Before Star Wars There Was The Hidden Fortress

Andrew reflects on the single greatest influence on Star Wars.

By now George Lucas' Star Wars saga is regarded as one of the most original and influential science fiction film franchises of all time and cemented Lucas' status as one of the most creative filmmakers to emerge from the 1970s.  But what most Star Wars fans are unaware of is just how derivative Lucas' series really is, whether it be technically, structurally or kindred characters.  

The plot of two lowly characters who stumble the audience into a full blown action saga with a cavalcade of characters did not originate with the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, but with two scruffy Japanese peasants careening the war torn Japanese landscape of master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's jidaigeki, The Hidden Fortress.  Regarded among many Kurosawa fans as the director's first and only lark, pure escapist entertainment versus the heavier meaning-of-life themes running through Ikiru and Rashomon, it is Kurosawa's first foray into Tohoscope widescreen format and among the master of sound design's first use of the early Perspecta sound format which operated like surround sound by only using mono channels.  On par with David Lean's greatest 70mm epics with a dash of old fashioned Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling fun, it is something of a spaghetti western and a great deal of fun to watch.

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"I'm hiding the plans for a Death Star
in my blouse. Come find them."
You can spot not only all the characters from Star Wars here if you look hard enough, you can also begin to see influences not just here but from Kurosawa's other films as well.  George Lucas is willing to let The Hidden Fortress and it's two main characters fill the shoes of his two leading droids, but in fact many other facets are lifted from Kurosawa's oeuvre as well.  Obi-Wan Kenobi, for instance, lifts directly from Kurosawa's Yojimbo and is more or less a walking Sanjuro.  Like Kenobi, he draws his sword and dismembers an arm still holding it's weapon just as swiftly as he sheaths it, with many standing about in disbelief not about to try and stand up to the gifted and cunning warrior.  

Coming back to The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune's General Makabe Rokurota is more or less Han Solo and Misa Uehara's Princess Yuki is of course Leia.  What's most striking about Kurosawa's ensemble cast is the dynamic of their relationship, with the two peasants constantly complaining while cowering behind the heroes, the general's gruff yet cool demeanor and the stands-with-a-fist Princess Yuki presents a band of outsiders forced to unite in order to survive and defeat the forces of evil.  Kurosawa has told straightforward and matter of fact dramas as well as action epics over the years including but not limited to Seven Samurai and The Bad Sleep Well, but that rare display of the master filmmaker's sense of humor is undeniably all over The Hidden Fortress and therefore all over Star Wars.

"God damn Storm Troopers can't hit a thing!" 
In Kurosawa's pantheon, like Ken Russell had done with The Devils, he made an artistically great but punishing work with Rashomon, coining the term 'the Rashomon effect' with respect to multiple perspectives of a singular event.  After doing so, Kurosawa suffered commercially and like Russell he decided it was time to just make a thrilling piece of escapist fun.  The move towards popcorn entertainment worked greatly to Kurosawa's benefit and with Seven Samurai he emerged as a major player of world cinema.  Incidentally, George Lucas too had gone through a period of conflict between art and commerce with his first feature, THX 1138 which proved to be one of the director's greatest artistic achievements while also being a financial failure hated by the studio who financed it, Warner Brothers.  Considered too dark and dystopian to really catch on, Lucas would revisit the science fiction genre with Star Wars with a fresh perspective once he realized the gulf between grandeur and alienation traversed by his first film.  Although watching The Hidden Fortress as well as many other Kurosawa works now will reveal just how much went into Star Wars, neither film detracts from one another's mutual existence.  Those unfamiliar with The Hidden Fortress have a great introduction to one of Japan's greatest director's before them and those new to Star Wars (they exist?) will see in it a lovingly made homage to one of Japan's most exciting and wildly entertaining action thrillers!


-Andrew Kotwicki