Hollywood has a long history poaching from abroad. Ask Orson Welles, who along with cinematographer Gregg Toland, incorporated the look of German Expressionist cinema into Citizen Kane. Ask Quentin Tarantino who cribbed much of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire for his breakout debut Reservoir Dogs. And ask George Lucas who was so greatly influenced by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa that he lifted large chunks of his Hidden Fortress for Star Wars.
Above is a video that (if you can get past the bro-tastic narration and mangled Japanese pronunciation) neatly unpacks how Lucas’s seminal space opera owes a lot to Kurosawa. It doesn’t take too much imagination to connect a light saber with a samurai’s katana. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robes look like something that Toshio Mifune might wear in one of Kurosawa’s epics. Lucas even uses Kurosawa’s trademark screen wipe. Below is an interview with Lucas where he describes how Kurosawa’s visual style influenced him.
Hollywood generally has a better track record with borrowing from foreign filmmaking geniuses than actually working with them. Fritz Lang and John Woo were seduced into coming to America only to be forced by overbearing studios into making anodyne versions of their previous works. Kurosawa himself had a deeply troubling experience in Hollywood; cultural differences, studio politics and Kurosawa’s autocratic directing style – he wasn’t nicknamed ‘The Emperor’ for nothing – got him axed after three weeks from the 20th Century Fox movie Tora! Tora! Tora!. Kurosawa took the blow very personally and, following the box office flop of his next movie Dodesukaden, attempted suicide.
Yet the spectacular success of Star Wars proved to be an unexpected boon to Kurosawa. With his newfound influence in Hollywood, Lucas managed to strong arm 20th Century Fox, the same studio that axed Kurosawa a decade before, into funding Kagemusha. The movie proved to be a commercial and critical hit, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film also gave Kurosawa the clout to raise the money for his last masterpiece Ran.
Of course, Lucas wasn’t the only filmmaker influenced by Kurosawa. Check out Kurosawa: The Last Emperor below -- a documentary about the director featuring a host of filmmakers who have been influenced by him, including Bernardo Bertolucci, John Woo and Francis Ford Coppola.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.