beat, though in the final act it deviates quite drastically into the aforementioned space battle, not dissimilar from the one that ended up closing the final film. But while Lucas did for a short period consider buying the rights for Kurosawa’s film[p158, 4], a move that would have been wise, considering what happened when Leone decided that he liked the story of Yojimbo, he eventually decided against it, continuing instead to rework his treatment into something different. The subsequent screenplays all differ from one another, often quite drastically. But nevertheless, significant elements from The Hidden Fortress did make it all the way through the revisions, and into the final film. Although, like so many comparisons brought up in relation to Star Wars, most of which have been purposefully left out of this book for lack of convincing evidence, some claims of Hidden Fortress’s influence should be taken with a grain of salt, and anyone claiming that ‘Star Wars is just Hidden Fortress in space’, placed under immediate citizen’s arrest.
That said there are certainly a few worth delving into, most notably the bumbling, bickering peasants of Matashichi and Tahei. Stumbling into the first frames of Hidden Fortress, arguing bitterly over who is to fault for their current predicament. Not soon after, they split up, yelling insults at each other, heading in opposite directions, mirroring quite closely the introduction of R2-D2 and C–3PO as the first characters on screen in Star Wars. They even share the same roles as Matashichi and Tahei, as both comic relief as well as functioning as the backbone of sorts to the story. Matashichi and Tahei however remain largely pathetic and egotistical throughout most of the film, where the droids, despite 3PO’s theatricality, are as heroic as the rest of the rebels.
Likewise, Hidden Fortress has a princess, around whom the plot revolves, as she tries to ferry her gold/secret plans to safety from the opposing forces. And much like Leia, she is young and full of spite, and suffering from the loss of her home lands and family. Several of the scenes showing the fates of the peasants and the droids are quite similar as well, as is some of the music playing in the desert of Star Wars to that of Hidden Fortress (the third track Peaceful Mountain Pass Road on the soundtrack).
Another rather significant carry-over from the draft of Star Wars that was based on Hidden Fortress is the character of General Rokurota Makabe, the personal bodyguard to Princess Yuki, portrayed again by Kurosawa’s longtime favorite actor, the larger-than-life Toshirô Mifune. In the initial Star Wars draft that character became General Skywalker, who so resembles Mifune’s character that it should come as no surprise that Lucas had intended for Mifune to play the part, although it was eventually dropped. Eventually the character evolved into the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and although the character carries over little of the Mifune-like blustering and theatrics, the idea of General Makabe’s history with and duel between the enemy General Hyoe Tadokoro was carried over in the history between Kenobi and Vader and their ultimate duel onboard the Deathstar. And as in Hidden Fortress, much of the story revolves around the older warrior traveling with, and protecting, the youthful companion.
Likewise Obi-Wan’s desert robes, which would later inexplicably become the robes of the Jedi order, are drawn from the traditional Japanese clothing, worn by just about everyone in Kurosawa’s jidai-geki, when they’re not in armor. Inexplicably because the clothes worn by many of the residents on Tatooine in Star Wars are largely identical to the Jedi robes to some extent, including Uncle Owen’s costume as well as parts of Luke’s. Another carry-over, which could just as easily be attributed to the Flash Gordon line of influences perhaps, is that of the lightsaber. However, given that only Jedi, who at the time of the original trilogy were largely non-existent and so in a sense a kind of ronin, wield them, it seems reasonable to assume that their presence in Star Wars owes mostly to the jidai-geki. Other comparisons are often made in connection with The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars, with Han Solo rushing after stormtroopers only to turn a corner and face a cluster of them, or the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi.
Lucas has acknowledged the Kurosawa connections on several occasions, although he often downplays the initial significance of Hidden Fortress:
"The influence of Hidden Fortress comes up a lot because it was printed in a book once. The truth is, the only thing I was inspired by was the fact that it’s told from the point of view of two peasants, who get mixed up with a samurai and princess and a lot of very high-level people. I said that is a great device, and that’s how I ended up with R2-D2 and C–3PO.
A true statement when viewed in respect to the final film, however when seen in the broader scope of the development of Star Wars from the initial treatments and drafts, its presence is undeniable, not to mention vital in sending Star Wars on the trajectory towards its final form. However in terms of more nebulous terms like style and tone, Hidden Fortress wasn’t necessarily Kurosawa’s biggest contribution to Star Wars; rather it was Kurosawa’s perhaps most well-known film altogether, Seven Samurai.
“[I] think Seven Samurai influenced me a lot more, 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. I mean, it’s a brilliant, brilliant film, and every time I see it I can’t believe the magic mixture of a great story and great acting and humor and action and suspense - wonderful cinema. The art of moving pictures is on every frame of this movie.”
"I’ve never done a film this complicated in terms of characters. Most of my characters are pretty simple, and I don’t have a lot of them. I mean, I had a lot of them in American Graffiti, and by the time I had finished [Return of the Jedi] I had a whole roomful of characters that I had to cope with, but as a result they could all only be on a little bit at a time.
"One of the amazing things about Seven Samurai is that there are a lot of characters. And considering you have so many, and they all have shaved heads, and you’ve got good guys and bad guys and peasants, you get to understand a lot of them without too much being said.
Contrary to most of his early influences, like Arthur Lipsett, whom Lucas never actually met, his relationship with Kurosawa evolved into a personal one after the release of Star Wars in the late 70s. Kurosawa had fallen out of favor with the Japanese film industry, and the world had moved on since the success of Yojimbo. His last film, Dersu Uzala, released in 1975 (and a strong contender for influences on The Empire Strikes Back), had been a Russian co-production, and his only film since 1970’s Dodes’ka-den. Kurosawa now in his 70s, was depressive and at times even suicidal, facing an ever increasing uphill struggle to get even small, personal movies into production. Lucas on the other hand was coming off of Star Wars, and could presumably have made Paint Drying as his next film if he wanted to, so eager were 20th Century Fox to get more of the Star Wars magic. Seizing this opportunity, Lucas joined with Coppola, famous after his Godfather films had taken the world by storm, and asked 20th Century Fox to chip in and help Toho Studios put Kurosawa’s then latest effort, Kagemusha (1980) into production. As Lucas tells the story, it was almost a Godfather-like situation of him asking Alan Ladd Jr., then president at Fox, to do this one favor for him. And so, in-between the release of The Empire Strikes Back and the production of Return of the Jedi, Lucas and Coppola joined Kurosawa in Japan for the production of Kagemusha AKA The Shadow Warrior, with Lucas jumping at the opportunity to see his idol on the job, and observing intently how he worked. Years later, in 1989, he joined with Steven Spielberg to present Kurosawa with his honorary Oscar.
Akira Kurosawa passed away in 1998.
Film-makers on Film: George Lucas by Marc Lee. The Telegraph, May 14th, 2005. Retrieved August 31st, 2013.
Jonathan W Rinzler. The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. Ebury Press, 2007.
Kaminski, Michael (2008–11–18). The Secret History of Star Wars. Legacy Books Press. Kindle Edition.
Baxter, John. Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas. New York: Spike, 1999.