“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” – Akira Kurosawa
George Lucas’ seminal sci-fi franchise Star Wars is widely considered to be the definitive work of the genre and is unparalleled in its universal appeal. The original 1977 film’s unprecedented success has spawned a series of sequels, prequels, video games, literature and has become an instantly recognisable and extremely marketable brand. Given the science fiction elements and the setting for Lucas’ space opera, it is impressive to note how he borrowed stylistic techniques and motifs from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 drama: The Hidden Fortress.
Kurosawa had grown up watching Westerns with his father, especially the films of John Ford and Western silent films which would later shape his own vision as a filmmaker. While formulating his own artistic statement, Kurosawa combined the grand visuals of Ford’s works with Japanese sensibilities which made his work more appealing and accessible to Western audiences. Lucas was introduced to Kurosawa’s films in film school by John Milius, falling in love with Kurosawa’s magnum opus Seven Samurai in 1954. He studied the Japanese master’s unique visual style with great interest and incorporated them into his own work.
Although The Hidden Fortress is often considered to be “lesser Kurosawa”, its genre-defining influence on popular culture is hailed by film scholars as a mark of Kurosawa’s genius. The most popular and obvious influence that The Hidden Fortress had was on Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope, as stated by George Lucas himself. Many critics have gone as far as claiming that Lucas just transplanted Kurosawa’s story and placed it in a different context: space politics. What are the similarities between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars?
For starters, the way Lucas chooses to tell the story is directly inspired by Kurosawa’s methods inThe Hidden Fortress. Like Kurosawa, Lucas frames the narrative through the two “lowliest characters” (who have gone on to be iconic) in the film: R2-D2 and C-3PO. In an interview with the Criterion Collection, Lucas expanded on this particular creative choice: “Hidden Fortress…did influence me in doing Star Wars because I was beginning to write the screenplay and put it together. I remembered Hidden Fortress and the one thing that really struck me about 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 is to take the lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. In Star Wars’ case, it is the two droids and that was the strongest influence actually.”
Apart from that, another significant similarity can be observed in the story itself. Both films feature a princess trapped behind enemy lines during wartime, but Lucas felt that Princess Leia had a stronger resolve and was more resilient than the one in The Hidden Fortress. He revealed that there were derivations of The Hidden Fortress‘ narrative in the early drafts of Star Wars. However, he kept polishing it with each subsequent attempt in order to make the script its own entity. Lucas said: “The fact that there was a princess trying to get through enemy lines…was more of a coincidence than anything else.
Adding: “I found the princess was more of a ‘stand and fight’ kind of princess. In the first drafts, I had a little bit more of her and an older Jedi trying to escape but then it evolved into the story of Luke. I think all stories have been around for a few thousand years. There is a book written and a theory among writers that there’s only 32 plots and it’s all the same 32 plots: retold. In a way, I am not sure that’s exactly true but once you get into writing stories or reading stories or studying the whole issue of stories, you find out that most stories are repeated over and over again.”
Lucas modelled the armour of Stormtroopers and Darth Vader after the traditional attire of the samurai, giving the costumes a sci-fi do-over. The word Jedi itself was based on the Japanese term “Jidaigeki” (period dramas), a genre that Kurosawa had completely mastered. Samurai swords became lightsabers, and the conflicts that were typical in Kurosawa films were transformed into a different kind of spectacle, amplified to galactic levels. Even the iconic Star Wars screen wipe was an editing technique that Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa, using it to punctuate his own visual narrative.
Watch a video comparison of the similarities between the two films, below.