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The Obi-Wan Connection

Vader Meets Yojimbo “You are too strong. You are not a samurai yet.”
—Priest Nikkan to Musashi Miyamoto

“Impressive. Most impressive. But you are not a Jedi yet.”
—Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker

Obi-Wan Kenobi was a ronin.

I can sum up the relationship between jidai-geki and Star Wars with that one simple statement. That's really the heart of the matter. But of course, first I need to talk about The Hidden Fortress and all that jazz like every film critic who addresses this topic is obligated to do. I've got no problem with that. Then we'll get back to the fundamental truth nobody else has figured out.

The Japanese term jidai-geki has earned some minor recognition in the English-speaking world thanks to George Lucas. The legend goes that as a USC film school student Lucas was exposed to the great foreign filmmakers for the first time, thrilled at this new world of cinema the likes of which had never appeared at the local theater in Modesto. He was taken with Kurosawa in particular, and along with Flash Gordon and Saturday matinee serials, Lucas drew upon Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress as inspiration for his space opera adventure movie.

To coin a name for his imagined order of noble and amazingly skilled warriors, Lucas borrowed the exotic film-school classification term for those Kurosawa films and other Japanese period dramas. Jidai-geki begat the Jedi Knights, not only in name but in character as well.

The parallels between the samurai and the Jedi are fairly obvious. Both are chivalrous orders driven by strict codes of honor and duty. Each consists of skilled swordsmen who settled their disputes through one-on-one duels. The mystic principles of the Force and the Jedi code, especially as lectured by Yoda and Qui-Gon Jinn, bear many similarities to the teachings of Zen Buddhism followed by Miyamoto Musashi and other (but not all) samurai.

Mifune as Kenobi Even the name of the prototypical Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, sounds suspiciously Japanese in origin. Lucas may have jumbled obi, the word for the sash of a kimono, with ken, which means sword. In fact, Lucas claims that at one point he considered casting Star Wars with Asian actors in the principal roles. And his first choice to play Obi-Wan was Toshiro Mifune. Even though Alec Guiness contributed the finest acting performance in the entire Star Wars saga, and Mifune seldom shone in his few foreign roles where he had to speak English, somehow it's easy to imagine Mifune being the only other actor of the era capable of creating the character. What better candidate than the archetypal ronin himself?

Because, after all, that's what Obi-Wan Kenobi was.

The Hidden Forebear

Considering the famed influence of The Hidden Fortress on Star Wars, many a young Skywalker fan has undoubtedly tracked down the Kurosawa film only to be disappointed with the minor similarities apparent. I know I was as a teenager. On the surface level, you have the story premise of a princess cut off from her homeland during wartime, and the prestigious middle-aged general who protects her from an evil empire. Any overt Leia/Obi-Wan connections beyond that are rather tenuous. Mifune's General Makabe is not nearly as Jedi-like in his appearance and behavior as the samurai found in other chambara films, and he has no mystical or philosophical dimension corresponding to Obi-Wan's discussion of the Force. And though Leia summons General Kenobi to her aid, the characters never spend any screen time together – unlike Princess Yuki and General Makabe, who bicker and interact throughout The Hidden Fortress. The Kurosawa film also lacks any direct counterparts to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or the Death Star. Although I like to point out that Admiral Motti does refer to the Rebellion's secret base as their "hidden fortress" – or at least he gets out "hidden fort..." before Vader puts the choke-hold on him.

The Hidden Fortress In fact, Lucas has tried to dispel the myth that Star Wars is a remake of The Hidden Fortress, insisting that his saga was much more directly influenced by Seven Samurai. He claims that the parallel element of the princess and the general was more of a coincidence than a direct inspiration. Rather, Lucas says, the primary element he borrowed was the duo of peasants, Tahei and Matakishi, who introduce the story and tag along throughout the action as comic relief. Lucas loved the idea of telling a story about grand royalty and warring kingdoms from the perspective of the most lowly participants. Thus Kurosawa can be traced as the source of Artoo and Threepio, with mechanical servants taking the place of penniless commoners as the most downtrodden and spat-upon caste in the Lucas galaxy, though Tahei and Matakishi are greedy and conniving in comparison to the droids' loyalty.

More noticeably than in actual story content, Lucas takes stylistic inspiration from The Hidden Fortress. This is evident in the screen-spanning cinemascope compositions and the desolate, rocky landscapes found in each film, and of course the famous old-fashioned wipe transitions that Lucas and his editors brought back into vogue. The Hidden Fortress touch also extends to other episodes in the Star Wars saga, such as Return of the Jedi's speeder bike chase that loosely resembles an amped-up revision of Kurosawa's horseback pursuit sequence.

In terms of story structure, The Phantom Menace resembles The Hidden Fortress far more closely than A New Hope ever did, with Queen Amidala disguising herself as a commoner to pass through hostile territory. The adventuring quartet of General Makabe, Princess Yuki and the peasant duo corresponds mightily to the Tatooine expedition party of Qui-Gon Jinn, Padmé, Artoo and Jar Jar. Like Queen (and later Senator) Amidala, Princess Yuki also uses lookalike decoys as a security measure, and each of the women in power has to suffer the tragedy of a body double dying in their place. And there's no doubting the general Japanese influence in Queen Amidala's geisha-style makeup, elaborate hairstyles and colorful robes. I've wished that Lucas had titled Episode I The Hidden Menace. It would have been a nice semi-rhyming tribute, not to mention sounding less like a ghostly caper for Scooby-Doo and Shaggy.

You can even say that there's a Darth Vader figure in The Hidden Fortress without stretching too badly. General Makabe runs across an old friend, Tadokoro, who has now sided with the enemy. They have a spectacular duel with spears that ends anticlimactically with both men surviving. Tadokoro later re-emerged with his face horrifically scarred from his master's punishment for failing to kill Makabe, somewhat paralleling Obi-Wan's disfigurement of Vader. In the end, Tadokoro finds the goodness in his heart to betray his master and help Makabe and the princess escape death, prefiguring the redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

But we really have to look beyond the specific examples of The Hidden Fortress and the work of Kurosawa to get a true appreciation of the relationship between Star Wars and the jidai-geki tradition. There is much more substance to this than the cute etymology of "Jedi" being descended from jidai-geki, and it's more than Lucas cherry-picking attractive bits of Asian filmmaking to pay homage to his forebears. It's about more than the in-joke of Anakin's padawan Ahsoka in the Clone Wars animated series being named for the Japanese phrase meaning "Oh, I see." I believe there is a larger continuum of storytelling to which Star Wars and the great jidai-geki classics both belong.

In fact, I would argue than the Star Wars saga is chambara, from a certain point of view... to paraphrase the ghost of a certain wise old ronin.

An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age

Star Wars boasts spaceships armed with lasers and battle stations that destroy planets, but the iconic weapon of the saga functions on a far more personal scale. Though the lightsaber seems awesomely cool to us, in the world of the Jedi it's seen as old-fashioned, a relic. Like the samurai, the Jedi distinguish themselves with a weapon that commoners are unable to wield, while the forces of evil arm themselves with technologically advanced guns. Choosing to fight with a sword when your enemy could just shoot you is a foolhardy move, as Indiana Jones famously demonstrated. But something in us naturally responds to the skill, the chivalry and the balls it takes to be a swordsman. This attraction is the engine that makes chambara work.

Chambara is defined as swordplay movies. Star Wars absolutely meets that qualification. It's generally implied that chambara refers to Japanese movies, but I see no reason to "keep kosher" in that regard. Japan owns the term jidai-geki, since it's wrapped up in their specific history and culture, but swords know no national boundaries. There can be Chinese chambara, French chambara, medieval British chambara, even American chambara. The swashbuckling classics of Errol Flynn and Zorro movies are chambara. So are Braveheart, Pirates of the Caribbean and Kill Bill. And there were most definitely chambara a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Fans of Japanese chambara know there's certain feeling and character we associate with the genre that goes beyond the choice of weaponry used in battle. Chambara is about defending honor and fighting oppression. It's about family and friendship and betrayal. It's about rescuing allies from harm, protecting valuable deliveries and escaping to the secret base. There's room for fun and wisecracks, but when there are personal conflicts to be settled, it's about bypassing the bullet and the bomb to pick up the sword. And then hacking off bodily parts as necessary.

Obi-Wan Kenobi the Ronin That's what Star Wars is. Just consider old Ben Kenobi hiding out alone in the desert all those years, defeated and lost to history. What is he if not a ronin? I can't believe it took me so long to realize that.

The Jedi Order were honorable samurai serving a corrupt lord. Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side as a result of one hell of a giri/ninjo conflict. When Palpatine declared himself Emperor and branded the Jedi as traitors, his disenfranchised former servants were hunted down and executed or driven into exile. The Jedi samurai became Jedi ronin.

Just as the ronin is a more compelling figure than the samurai, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader become more interesting characters as a result of their respective falls from grace. I think this fact goes a long way toward explaining the contrasting tones of the classic trilogy and the prequel trilogy. The prequels were like traditional old jidai-geki about formal legions of samurai retainers serving in the castle, whereas the original movies were rough-n-ready chambara about a few scattered ronin struggling to piece together a rebellion against the forces that betrayed them. If you didn't find the prequels as engaging and heartwarming as the classic Holy Trilogy, it's not a matter of George Lucas sucking. It's the nature of the story. The fallen warrior acting as a free agent of his own morality is simply a superior dramatic figure compared to the warrior as an unthinking servant. This is the true common thread that makes jidai-geki classics feel like Star Wars and turns Star Wars into chambara.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was a ronin. That says it all right there.

May the Force be with you. Abayo!

Sources and Acknowledgements

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema