A handsome rogue and his two bickering companions accompany a strong willed princess across a strange and mysterious landscape, evading capture and triumphing over adversity against the backdrop of an epic and devastating civil war.
Star Wars: A New Hope had an impact like none other, becoming a resounding cultural phenomenon which consumed pop culture and spat out a whole new way of creating, watching, and participating in the moviegoing experience. In the early years of the summer blockbuster, George Lucas’ unexpected science fiction smash was a revelation, still running in cinemas two years after its release date.
The Hidden Fortress preceded Lucas’ seminal space opera by almost 20 years, yet the opening line of this article describes the Kurosawa classic just as well as it describes A New Hope and that’s not a coincidence. The sprawling, fantastical world of Akira Kurosawa‘s quintessential samurai adventure movie was a direct influence on a young Lucas, who not only took numerous character and story beats, but also editing techniques like Kurosawa’s trademark screen wipes, which are now synonymous with the Star Wars brand.
Lucas has always been open about The Hidden Fortress’ influence on his space opera, and though Hollywood has a history of stealing from its foreign counterparts without recognition, Lucas has often talked of Kurosawa’s influence and worked to help him in his later career. This reimagining of narratives isn’t unusual, in Hollywood or history, stories are shared, adapted, and evolve constantly. Storytelling is one of the most ancient ways of creating a collected history of human experience. Both of these films, as different and fantastical as they are, are works that further the notion that cultural storytelling can be passed along through the medium of cinema.
Akira Kurosawa was already 17 years into a celebrated career when he made The Hidden Fortress. A departure from the serious and brilliantly brutal arthouse films that he’d become known for, Fortress portrayed a comedic world filled with action but also driven by a sense of adventure and, as always, honor. Set in a feudal Japan devastated by war, Kurosawa’s vision took the focus away from samurai and soldiers, instead introducing us to two bumbling outlaws whose misadventures and greed would lead them on an epic quest–kind of like a couple of smugglers from a galaxy far far away. He crafted an exhilarating and expansive tale that also subverts ideas around Japan’s strict class structure by creating a narrative that constantly changes character roles and power dynamics.
Lucas paints his love for Kurosawa in broad strokes all over the first installment of Star Wars. Jedi are essentially space samurai, their iconic lightsabers nothing more than swords ripped from the hands of Kurosawa’s warriors and illuminated with neons. Lucas originally envisioned Obi Wan Kenobi as The Hidden Fortress’ very own Toshiro Mifune–the films’ General Rokurota Makabe –and though that never came to pass, Alec Guinness’ robes would not be out of place in Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, or any of Kurosawa’s iconic catalogue.
Kurosawa’s tale may seem familiar even to the few people left in the galaxy who haven’t seen Star Wars, and Star Wars familiar to those unlucky enough not to have seen Kurosawa’s masterpiece. This innate relatability that makes these properties feel comfortable, dreamlike, and timeless is in part due to the use of age old tropes and folkloric themes that both films weave into their unique and vibrant worlds to tell their stories.
Princess Leia was the role that made and ultimately defined Carrie Fisher’s acting career. Misa Uehara only starred in nine films before retiring from acting, though her performance in the iconic role of Princess Yuki would live on far longer. Princesses are one of the most archetypal tropes in fairy tales and also in wider pop culture, though both Yuki and Leia subvert many of the more negative and outdated ideas of a princess–they’re strong willed, often save others rather than being saved themselves, and at times wear masculine coded outfits. Both of these princesses also check the box on one of the most classic fairy tale tropes of them all: the missing mother.
The world of fairy tales is dark and full of terrors, not least of which is that most female protagonists we meet are motherless. Whether killed, deserted, or simply not there, mothers are a missing element in the lives of your Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. Leia senselessly lost her mother as a young child, raised by adoptive parents. And all we know of Yuki is that her clan has been besieged, leaving her at the end of the film to prepare to rebuild the clan alone. Ironically, in the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales the mothers were the evil antagonists, rather than the far better known evil stepmothers. This was changed in later translations as it was seen as too cruel, hence all the missing moms.
Looking at both Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress, it makes sense that they work as cinematic fairy tales, as they both operate heavily in the world of archetypes. This was a conscious decision for Kurosawa. Utilizing secondary characters to tell his story meant that the roles usually filled by the leads would work better as simple tropes. Yuki is the haughty and strong willed princess– a role which at the time was radical in Japanese cinema. Rokurota Makabe is the loyal and courageous general, and the film’s main conspicuous companions–Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara)–are the comic relief.
Lucas’ characters also work within these boundaries. Han can be Makabe, a charming man with (in Han’s case, questionable) good intentions. Though he and Chewie also share traits with Tahei and Matakishi, the latter pair ultimately become the bickering and beloved R2D2 and C3PO. And Princess Yuki is, of course, the huttslayer herself, Leia. There’s no Luke character in The Hidden Fortress, though in Star Wars he’s simply an avatar enabling the (perceived) audience to place themselves in the movie. Even without the basic moral lessons, Star Wars easily slips into the realm of fairy tale by featuring some of the most recognizable genre tropes out there: droids take the place of sentient objects that often inhabit Grimm’s world, while male characters in fairy tales are rarely named (and when they are they’re often called Han/s).
Kurosawa’s influence on Lucas continues through all of the Star Wars films. I won’t spoil it for those of you who may want to revisit it, but the end of Return of the Jedi owes a great debt to The Hidden Fortress’ dynamic conclusion. The original plot for A New Hope was far closer to Kurosawa’s classic, and you can see the echos of that in The Phantom Menace. Why else would Padme hatch that ridiculous plan to dress as a handmaiden if the revolutionary Princess Yuki had not done the same so many decades before?
The parallels between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars have been pointed out before, not least of which by George Lucas himself. Hopefully my fairy tale fan theory has inspired you to revisit Kurosawa’s masterpiece and return to a galaxy far, far away.
What classic tropes do you see in Star Wars? Grab your inner film student and join us in the comments!
Images: Lucasfilm/Disney, Toho/Criterion
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