Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: STAR WARS, Kurosawa, and a Galaxy to be Explored

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Today a rumor - since denied by the man himself - hit that Zack Snyder, he of 300, Watchmen and the upcoming Man of Steel projects, is set to direct one of the offshoot Star Wars films.  Though Snyder says he is not involved - and only time will tell if he's telling the truth - the report raises some interesting options for future directions of the franchise.

When the news of the Disney Sale hit, Mousehouse chairman Bob Iger hinted that there would be more than the "canonical" three films added to the slate, that other projects withing the SW galaxy would also be part of the project for keeping the stories alive far pass the conclusion of the main Skywalker story line.

The reports from Vulture suggest that Snyder's film will be "loosely based on Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai, with the ronin and katana being replaced by the Force-wielding knights and their iconic lightsabers."

Seven Samurai is of course no stranger to reinvention. Soon after its release, The Magnificent Seven took its tale of a loose band of misfits fighting against an unjust, tyrannical band and set it in some arid Western town. In many ways John Sturges' film plays direct homage to Kurosawa's work, but it's no mere copycat, with each film standing on its own as an absolute classic.

The whole notion of remakes and Kurosawa is made all the more interesting when you consider just how compelling the famed director found American genre filmmaking. In very many ways, most of AK's chanbara films serve dual narrative purpose - they echo contemporary Japanese events through the lens of a historical action/epic, and they borrow heavily from cinematic tropes imported by the films of Ford, Hawks, and even Sturges himself. There's a form of symbiont circle here, a midichlorian-like DNA that is shared between the Westerns of the 30s and 40s, the Japanese sword films of the 50s, and in turn the many more sly and dark Spaghetti-style Westerns of the 60s. 

Famously, Kurosawa adored Magnificent Seven, and is said to have presented the director with a katana of his own in appreciation.

Similarly, much of Lucas' vision for the Star Wars saga was born of of his deep love for Kurosawa's films. It's no surprise to even the most causal fan of the saga that Hidden Fortress, the 1958 tale of a princess, an old wizened warrior, and a couple of sidekicks (one short/fat, the other tall/lanky), played more than a passing role in the development of the story. The fact that the first 30 minutes or so of A New Hope is told from the perspective of the droids is an element that survives through all the script stages, but at one point the connection to the original was so strong that Lucas considered filming with an all-Japanese cast!

So key was Hidden Fortress to the underlying structure of his film, Lucas actually went ahead and optioned Kurosawa's film. This would lead to many years where Lucas (along with Coppola and Spielberg) would serve as producers on various projects. 1980s Kagemusha, for example, was exec produced by Lucas, who helped bring the international filmmaker to a wider audience after the tremendous success of the Space Opera debut.

Naturally, the "laser swords" of the series draw directly from the chanbara ethos, but so to does the samurai helmet-like design for Darth Vader, or the austere Judo-like robes of the Jedi. Looking through the much maligned prequels, you can see the continuation of this Asian-aesthetic, drawing upon Japanese, Korean, and other South Asian influences in the costuming and architecture. Even names and philosophies for some of the elements draw from Japanese culture - it's not hard to apply Zen teachings to Yoda, nor think of "Jedi" as a Japanese word.

Speaking of Yoda, Yoda Yoshikata was the screenwriter for a number of Mizoguchi films, including Ugetsu. And while I always thought of "Anakin" as a samurai-derived name, I'm willing to bet it's actually drawn from the surname of the director of another Lucas fave, The Battle of the Bulge.

As for Zack Snyder taking up the role, I'm willing as ever to remain cautiously optimistic should his denial prove to be a smokescreen. Unlike many comic book fans that had pent-up expectations of what the work should be, I was quite enamored with Watchmen, finding its coherent aesthetic and interesting use of strong visual and musical elements quite engaging. It will be even more interesting to see how he makes his on mark on the Superman myth (under Nolan's influence, both as EP and in the form of the Batman trilogy), if only to see how many of the Snyder-isms remain intact, and whether they can be sustained in a slightly different milieu.

Finally, as for the story, what made Kurosawa's film so powerful was that it was set in a time of great turmoil, yet used the greater historical context as a mere backdrop for a far more intimate (yet no less powerful) existential crisis. This allows for great moments of action but also great moments of character development, as we're free from the world building and expositional elements required by some of the other works. Freed from having to tell something on a glactic scale, we can see that a single battle could easily occupy a feature length film, and would allow us to more fitfully engage with characters within the greater timeline.

I'm given hope by Miike Takashi's recent 13 Assassins, itself a loving homage to Kurosawa's film. While some weren't drawn to this presentation, I quite loved how it played out, and found the deliberate pace and rich drawing of characters refreshing. At the least, it allows us to think even more outside the confines of our expectations - how much fun would it be for an international director like Miike to take on one of the segments from this series, thus in some ways bringing the story back to its Japanese roots?

More fun stuff to think about.

In the end, while the Venture article proved to be complete conjecture, I think the idea of genuinely talking a Kurosawa-style Seven Jedimurai might indeed be a very good thing. As always, we'll just have to wait and see what the next few years will bring.
Around the Internet:
  • While we're at it, what could Nicholas Winding Refn do with a film about a podracer by day who's a smuggler for the underworld on the side? Or maybe Thomas Vinterberg given the rains to a story about the adolescence of Boba Fett? Hell, I'd even pay to see Lars Von Trier do the story of how Oola was forced to become one of Jabba's "Dancers in the Dark", or see Haeneke show how a 5 year old Tarkin, growing up in a snowy small town, telling a WHITE RIBBON style moody character piece.

    The mind reels...

  • I always felt like Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion had to be an influence on Star Wars, primarily for the final showdown between Mifune (dressed in white) and Nakadai (all in black). When I first watched it, my initial reaction was "These guys look like Jedi!"

  • Huh, I've never seen it (alas) but that's certainly something to look for! Good call...

  • the more I think about it the more I kind of love the suggestion of Miike doing a samurai inspired Star Wars movie IF (and it's a big if) he works with a dialogue coach to oversee delivery of English lines.

  • Joe Foolio

    "Hidden Fortress, the 1958 tale of a boy, a princess, an old wizened warrior, and a couple of sidekicks (one short/fat, the other tall/lanky)"

    Have you even seen Hidden Fortress? There is no "boy" in that movie.

    Also I've heard/read that it is rumored/assumed the word Jedi is shortened from Jidaigeki.

  • You're right, that was a slip of the keyboard when doing the article (I had it reversed before, describing SW and then related it to HF). The slave-trader has a daughter, not a son, and really it's the princess on the hero's journey. Nice catch! And, yes, I've seen the film :)

  • Joe Foolio

    Again you are mistaken. The girl is not the slave traders daughter. She was purchased/stolen from the area formerly ruled by the Akizuki clan.

  • You sir have convinced me that it's time to rewatch the film, it's been too long an clearly I'm fuzzy on some of the finer details.

  • cuttermaran

    Kurosawa didn't liked Magnificent Seven. In an interview on japanese tv he stated, it was not right to put mere cowboys in the roles of noble samurai. It would not work with the messege of the movie, since samurai had different ethics. Therefore Magnificent Seven was pointless in a way.

  • Juangus

    Meh, Battle Beyond the Stars got their first.

  • Juangus

    ^ apologies for the 'their/there' fail ^

  • Guest

    I found Magnificent Seven quite boring, and switched it off halfway thru

  • I kind of hate you right now. No, it has passed...

  • Guest

    I'm watching Lawrence of Arabia now. How's that for fried apples?

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