Chii, da-da-daa, da-da dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dah…. Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there! I was just humming the opening theme from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the film that we will be discussing this April at our Akira Kurosawa film club.
To begin with, let’s start with a quick primer for those who only know the absolute basics about the Star Wars films — just like me still about a week ago. The Episode IV that we have picked for this month was the first film in the series, and originally released in 1977 as a standalone film simply titled Star Wars. The creator, director, writer and father of Star Wars, George Lucas, had been developing the story since sometime around 1973, and during his various rewrites had come up with enough story material for a number of films, hoping that he might later be able to make other films in the universe that he was creating. The enormous success of the 1977 film made these other films possible, and during the production of the first sequel Lucas decided to retroactively call his first film Episode IV and his new one Episode V, with the intention that they would actually be part of a second trilogy, with him later making a prequel trilogy, and possibly also sequels.
As of March 2013, six live action Star Wars films have been released: Episode IV (1977), Episode V (1980), Episode VI (1983), Episode I (1999), Episode II (2002) and Episode III (2005). Although Lucas often employed other writers and did not himself actually direct episodes V and VI, all six films can be said to be his. Additionally, an animated film called The Clone Wars was released in 2008, and there have been numerous other releases including TV series, books and games, some more canonical than others. In late 2012, Lucas sold his company Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars to Disney, with the sales announcement also mentioning the development of a sequel trilogy consisting of episodes VII, VIII and IX, as well as other properties. So, the space saga continues to evolve as we speak.
In fact, the saga has been evolving also in other ways, with the retitling of the first film in 1980 having already been an indicator of what was to come. Although Lucas had already created a fair amount of background material by the time of the first film, the characters and the overall story kept evolving as he worked on the films. A good example of how the story changed is the relationship between the original trilogy’s protagonist, the young Luke Skywalker, and his antagonist, Darth Vader. While in the first film (Episode IV) Darth Vader is mentioned as the man who killed Luke’s father, in the second film (Episode V) he is famously revealed to himself be Luke’s father. Reportedly, this change in the back story was conceived only after the original film’s release.
While this particular addition could in fact be worked into the overall saga without needing to make changes to the earlier film, Lucas was not always entirely happy with what had been filmed. And so, by the time he began working on the prequel films in the late 90s, Lucas decided to make numerous changes to the original films, often with the help of what was then cutting edge CGI technology. These changes, and ones Lucas would continue to make for later DVD and Blu-ray releases, have not always been very popular among fans, although at least some of these changes do succeed in tying the two trilogies closer together both narratively and stylistically.
It is in connection with this constant creative evolution of Star Wars that Akira Kurosawa comes into the picture. It is often pointed out that the first film of the series, Episode IV, which we are watching this month, has clear connections with Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, our last month’s film club title. Some have gone as far to call Star Wars Episode IV a remake of Kurosawa’s film, while others have pointed out that the similarities between the two are really only occasional. Lucas himself has named Kurosawa as a major influence, and the two of course also shared something of a professional relationship as Lucas was the driving force behind re-launching Kurosawa’s career in the late 70s by making it possible for Kurosawa to secure funding for Kagemusha.
When we compare The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars Episode IV, it is clear that calling the latter a remake of the former is a stretch. Yet, the two films certainly share common elements: they are both set at a time of civil war, Lucas’s two robots are clearly based on Kurosawa’s two peasants, both films feature a princess who is central to the story, and the jedi seem to have been modelled after samurai. Stylistically, Lucas also makes use of Kurosawa’s trade mark wipe cuts, although he does so with more gusto and variety than Kurosawa, and there don’t seem to be many other technical similarities between the two film makers’ approaches.
In fact, in order to discover the real Kurosawa in Star Wars, we need to go back to Lucas’s 1973 story synopsis, which was one of the first written treatments of what was to become Star Wars. In Lucas’s synopsis, after a space fortress is destroyed, a general is escorting a princess into safety in a civil war torn 33rd century galactic empire. They are disguised as farmers and in possession of valuable spice. When two bickering bureaucrats discover some of that spice, the general captures them and makes them join the escape. In their journey home, the group has to overcome a number of obstacles. In the end, they successfully arrive at their destination, and the princess’s true nature is revealed to the bureaucrats, who are also rewarded for their help.
Now, this would have been a remake, although even in this story synopsis, once the characters and the world have been established, the actual meat of the story deviates from The Hidden Fortress. It is in fact clear that Lucas had also other influences, as among other things the synopsis also includes a scene fairly directly lifted from Sanjuro.
A year later, by the time Lucas had finished the original 1974 rough draft, much had changed. Crucially, no longer were the heroes transporting a treasure through enemy lines, and no longer could it be said that Lucas was working on a remake. Elements of The Hidden Fortress remained of course, with the bureaucrats of the original story synopsis now replaced with robots, and the general now made part of the samurai like jedi order.
In the years that followed, the story went through a number of other subsequent revisions, and never really returned to its Hidden Fortress origins. Yet, it can be said that Lucas continued to keep Kurosawa at the back of his mind. Some clear influences can in fact be spotted also in the later films. Episode VI for instance has a speeder bike chase similar to the horseback chase in The Hidden Fortress. Meanwhile, Episode I makes use of the idea of the princess having a double who gets sacrificed to save her. Many of the costumes and designs are also heavily inspired by Japanese motives, and supposedly Lucas was even hoping to cast Toshiro Mifune as either Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader.
With Kurosawa influences spread across the two trilogies, one may actually feel compelled to watch the whole saga, not just the Episode IV that is on our list. The question then becomes: what order to watch the films in? Instead of the two obvious choices of episode order (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) and release order (IV, V, VI, I, II, III), an alternative and fairly popular suggestion seems to be to watch the prequel trilogy as inserted between episodes V and VI (IV, V, I, II, III, VI). I actually followed exactly this order this week, and having never seen episodes II, III or V, and remembering almost nothing of the rest, this order worked pretty well. A fourth often suggested possibility is the so-called Machete Order, which drops Episode I entirely, resulting in the order of IV, V, II, III, VI. This suggested omission is due to the general unpopularity of Episode I, although I personally didn’t really consider it worse than the other films in the series.
The other question seems to be: which Star Wars to watch? Many hard core fans seem to prefer the films as originally released, but those may be difficult to come by these days. I watched the latest versions with Lucas’s most up-to-date tinkering, and from the point of view of someone who has no real history with Star Wars, these versions were absolutely ok, despite some of the added CGI occasionally sticking out pretty badly. But then again, the CGI used in the prequel trilogy wasn’t exactly stellar, either.
But with so many different versions of the film available in different configurations, it is difficult for me as a Star Wars layman to recommend which one to watch. However, I suppose that from Lucas’s point of view, the current ultimate and official truth is the 2011 Blu-ray release titled The Complete Saga which collects the six films.
There is, of course, much more to be said about Star Wars, but I believe that this will function as a suitable introduction for our discussions. What is your history with Star Wars? What do you think of the Kurosawa link? Are you shocked by Lucas’s meddling with his films? What else does Star Wars make you think about? And if you are a fan, do you think that I left out something important from this introduction? Let us know!
Next month, our film club will move onto Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. Information about the available DVDs can be found here. And as always, our full film club schedule is available on the film club page.