Maser Patrol’s mission statement is to elucidate genre fiction of a manner both Japanese and “Japanese-ish”, which is why there’s frequent coverage of western-yet-anime/manga/tokusatsu-inspired media ranging from Pacific Rim to Miraculous Ladybug to Fujiyama Ichiban. And yet, there’s that pesky fact that we barely ever discuss one of the biggest franchises in the history of the world, despite the fact that it’s extremely Japanese-ish: Star Wars.
Indeed, while the subject of Star Wars has come up every once in a while, it’s never been to the exhaustive extent of other, equally Japan-infused series for the simple reason that it’s already pretty ubiquitous in popular culture, and there are much, much more knowledgeable sources than yours truly on the subject.
But, with the new movie coming out, the subject has been on everyone’s radar lately, so who are we to fight a trend? As a pop-culture juggernaut that inspired even more than it ripped off, George Lucas’s space opera was profoundly influential and profoundly influenced, so I thought it might be fun to explore its interesting relationship with Japanese cinema.
Bringing up the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa when discussing Star Wars is an obvious no-brainer, as Lucas has been very forthcoming about gathering inspiration from there, and it certainly shows. Aside from the zen-like philosophy of the sword-dueling, kimono-clad Jedi (a name derived from “jidai geki”, or “period dramas”, a term broadly applied to samurai flicks), there are numerous homages including:
- Two bumbling peasants as protagonists on an adventure to rescue a princess (The Hidden Fortress):
- A warrior-philosopher who rubs his bald head (The Seven Samurai):
- A dramatic disarming an opponent (Yojimbo):
- The fact that Kurosawa’s star actor Toshiro Mifune was offered the roles of both Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Vader.
These influences have, in my opinion, been repeated ad nauseum, and everyone keeps going back to them. It’s easy to see why, too: Kurosawa has cache, art-house credibility, prestige. Of course people would be more willing to accept that Star Wars was paying homage to his work than that of, say, his colleague Ishiro Honda, who until recently was considered a B-movie hack in the halls of western cinematic academia. Yet, it’s hard to refute that Star Wars also shares some visual stylistics with Battle in Outer Space, with its dogfights between traditional rocket-shaped hero planes and more fantastically rounded enemy fighter spacecraft/orbital base:
Now, to what extent the 1959 film influenced Star Wars is hard to say for a fact; lots of people worked on the latter movie’s designs, drawing on multiple influences, and when directly questioned Lucas himself gives wildly varying accounts on the genesis of certain elements. That leaves us with baseless speculation and dubious fan-rumors, so understand that a good chunk of this article is hypothetical at best, propagation of misinformation at worst. On the other hand, much of the fun of a Lucas production (much like a Quentin Tarantino picture) is sorting out what’s a reference to what, what’s sharing influences, and what’s simply coincidence. This is a rundown of some of the stuff we’ve heard or noticed over the years, and hardcore fans please feel welcome to submit corrections and clear up misconceptions for things that are way off base.
One of the more frequent influences I’ve heard posited was Toei’s The Magic Serpent, which fits the Star Wars pattern in that both feature samurai wizards. Jiraiya, being the newer, “good” disciple of an exiled ninja hermit, avenges his parents’ and master’s deaths by going up against Orochimaru, the former ninjutsu student who went evil and now assists a war-thirsty general. Of course, in the stunning climax we learn that Orochimaru is actually the father of Jiraiya’s love interest Tsunade, meaning we’re just one brother-sister reveal away from a full Skywalker. It’d only be more Star Wars-y if Ben could actually summon krayt dragons instead of just impersonating them.
There’s been a lot of rumbling for years that the iconic antagonist Darth Vader was partially inspired by Kikaider’s foe Hakaider. The comparisons are intuitive: both serve as right hands to the main villain (who they eventually betray), dress in black armor, have similarly-sounding names, and *spoilers* are actually cyborgs with the brain of the main character’s father. Fans have backed up this assertion with a statement made by producer Tohru Hirayama when promoting Message from Space (which we’ll get back to) that Vader was inspired by a certain tokusatsu villain, since Lucas toured Japan during the early 70s while scouting….. except that Hirayama was actually referring to Goranger’s Musha Kamen, not Hakaider. Kikaider is far more popular than Goranger in the US, and Hakaider is a much more major character, so the fans’ assumption is understandable, but let’s be real: Hirayama was at least partially covering his company with a “Message from Space isn’t a Star Wars knock-off; they ripped us off first” claim.
That being said, the bit in Star Wars where the android character is blown to pieces, then recovered by one of the mid-level support characters seemed very much like one of the major Hakaider-centric storylines from the Kikaider.
Alright, now let’s get back to Message from Space. Kinji Fukasaku’s 1979 flick, basically the Hakkenden in space (fun fact: Fukasaku would later return for a more traditional Hakkenden adaptation with Legend of the Eight Samurai, featuring much of the same cast), was most assuredly greenlit as exploitation on the popularity of Star Wars, but elements of it, such as the spider-web window design for the Emperor’s throne room and his giant holographic projections, would later appear in Star Wars sequels.
Granted, the TIE fighters have similar windows (aesthetically similar to the Imperial crest), so it’s not much of a stretch to transpose them to a throne room, plus the Return of the Jedi throne room has that great, off-putting asymmetry. Giant holograms for your tyrannical leader (going back at least as far as Wizard of Oz) makes sense if you’ve already established such technology, so it could very well be convergent evolution.
Of course, in any conversation about Japanese space operas, we can’t forget about Leiji Matsumoto. The maestro of that genre helped to revolutionize anime as a medium with Space Battleship Yamato (AKA Star Blazers), and more than once I’ve grit my teeth at folks at anime conventions dismissing Yamato as a Star Wars knock-off, despite the fact that Yamato predates Star Wars by three years. Indeed, the series didn’t hit America until 1979, but since we’ve established Lucas’ international travel at the peak of Yamato’s popularity in Japan… well. Both series feature extremely WWII-inspired naval designs for their space carriers (the Yamato and the Star Destroyers both resemble traditional battleships much more than their predecessors from, say, Star Trek), both have an intense focus on underdogs stopping an evil empire’s plans for planetary destruction (though, unlike the Death Star, it’s the heroes in Yamato who have a giant laser cannon), and both have comedy relief from robots that look like trash cans.
I’ve seen comparisons made between Gamilon and Imperial officer’s uniforms, too, but it’s pretty clear that both of them are just based on Nazis. I initially thought that the aliens might have had an influence on Grand Admiral Thrawn’s complexion, but according to Timothy Zahn:
“Thrawn’s blue skin was mostly chosen just to make him an alien—I didn’t want him to be a human. No particular reason I chose blue, other than it looks good against a white uniform.”
However, Leiji Matsumoto spent much more time in space than just with Yamato. There’s also his seminal space pirate hero Captain Harlock, who appears to have given Lando some fashion tips in one issue from Marvel’s original run of Star Wars comics:
The tables appear legitimately flipped for Matsumoto’s most iconic work, however: Galaxy Express 999 is cribbing from Star Wars this time. This is clear from the get-go of the 1977 series, with the famous space-train’s conductor appearing as a shadow except for two yellow light dots (much like the Jawas), and continues to the villainous Faust, a black-clad cyborg revealed in the 1981 Adieu Galaxy Express 999 movie to be the hero Tetsuro’s father.
So yeah, Japan wasn’t immune to Star Wars mania, either, and for as many western coattails that tried to exploit the hype (e.g. Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, Battlestar Galactica), you can bet there an equal number from the land of the rising sun. Some highlights (aside from the previously mentioned Message from Space) include:
- Jun Fukuda’s War in Space just barely beat Star Wars into Japanese theaters, and was transparently a way to capitalize on it in the same way that Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla capitalized on the Planet of the Apes franchise: it’s very different, except when it’s not. Yeah, both movies do feature a planet blowing up, but the factor that everyone remembers is the “Space Beastman”, which… it’s a Wookie with horns. There’s simply no other way to put it.
- Go Nagai’s 1980 giant robot show X-Bomber (or Star Fleet in the west) is very much a Star Wars/Thunderbirds/Getter Robo hybrid, with notable New Hope elements including the Phantom Creeps-esqe opening text crawl, and another brutish, unintelligible, furry alien bodyguard, this time for yet another space princess, with a bearded and doomed leader, and yet another beeping spherical robot, on top of general spaceship warfare.
And as always, I gotta bring up the English opening theme performed by Brian May and Eddie Van Halen.
- The original Star Wolf novels started in 1967, but I think we can rule out coincidence that Tsuburaya’s TV series adaptation hit the scene in 1978.
- 1980’s Gamera Super Monster, or, as a more direct translation, “Space Monster Gamera”, features a battle against the Zanon, whose ship looks eerily like a Star Destroyer.
As a side note, I find the Iwakura Zanon ship model hilariously small for its box, perhaps taking to heart that space is mostly empty:
- There’s also the funny matter of Battle of the Planets. At first it didn’t occur to me, since as a purist snob I only really watch the original Japanese show Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972), which has absolutely nothing to do with Star Wars. However, when Sandy Frank decided to adapt the show for US audiences in 1978, he decided that it should be re-written to be set in outer space and include new footage with a pair of bumbling comedy droids, and thus Battle of the Planets was born. So, it’s either not *really* related to Star Wars or not *really* Japanese, depending on how you look at it, but a lot of people will still bring it up as “that anime version of Star Wars”.
- Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) – Sure, the spacey elements of Japan’s most popular mecha property are mostly derived directly from Yamato, but I think we all know where the idea of the robots having “beam sabers” originated.
Plus the Space Sheriff franchise, and countless other space operas like Lost Universe, Outlaw Star, Tenchi Muyo, and Cobra; it’s hard to come up with one that the Star Wars trilogy didn’t help shape in some way, directly or indirectly. It massively altered the format of cinema and popular culture worldwide, plain and simple.
…. and then there were the prequel movies. Most likely, the less said about Amidala’s geisha outfit and the terrible accents of the Trade Federation’s Neimoidians the better, but there’s no way I’m leaving out the fact that there was a kaiju-two parter in the Clone Wars cartoon show. While I’ve heard that early plans for the rancor in Return of the Jedi were more Godzilla-inspired than what wound up in the final film, it was still considerably less explicit homage than what Clone Wars pulled with the “Zillo Beast”, a 97-meter dragon on a rampage through a major metropolitan planet. The episodes also had a clone trooper named Goji and a droid with an oxygen destroyer drawn on it, just to nip any plausible deniability in the bud.
If nothing discussed above appeals to you, however, Japan has naturally produced its fair share of straight-up Star Wars content as well. Star Wars otaku can curl up with the Hisao Tamaki, Toshiki Kudo, and Shinichi Hiromoto manga adaptations (Adam Warren did the US cover art for all of them), hang up some badass Noriyoshi Ohrai posters, or play video games like the 1987 one with enemies named “Wampa Vader” and “Sasori Vader” (because what’s cooler than a giant scorpion that can also turn into Darth Vader?), or even play as Yoda in Soul Calibur IV. I wonder why the Holocron considers that last one non-canon?