[May 27th will see the much-anticipated release of the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the newest Star Wars show. So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. May the Force be with us all!]
On how the original Star Wars was directly influenced by a Japanese film—and, critiques of the American director notwithstanding, why that influence is a positive thing.
As the 2017 40th anniversary celebrations illustrate, few cultural texts have had a more significant and ongoing presence over the last four-and-a-half decades than George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and its many sequels, prequels, novelizations, television spinoffs, parodies, merchandising and marketing and material culture connections, animated versions, Wookie-centric Christmas specials, and the like. Because of that lasting presence, and perhaps especially because a whole generation of students and scholars (including this AmericanStudier to be sure) has grown up alongside Luke Skywalker and friends, Lucas’s prominent debt to Joseph Campbell’s analyses of heroism and mythologies has likewise been very well established and documented; which is to say, this is a pop culture text and artist whose multigenerational and cross-cultural (at least in the sense of Campbell’s ideas linking myths from multiple cultures) connections and influences seem already well known.
Far be it for me to disagree with that longstanding and very thoroughly developed assessment—did you note the ridiculously comprehensive Lucas-Campbell chart at that hyperlink?—but there’s another, also very influential and much less broadly known, source for Lucas’s first film. As this website conversation highlights, Lucas’s initial story outline for Star Wars (particularly in the story’s initial events and exposition) closely parallels Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress; Lucas would change certain events and details between that outline and the film’s screenplay, but many of the Kurosawa echoes remained very much present in the finished film, as mashups of the two movies such as this one cleverly highlight. Such mashups could be used as exhibits in a plagiarism case against Lucas, and indeed many who have noted the similarities to Fortress have done so in a critical way, arguing that at least Lucas owed Kurosawa a more overt acknowledgment of the influence as Star Wars gained in popularity and Lucas became one of the most famous and wealthiest filmmakers of all time.
Certainly I believe that Kurosawa’s film should be better known, not only because of its clear influence on Lucas’s early ideas for his own series, but also because it seems (from, admittedly, the handful of clips I have seen and the descriptions I have read) to be an interesting if minor work from one of cinema’s most prolific and talented artists. Yet far from serving as an indictment of Lucas or his film, this additional influence highlights, to my mind, just how genuinely and impressively American Star Wars really is: inspired in equal measure by centuries of cross-cultural mythology and a Japanese film, with the seminal fantasy series by a British author thrown in for good measure; starring young American actors and some of England’s most established screen veterans; shamelessly cribbing from the styles and stunts of early serials and pop culture classics like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers; with all those elements thrown into a space opera blender and turned into a hugely unique and engaging entertainment. Lucas had called his first, much more grounded and local and historically nostalgic, film American Graffiti (1973)—but it’s Star Wars that really exemplifies the cross-cultural, multi-genre, intertextual, inspiring mélange that is American culture and art.
Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?
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