21 October 2016
Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress provided some inspiration to George Lucas's Star Wars series. Photo: Internet
Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress provided some inspiration to George Lucas's Star Wars series. Photo: Internet

What do Star Wars and an old Japanese movie have in common?

After 32 years, Lucasfilm will finally release Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh episode of George Lucas’ epic science-fiction series.

It will open before Christmas in cinemas around the world, and Star Wars fans are all holding their breath for what could be the most eagerly awaited movie ever in Hollywood’s history.

When Star Wars first hit the big screen in 1977, it immediately became a sensation, and over the years it turned out to be the most lucrative movie franchise ever, spanning nearly four decades.

As to the frequently asked question of how George Lucas came up with the Star Wars story, one might expect that he must have drawn his inspiration from western sci-fi books or movies.

In fact, according to Lucas himself, the series was inspired by a classic black-and-white Japanese movie, The Hidden Fortress, directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa in 1958.

The Hidden Fortress, starring Toshiro Mifune, widely known as one of the greatest Japanese actors of all time, tells the story of Makabe Rokurota, a general of the defeated Akizuki clan during the warring states period in ancient Japan, who manages to break out of the enemy enclosure with the young surviving heiress of the clan, Princess Yuki, and escape.

On their way to a neighboring ally to seek help in order to restore the Akizuki clan’s domain, with their enemy hot on their trail, they come across two bedraggled peasants, Tahei and Matashichi.

Playing on their greediness, General Rokurota manages to lure the two peasants into joining them and carrying their heavy luggage and gold bars to their destination in return for a huge reward.

In order to hide their true identity, Rokurota poses as a peasant with Princess Yuki acting as his mute daughter.

Unfortunately, largely due to Yuki’s recklessness, the four of them eventually get caught and taken prisoner by the enemy.

It is only after Rokurota defeats the enemy general in a duel that they manage to escape again, and against all the odds, Rokurota and Yuki eventually succeed in reaching the territory of their ally and bring back an army to recapture their lost domain.

And the two peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, who are almost speechless when the true identity of their company is revealed, embark on their own journey with their reward.

The Hidden Fortress was a box-office success in Japan and won the Silver Bear Award for best director in the Berlin International Film Festival in 1959.

Like many other Hollywood filmmakers of his time, George Lucas is a great fan of Kurosawa’s, and is deeply influenced by his works.

Lucas once said in an interview that when he watched Seven Samurai (1954) for the first time as a film school student, he immediately got hooked, and the movie became his all-time favorite.

His other favorite Kurosawa movies include Yojimbo (1961) and Ikiru (1952).

He was particularly impressed by Kurosawa’s visual style and camera techniques. The Hidden Fortress may not be on top of his list, but he acknowledged the movie provided some inspiration for his Star Wars trilogy.

As Lucas put it in an interview in 2010, “the Hidden Fortress did influence me in doing Star Wars. As I was beginning to write the screenplay and put it together, I remembered Hidden Fortress, and I remembered the one thing that really struck me about Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters.”

“I decided that that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which is to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars’ case were the two droids. That was the strongest influence actually.”

In other words, R2D2 and C3PO, arguably the two most famous artificial-intelligence movie characters ever created, were in fact inspired by the two peasants, the tall Tahei and the short Matashichi of The Hidden Fortress, while Princess Leia and Obi-Wan Kenobi were loosely based on the characters of Princess Yuki and General Rokurota.

Even though Lucas has never confirmed that personally, it is widely believed that several scenes in Episode IV: A New Hope, such as the one in which C3PO and R2D2 part in a desert after a quarrel, the one in which Princess Leia watches her home planet destroyed by the Death Star, the reunion and the duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, and the badge presentation ceremony at the end of the movie, were all inspired by similar scenes in The Hidden Fortress.

Lucas also said that in the very first draft of the Star Wars screenplay, it was originally intended that an older Jedi, probably Obi-wan, would accompany Princess Leia on her journey and adventure, like Princess Yuki and General Rokurota, because, as he put it, “the teenager-and-father issue is universal”.

It was only after a couple of subsequent drafts that the whole thing eventually evolved into the story of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. However, it is important to note that what The Hidden Fortress did, at best, was provide George Lucas with some basic inspiration when he built up his own story idea, and therefore by no means should anyone see Star Wars as simply a sci-fi remake of the Japanese movie.

As George Lucas himself has acknowledged on different occasions, he was deeply indebted to Kurosawa for opening his eyes to the greater movie world, and he finally had the opportunity to express his gratitude to Kurosawa for his enlightenment and return him a favor in 1978, when Kurosawa’s new movie project, Kagemusha, ran into financial difficulties.

The movie, which turned out to be another all-time masterpiece of Kurosawa’s, would probably never have materialized if George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather series, had not taken great pains to talk the 20th Century Fox into financing it.

However, as Lucasfilm and the entire Star Wars franchise were sold to Disney in 2012, and George Lucas only served as creative consultant during the early stage of the making of the upcoming Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it is expected that the Kurosawa influence may fade away or even disappear in the following sequels.

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