The Influence of Kurosawa on Star Wars
Akira Kurosawa’s films appear frequently on the list of George Lucas’ favorite movies. In addition to Rashomon, Ikiru, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress, and Kagemusha, Lucas cites The Seven Samurai as an influence. More so than any other Kurosawa film, influence from The Seven Samurai shows through in George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie. In creating the lore of the force and the Jedi, George Lucas clearly borrowed character types and thematic material from The Seven Samurai.
The leader of the titular heroic gang of samurai is Kambei. Kambei, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, acts as a kind of moral center amid people who display character flaws (most notably Kikuchiyo). Kambei’s self-discipline is made evident when he states that a true samurai never drinks enough to dull his wits. When Kikuchiyo stumbles in drunk right after that statement, this accentuates how committed Kambei is to the samurai way of life. Kambei’s old age also lends the character a certain brand of wisdom and experience that his followers do not have. This elderly mentor status is also seen later on with the Obi-Wan Kenobi character in Star Wars. Obi-Wan must guide the younger, more flawed characters through their difficulties.
One of the most interesting scenes in The Seven Samurai occurs during its first half (and becomes something of a running gag as the movie goes on), namely the scene in which Kambei tests prospective samurai by way of initiating sneak attacks. If the potential member can anticipate the sneak attack before it happens and avoid it, they are deemed worthy to join the group of samurai. This idea of anticipating danger before it happens figures prominently in the Star Wars films. By harnessing the power of the Force in Star Wars, characters can sense intangible things, control things outside of the grasp of the layperson, and can understand time and space around them without actually witnessing it. A good example of this power is seen in the original Star Wars film, when Obi-Wan Kenobi senses the destruction of the planet Alderaan even though they have not reached the planet yet. It is very possible that Lucas modeled Obi-Wan’s character after Kurosawa’s knowledgeable Kambei, as evidenced by Kambei’s emphasis on self-discipline, rigidity, and otherworldly extrasensory perception.
Kambei’s polar opposite in The Seven Samurai is the aforementioned comic relief character Kikuchiyo. Star Wars contains a few characters who exhibit immaturity or a lack of focus, especially the defiant Han Solo. Kikuchiyo’s drunkenness and eagerness to lie for personal gain is entertaining, but the viewer simultaneously notes that his character has room for improvement. It is no coincidence that Han Solo’s weapon of choice is the blaster, a tool that Obi-Wan condemns as “clumsy” and “random” (Lucas). Han Solo initially only wants to rescue the princess to get his reward money, but later redeems himself by fighting the Empire for the moral and ethical reason of helping his friend Luke in battle. Han Solo’s moral transition harkens back to Kikuchiyo, who acts relaxed but later fights seriously and effectively in the end battle. The two contrasting character types that Kurosawa and Lucas employ in their movies serve to heighten the drama of their respective situations and to mark a trajectory of redemption.
George Lucas or Akira Kurosawa are certainly not the first filmmakers to employ these character types. The archetype of the flawed young person or the elderly mentor have their roots in ancient epic poems and mythology. What would have been new to film audiences in The Seven Samurai and Star Wars, however, was the specific character traits that Kurosawa and, subsequently, Lucas included. Kurosawa and Lucas lend the mentor character an otherworldly brand of perception and the imperfect young character a comedic edge. These new additions on age-old character types and situations prove Kurosawa’s genius as a filmmaker, and it is no wonder that Lucas would cite Kurosawa as a major influence on his own movies.
Kurosawa, Akira. The Seven Samurai. Toho, 1954. Film.
Lucas, George. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 20th Century Fox, 1977. Film.
CinemaHouse Productions. “George Lucas’ Favorite Films.” MUBI. MUBI, n.d. Web. https://mubi.com/lists/george-lucas-favorite-films