December 1, 2017 – George Lucas readily admits that he borrowed a story-telling idea from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic, The Hidden Fortress (1958, Japan). In a 2001 interview, Lucas said, “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.”
In The Hidden Fortress, two comedic nobodies – one tall, the other short (sound familiar?) – find themselves in the midst of a civil war. In this swashbuckling movie set in 16th century Japan, the two bumbling peasants squabble as they traipse through a desert, split apart, are later captured and finally reunite. The duo then help a bearded general escort Princess Uki to a secret territory.
Lucas has said that any other similarities between Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress are “more of a coincidence than anything else.” But elements of Kurosawa’s film from 1958 keep popping up in Star Wars‘ universe, including a corpulent slave owner (Jabba the Hutt?), the use of mossy forests (Endor?), and horizontal wipes used to transition between scenes.
Princess Yuki even pretends to be a deaf mute in order to hide her identity, similar to Queen Amidala disguising herself as her own handmaid in The Phantom Menace (1999).
And who could forget the ending of The Hidden Fortress, where a facially scarred enemy-general has a change of heart, switches allegiance, and saves the heroes? (Think: Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.)
Whether true coincidences or the ideas of Kurosawa planted long ago deep within Lucas’s subconscious palate, the parallels are hard to ignore.
An Asian Spirituality
But it’s not just the giant shadow of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) that we detect throughout the Star Wars movies. There is an Asian aesthetic or, to use an outdated term, an “oriental flair”, which permeates and stylizes our far away galaxy.
The Force borrows elements of Taoism and Buddhism. Borrowing from Buddhism’s meditative requirements, how many times have we witnessed the Jedi in meditation as well as Darth Vader in his meditation chamber? At the end of The Force Awakens, the “master on the mountain” image evokes a Buddhist motif. And surely the “awakening” is a theme familiar to all Buddhists?
The Jedi Order, a master-disciple relationship, Jedi mindfulness – these are all themes and concepts inherent in Buddhism.
Star Wars also appears to borrow from Taoism, a Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-Tzu. Taoism advocates humility and piety. Similar to the Force, the Tao is what binds all things in the universe. Tao is said to be the interconnected nature of the universe. Tao is also your true essence and a principled way to lead your life.
The notions of light and dark, good and evil, male and female, Jedi and Sith, find their parallel in Taoism, which uses the Yinyang to portray these counter-balancing forces.
The Asian Aesthetic
Going hand in hand with Eastern mysticism and spirituality discussed above, there is the matter of an Asian aesthetic seen throughout Star Wars. The Jedi don’t just think and live like a Zen Buddhist or a Taoist; they also dress like one with their Jedi robes.
Kimono (Japan, left) vs Hanfu (traditional clothing of the Chinese Han people, right)
And it’s not just the Jedi, whose costumes appear to reflect a Far East sensibility. Certain Sith Lords appear to have brethren in Japan.
Darth Vader’s mask and helmet certainly echo those of the samurai.
And who can deny that our favorite lightsaber battles mimic the katana sword fighting style of Japan?
Asian Actors in Star Wars
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) were not corporate bywords or an aspirational goal during the early years of Star Wars. D&I simply was not on anyone’s radar 40 years ago.
To its great credit, Star Wars did feature a major female lead (Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia) and a major African-American actor (Billie Dee Williams) cast in an important role (Baron Administrator of Cloud City and, later, a general in the Rebel Alliance). But one smooth-talking guy and a brave female do not a diverse cast make.
The Force Awakens (2015) has helped to further the D&I goal by casting black, Latino and female heroes alongside major Caucasian actors. John Boyega (Finn), Daisy Ridley (Rey), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), and Lupita Nyong’o (voice of Maz Kanata), among others, diversify a cast to appear before a global audience. But were there any Asian actors?
It wasn’t until Rogue One (2016) that Asian actors were cast in any roles of consequence. Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmwe) and Chinese actor Jiang Wen (Baze Malbus) play two characters instrumental in the takedown of Starkiller Base. The British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed (pilot Bodhi Rook), Mexican actor Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), English lead Felicity Jones (Jynn Erso), and American actor Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera) all contribute to one of the most diverse casts in any Star Wars movie.
Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) in “Rogue One” (2016). Photo Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm
The Last Jedi, debuting in less than two weeks, will add yet two more actors with Asian roots: Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) is Vietnamese-American and Ngô Thanh Vân (Paige Tico, older sister to Rose) is Vietnamese. The depths of their roles and fan reaction remain to be seen.
Over the decades, writer-director George Lucas has discussed the various influences which have combined to bring his Star Wars universe to life. Whether it was the Flash Gordon episodes he watched as a youngster, the scholarly writings on mythology by Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces, or other muses, they all weaved their way into Lucas’s vision of a space thriller.
And yet while the title crawl of Star Wars tells us about “a galaxy far, far away”, the reality is that many of George Lucas’s ideas originated right here on Earth in a place we call Asia.