How Akira Kurosawa Inspired Star Wars & The Last Jedi 40 Years Apart

Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress was released in 1958. The movie tells the story of a General and a princess, fighting their way home through enemy lines in feudal Japan with the help of a pair of bumbling peasants.

Does that sound similar? What if you replaced the pair of peasants with the bumbling R2-D2 and C3-PO? A princess? A General who fought in the Clone Wars?

That's right, young George Lucas took the two bickering peasants and traded them in for C3-PO and R2-D2. It was his intention that his Star Wars story would be told from their perspective – and, in many ways, it is. The start of the story features them setting everything off in motion.

George Lucas explained in an interview how he gained his inspiration:

“I remember the one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress,” he said, “the one thing I was really intrigued by, was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story.

Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. Which, in the Star Wars case is the two droids, and that was the strongest influence.”

At so it began when George Lucas would make references and pay homage to one of Japan's greatest filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa.

Do you know how, in The Phantom Menace, Padmé fakes out everybody by pretending to be a servant of the Queen? That's a direct plot point taken from The Hidden Fortress.

Another of Akira's movies, Yojimbo, also served as inspiration for the famous Cantina scene. Yojimbo featured a bar scene where a group of men threaten the film's hero and brag about how they are wanted by “the authorities.” Then, suddenly, swords are drawn and an arm is left lying on the floor of the bar.

It's almost a play-by-play account of what happens to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan before they are introduced to Han Solo by Chewbacca!

Did we mention the famous scene-ending “swipes?” Another idea that was totally taken from Kurosawa. Have you ever heard of the movie The Magnificent Seven? Of course, you have – it's one of the great Western films in cinema history.

But guess what? The John Sturges-directed film was actually a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai which, at the time, was the biggest box office-grossing movie in Japan.

Lucas said of the original: “I think Seven Samurai influenced me a lot more [than Hidden Fortress], 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.”

That's a long way of saying that, in Revenge of the Sith, Lucas deftly slipped in a visual reference to Seven Samurai. In the below image, as Yoda brings his hand to his head, this is directly referencing Akira's movies.

2 yoda seven samurai reference sith
Images Courtesy of Lucasfilm and Toho

But that's just a subtle nod. The Phantom Menace had a great and direct nod to Seven Samurai.

akurosawa phantom menace
Images Courtesy of Lucasfilm and Toho

As Star Wars analysis expert Mike Klimo points out, this iconic shot (above) of the attacking army on Naboo coming over the hill is a direct lift.

Here are a couple of other moments that inspired Lucas:

  1. The Han Solo hiding-under-the-floor trick is a lift from Yojimbo's sequel, Sanjuro.
  2. The Empire Strikes Back features a lot of the plot and imagery from the Oscar-winning Dersu Uzala.

And what about the Last Jedi? When Lucas handed over his franchise to Disney, no one would ever have guessed that Rian Johnson would deliver a script for The Last Jedi that would also make deliberate nods to the Kurosawa films. This should actually have surprised no one, as Johnson had made it clear he understood the rhyming rings of Star Wars.

In referencing Kurosawa, Rian also honors the spirit of George Lucas' original movie-making adventure.

Now let's talk about what people call “The Rashomon Sequence.” In a crucial flashback moment in the film, we learn that Luke had intended to kill Kylo Ren but, at the last second, decided not to.

We later learn in another flashback why Kylo Ren destroyed Luke's Jedi training academy – he believed Luke had arrived to kill him and was about to do so, so he struck first (just like his father Han Solo when he shot first!).

The two differing views are important because they each affect Rey's understanding of her relationships with Luke and Kylo and, of course, explain the path that Luke and Kylo set themselves on.

This storytelling technique of utilizing differing perspectives was first used as a device by Kurosawa in his movie Rashomon. The film was the tale of a murder that was described in four mutually contradictory ways by its four witnesses.

Rashomon had a large success in America and the “Rashomon Technique” has been copied by many a director ever since – Edward Zwick's, Courage Under Fire is a pretty good modern-day example.

In the book The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian reflects on how the flashbacks came to be:

“The three flashbacks were a late addition – one of the last things that went into the script before we started shooting. It’s similar to Rashomon, but the actual story motivation was that I wanted some harder kick to Rey’s turn: ‘You didn’t tell me this.’ I wanted some harder line that was crossed – a more defined thing that we could actually see – between Luke and Kylo. 

I didn’t want to do a big flashback. So one flashback that you repeat three times but that’s just one moment seemed more right. Ultimately, the only one who lies is Luke, in the very first flashback, where he omits the fact that he had a lightsaber in his hand. Kylo is basically telling the truth about his perception of the moment.”

In this context, it’s probably not a coincidence that The Last Jedi shows one of its most pivotal scenes, the encounter between Luke and Kylo Ren that drove Kylo Ren to the dark side, at least three different times, from competing perspectives, before resolving them, just as Kurosawa does in Rashomon.

The Last Jedi ending compared to Kurosawa's 'Ran'
Images Courtesy of Toho and Lucasfilm

Rian Johnson, in the tradition of Lucas, was perhaps inspired by how Kurosawa used red in Ran and Kagemusha (see above) image.

Rian uses the crimson red on Crait's surface to make it look like it is bleeding when the characters move (this is actually used as a device to show that Luke is not actually present). Kurosawa often used thematic color play.

Indeed, when the Resistance's old hunks-of-junk line up to take on Kylo's Gorilla AT-ATs, they stir up the red in a similar manner to the charging red-colored soldiers in Ran.

This use of color also, perhaps, further extends to the lightsaber duel Rey and Ren have with Supreme Leader Snoke’s Praetorian guards in the blood-red chambers echoes Kurosawa's Academy Award-nominated 1980 movie Kagemusha.

Rian has also publically spoken of how a viewing of Three Outlaw Samurai by Hideo Gosha influenced the character of Benicio Del Toro's DJ:

“This was kind of in lieu of rewatching Kurosawa because I’m a big Kurosawa fan and I’ve seen his movies lots and lots of times. So I felt we were all familiar enough with Kurosawa, I thought let’s dig into some stuff that maybe we haven’t seen in the samurai genre.

This is that era where they were trying stylistic things that were a little funky or a little more out there. And just style-wise, it’s got something that was going to push it out beyond what we maybe expected from a samurai film. The direction of that movie is incredible. But then, also, there’s the kind of unexpected camaraderie, this uneasy alliance with these samurai. There’s the whole issue of class in it in its own way, which plays out. 

And this is something that does pop up in Kurosawa films, but there is the flea-bitten samurai who they find in jail and is kind of grubby and waking up, ‘Oh, God, really? Do I have to?’ And he is actually the one who ends up having incredible skills. That was kind of the most direct lift from that movie.”
Interesting, right?
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.