Where does homage end and plagiarism begin?
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” (attributed to Pablo Picasso)
I recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress for the first time. I’ve owned the Criterion Collection DVD for a few years, but although I’ve already watched and worshiped Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran, Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood, until a few days ago I had never watched this Toshiro Mifune-adorned samurai gem.
Of course, the film is commonly cited as a touchstone of influence for George Lucas in writing and making Star Wars, especially the very first installment, 1977’s Episode IV, A New Hope. The particular influences which HF are reputed to have occur against a backdrop of still others: the “Jedi” in SW and the “Jidai” samurai warriors of the Edo period in Japanese history; the influence of American westerns that is so prominent in several of Kurosawa’s films (creating a sort of feedback loop between Japanese and American cinema that continues to this day); and the immense influence exerted over Lucas’s “epic space opera” by decades of pulp sci-fi and adventure serials and episodes of Buck Rogers.
Bearing in mind the reputation of specific influence so many claim HF holds, I thought I would explore these rumored or confirmed similarities myself.
To begin with, as Lucas himself acknowledges in an interview that accompanies the Criterion DVD, the primary characters and comic relief of HF, the bumbling, bickering and greedy peasants Tahei and Matashichi, were models for his squabbling ‘bots R2-D2 and C-3PO. Lucas calls Tahei and Matashichi the “two lowliest characters” of the story, and in similar form the front end of SW is devoted to the story of the movie’s two “lowliest” droids as they touch down on Tatooine in an escape pod ejected from a captured Corellian Corvette. (At the outset, HF‘s peasants have also just narrowly escaped, but from gravedigging duties rather than Darth Vader.)
Later, the two peasants are enlisted by Mifune’s character, samurai general Rokurota Makabe, to assist him with an important task: escorting a feisty rebel princess (and a secret horde of gold) through enemy lines to safety in a faraway place.
Between the rocky desertscapes of the early portions of the movie, Rokurota’s Kenobi-like mysterious power and wisdom and his position as literally the only person who can help the princess, Yuki, escape (echoes of “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope…”), and the fact that Tahei’s weepy whine and cowardice parallel 3PO’s, the early similarities abound.
In one of the first scenes between Rokurota and the peasants, he leads the parched wanderers to a bubbling spring hidden in a dense copse of trees, and, although the robots never needed a drink in SW, and are in fact denied entry to the Mos Eisley Cantina, it is worth noting that the first place Solo takes them is a “watering hole” (so to speak). In any case, throughout HF the two peasants incessantly bemoan their lot in life in the same way the droids do in SW as they’re carted around the Outer Rim of the galaxy.
Moreover, on the road to freedom in HF, Rokurota uses cunning and wile to evade capture, pass checkpoints, and keep the princess safe from those pursuing her; however, there isn’t anything on par with “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” anywhere in Kurosawa’s flick; no Force, no Solo (while Mifune does play many Solo-like characters in Kurosawa’s other films with him) and no Skywalker.
Later, though, it’s arguable that watching Rokurota take down two patrolmen on horseback with his blade drawn high in the dusty air is a comparatively more exciting affair than the Death Star trench run, and at least somewhat similarly styled on the part of both directors.
The HF duel between the princess’s noble samurai general and an opposing Yamana general, Tadokoro, smacks of the Kenobi/Vader showdown on the Death Star itself in the earlier half of SW, and the Yamana foot soldiers in that scene watch the duel in deferential awe just like the stormtroopers do for a moment before Kenobi does his transubstantiation trick and flies off to the Jedi Council in the sky.
All in all, by Hidden Fortress‘s later scenes, the parallels taper considerably, but the opening halves of both it and Star Wars Episode IV share some striking similarities overall.
Even at the end of HF, when the brutally scarred enemy general Tadokoro, resentful toward his lord à la Vader in SW Episode VI, defects to the side of former friend and ally Rokurota and the rebels escaping to freedom on the other side of the Yamana border, you can almost imagine Lucas’s Superman hairline bobbing up and down while he nods and takes notes as a young film student at USC over 40 years ago.
The Hidden Fortress is, naturally, a fantastic film and one worth seeing, as nearly all in the canon of Kurosawa are. But I especially enjoyed watching this Japanese classic and all the while comparing it to the American child of some slight family resemblance which it is said to have produced, and with careful eye documenting the homages/plagiarisms, or, in Lucas’s words, “coincidences” that people it. I encourage anyone curious to take a look for herself.
For those interested, I compiled a Youtube playlist of short videos and trailers of some of the other Kurosawa movies I mentioned:
Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, Yojimbo (Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” was an unauthorized remake of this movie), Sanjuro, Ran (loose adaptation of “King Lear”), Seven Samurai (which influenced, curiously enough, both the western “The Magnificent Seven” and “A Bug’s Life” as well as a slew of others), and Throne of Blood (loose adaptation of “Macbeth”)