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Turning Japanese?
The Influences of Japanese Culture on "Star Wars"

Submitted by Jody Reeves
3/26/99

One of the things about George Lucas is that he is honest about the influences of mythology and Eastern cultures on his work, specifically, on the "Star Wars" films. This has always been apparent, from the similarities between the samurai class of feudal Japan and the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic, to the visual impact of costuming. This work will attempt to trace some of those acknowledged influences and allow the reader to see the importance of not just Western culture, but also of Japanese culture and history in the crafting of Lucas’ modern fairy tale.

1. Knighthood

a. Western knights
b. Samurai
c. Jedi Knights

The concept of a guardian class of knights in "Star Wars" has its parallels in Western and Japanese culture. In most cases, these brotherhoods were formed with a purpose, either to engage in a quest, to protect the liege lord and his lands, or to defend the weak and foster the cult of courtly behavior.

Western principles were fairly straightforward. A knight in feudal Europe was expected to maintain a certain standard of behavior and living. Usually a gentleman of noble rank, often a younger son of a lord, a knight was educated in his profession from childhood. He was taught horsemanship, weaponry, and in some cases, literature and music. Knights were expected to be courteous to ladies of rank, defend their lord’s lands, and attend their lord on crusade.

Groups of knights espousing the same goals were known, from the fictional Knights of the Round Table to the Knights Templar. While the Round Table knights were fictional, the actual Knights Templar was founded by a group of crusader knights from France and Germany. While the stories about the Round Table knights kept them true to their purpose, the Knights Templar evolved from a group protecting Christian shrines in the Middle East to becoming bankers to the French crown. Eventually, the French king was so in debt to the Knights Templar that he accused the leadership of heresy and witchcraft, executed them, and confiscated their assets. A singular way of avoiding the payment of a loan...

In feudal Japan, the duties of a samurai were the same, but with much more significance involved in the loyalty owed to a clan lord. While in Europe it was not unheard of a knight transferring his oath to a lord who paid better, a samurai held his oath to a single lord for life. The oath ended only upon the death of the lord or the samurai. A samurai who violated this pact would be held in contempt by others and bring shame upon his family.

Japanese literature includes many stories about how samurai maintained their honor by defending their lords. One in particular recounts the legend of forty-seven samurai, who dishonored and unemployed upon the betrayal and death of their lord, spent years planning to avenge the memory of their lord and the restoration of their honor by dying to achieve their goal of redemption. Like Western knights defending the glory of the Church, the samurai defended the honor of their clans.

The Jedi Knights of the "Star Wars" films are a blending of the knightly traditions of Europe and Japan. There are no churches or clans that are being defended, but rather the Jedi defend the principles of the Old Republic. On the surface, the Jedi may resemble a group such as the Round Table knights, but on a deeper level, it seems that they share more in common with the samurai. Both the Jedi and the samurai were unencumbered by a system of heavy armor, such as that worn by medieval European knights. The Jedi and samurai relied mainly on their ability with the sword, whether it was a lightsaber or a katana. Both held a spiritual kinship with their goals, Jedi with the Force and samurai with clan honor. It would seem that the Jedi are, at least, an heir to the traditions of the samurai.

2. Princess in distress? Not!

a. Queen Amidala
b. Princess Leia Organa
c. Princess Tsuru

In another departure for traditional Western mythos, Lucas provided the "Star Wars" films with strong female characters, Amidala in the upcoming prequels and Leia in the original trilogy. This is in keeping with Japanese legends of strong-willed and educated women of high-rank who were trained in martial arts and took action for their own defense.

From what has been publicly been made known about Queen Amidala of Naboo, we’re not going to be introduced to a passive character who is going to allow her Jedi defenders to do all the work. In the first preview for "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," the Queen is seen in disguise, working to secure her own safety and that of her beleaguered world. In the second preview, Amidala takes a more proactive role in defending herself, we see her participating in an escape, giving orders and orchestrating a political solution to her planet’s dilemma.

Princess Leia Organa, who we first encounter in "Star Wars" hiding the Death Star plans and shooting a stormtrooper, was the precursor to screen heros such as Ellen Ripley (Aliens) and Sarah Connor (The Terminator). Leia also participated in her own rescue, at one point making an executive decision and changing the course of the action. She held a position of political and military leadership in the Rebel Alliance, and was a willing participant in dangerous missions. Both Amidala and Leia were departures from the traditional role of Western princesses, who were often illiterate and were used primarily to secure political alliances via marriage.

In Japanese tradition, while usually thought of as detrimental to women, shock was not expressed if a woman was educated. The first work of literature to be recognized as a novel was written by a woman in medieval Japan. Women, usually of high-rank, were allowed an education and training in martial arts. It was not considered unusual for clan princesses to be taught sword fighting alongside their brothers.

One Japanese legend concerns Princess Tsuru, the daughter of the Ii clan lord during the Edo period, which roughly coincided with the Renaissance in Europe. Princess Tsuru was a skilled martial artist, specializing in a weapon called the naginata, a long spear-like weapon that ended in an blade similar to an axe. Tsuru publically called for the training of women in martial arts, and was said to have taught these skills. The legend says that eventually Tsuru married the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Yoshimune, but only after initially refusing to do so because she didn’t want to be a token in a political alliance between her family and the Shogun. As far as we can tell, Tsuru parallels Amidala and Leia more so than any Guinevere or Snow White.

3. The feel of "Star Wars." Kurosawa would feel at home.

a. Back story
b. Costuming

Lucas recalls his discovery of Kurosawa when he was in film school:

I was very intrigued by a lot of his movies because they were samurai movies, feudal Japan. The look of them was very exotic...and I found it very interesting that nothing was explained. You are thrown into this world, and obviously if you know about feudal Japan then it makes sense to you; bu if you don’t, it’s like you’re watching this very exotic, strange thing with strange customs and a strange look. And I think that influenced me a great deal in working in science fiction because I was able to get around the idea that you have to explain everything or understand what everything is...You just put yourself into this environment. It’s like the world of an anthropologist. You walk into this strange society; you sit there and observe it. (Interview with George Lucas - September 27, 1996. As quoted in Star Wars: The Magic of Myth by Mary Henderson. Bantam Books, 1997.)

When Lucas opens up his trilogy, we’re given only a tidbit of information. We know there’s an evil Empire, sinister agents and a princess trying to restore freedom to the galaxy. But that’s all that we’re given. Because "Star Wars" had no anchor in Real Life, we had to suspend any notions of historical parallels and as Lucas said, "...sit there and observe it." We encounter a world with droids and blasters, Emperors and Grand Moffs, X-wing fighters and AT-ATs. All as exotic and mysterious as one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece films, Ran. If you’ve ever seen Ran, then you know it is a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. But that’s where the similarity ends. Like "Star Wars," you observe this society and come to learn about its history and motivations.

Lucas expressed his interest in feudal Japan to artist Ralph McQuarrie when he asked him to come up with the first renderings of the "Star Wars" look and even offered images of samurai warriors for inspiration. No where is this more evident than in the costuming for the Jedi and Darth Vader. (Interview with Ralph McQuarrie - September 25, 1996. As quoted in Star Wars: The Magic of Myth by Mary Henderson. Bantam Books, 1997.)

The robes of the Jedi Knights are very similar to the kimonos and under-robes of Japan. These kimonos are seen both in the original trilogy and in the prequels, hinting that this has been the Jedi way of dress for generations. Even Yoda, who is 900 years old by "Return of the Jedi," wears a mini-version of the Jedi kimono.

Vader’s helmet, armor and robe is highly reminiscent of samurai armor. The helmet that Vader also uses as a breath mask is taken directly from the mempo mask and Kabuto helmet of a feudal samurai. Japanese armor was designed more to frighten the enemy than to provide protection in battle. Steel was in short supply in Japan, and was used primarily for making swords. Very little could be spared for use in armor, hence the lack of plate armor as it was used by Western knights of the late medieval period in Europe. A Kabuto helmet was often molded from leather, then layered with metal plates that would flare out near the neck, providing a scoop-like shape. These helmets almost have an aerodynamic quality about them that may have proved useful to the samurai on horseback.

Vader also wore an under-robe of black that resembled long, flared out pants. This was also a garment worn in feudal Japan. Warriors often wore wide-cut pants that grazed the floor, hiding the movements of their feet from the enemy, thereby preventing the opponent from judging your next move in a sword fight by seeing the placement of your feet.

The look and costuming for the prequels show a definite tribute to Japanese style in the character of Queen Amidala. Several times in the previews, we see her dressed in kimonos, wearing kabuki theater style makeup, and showing elaborate hairpieces. All of these elements were present in feudal Japan and even now in Japanese film and television shows. Eventually, we’ll learn more about Amidala’s culture and how it is that her ceremonial look was developed.



4. Conclusions

By both his own admission and the visual evidence of his films, George Lucas embraces and highlights the influence of Japanese culture in his work. This use of a culture so exotically different from our own, yet vaguely familiar, helps us cement the "Star Wars" galaxy to something with which we have some experience.

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