How Star Wars Borrowed From Akira Kurosawa’s Great Samurai Films

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 — 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s List of His 100 Favorite Movies

Watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon Free Online, the Film That Intro­duced Japan­ese Cin­e­ma to the West

The Kuro­sawa Dig­i­tal Archive

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la Star in Japan­ese Whisky Com­mer­cials (1980)

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.

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