AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES – Tapio Tokunaga still remembers the first time he saw George Lucas’ Star Wars films. “I fell in love with it,” he tells me, recalling borrowing the DVDs as a seven-year-old in Yokohama, Japan. Tapio would go on to learn as much about the story, characters, and production of the films as he could. But for Tapio, Star Wars is more than just a favorite film franchise. “Star Wars gave me a dream to be a filmmaker, so it’s more like a mentor for me.”
Now a film student at Loyola Marymount University, Tapio is far from alone in his love of Star Wars. In fact, fans across the US celebrated May 4th as Star Wars Day, which includes fan celebrations, cosplay, and -of course- online sales. But for all the fanfare around Star Wars Day in America, much of the series’ original inspirations came from Japan.
Although Lucas borrowed from several filmmakers in crafting Star Wars (C-3PO bears a striking resemblance to a robot from the 1927 film Metropolis and Han Solo is dead ringer for many a Old West gunslinger), some of the basic plot elements for the original story came from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
“It did influence me in doing Star Wars…as I was beginning to write the screenplay and put it together,” Lucas told the Criterion Collection in a 2001 interview. Lucas modeled the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 after a pair of peasants from The Hidden Fortress: “I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which is take the two lowliest characters as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in Star Wars case is the two droids.”
Lucas also borrowed Kurosawa’s samurai battles for Jedi lightsaber fights. For Empire Strikes Back, Mark Hamil even trained in kendo for Luke Skywalker’s duel with Darth Vader.
But despite the heavy influence of Kurosawa on the plot of Episode IV, there are other ties to Japanese culture in Lucas’ story world. “What’s he’s trying to reference is really deep,” Tapio tells me. He says Lucas didn’t just pull aesthetics and plot from Kurosawa films, “he understands what is behind the costumes … what a certain costume represents.”
In the Jedi’s outfit of simple robes, Tapio sees the values of humility and service to others from the samurai code of bushido, born from Neo-Confucianism during times of peace in the Edo period (1603–1868). In Padme Amidala’s royal regalia, he notes similarities to Japanese artwork depicting “sad, lonely women in the ancient age of Japan … wearing that kind of clothes.”
And for Tapio it’s this deeper cultural fabric that sets Star Wars apart from other US films that take inspiration from Japan. “Many other Hollywood films are using Japanese culture as just a tool,” he says. Tapio doesn’t mind the surface-level use of Japanese aesthetics, but he has a greater appreciation for how Star Wars “has a lot of philosophical meaning behind it … and they apparently understand what they are trying to do through those cultural references.”
Star Wars might be a tentpole franchise emblematic of America, but it wouldn’t be the franchise that fans know today without the katana fights and samurai of Japanese cinema. And perhaps it’s this blend of Far East culture with Hollywood filmmaking that keeps fans on both of the Pacific saying ‘May the 4th be with you’ every year.
Aidan Smith-Fagan, a graduating LMU senior, is AMI’s curriculum consultant and a frequent writer for our site.