It’s really crazy how much American action film has taken from Japanese film. More recently, it’s often explicit usually, but it wasn’t always in the past. I remember reading once there was a Japanese film that was a major inspiration for Star Wars and then I forgot. Well, it’s this one. Star Wars is far from a straight remake – there are many touches added that aren’t in this film – but so much of the plot of the first (now fourth) film is here.
SPOILERS if you’ve never seen Star Wars.
I can see how this film would have made a big impression on a 14-year-old American fan of comics and Flash Gordon. Unlike most jidaigeki (that I have seen), this is an actual adventure film, rather than a drama, or a tragedy, or a vaguely western-ish samurai film. I’m just lots of these exist but I’m not sure I’ve seen a Japanese adventure film from this long ago. It feels very unique among jidaigeki (that I have seen). But it’s hard to really think about the plot as unique because of how familiar it seems to me.
That plot does get rather silly a few times, if only because of how our heroes keep escaping from situations they shouldn’t make it through. But I do wonder how it seemed to contemporary audiences, as I honestly don’t know a lot of about adventure films from back then, having only seen a few. The point at which they are managing not to get shot over and over feels silly, as does the climactic escape.
The prototypes for C-3PO, R2-D2, Obi-Wan and Leia, and Vader, to an extent, are all here. Luke, Han and Chewie are not and must come from some other source. (Of course, Luke’s journey in the first film is an extremely classic hero’s journey.) There are enough changes with the overall story that it’s not a remake, but the four mentioned above have to travel through enemy territory, carrying precious cargo, escaping the enemy at every turn, and spending some time in what you might call a cantina. There’s even a proto Jedi mind trick. And, maybe it’s because I grew up with them but I find C-3PO and, especially, R2-D2 much less annoying than the bumbling idiots providing the comic relief in this movie.
One thing I think Star Wars does better – outside of the universe creation, which it’s obviously much better at – is having Obi-Wan die. That moment isn’t really possible in this film – there is no other hero to take up his mantle like Luke does in Star Wars – but I still think it works better narratively than what happens here. Also, Vader’s three-movie arc is better narratively than the villain’s here, whose change of heart is much more sudden and less believable than the on Vader has in Return of the Jedi.
Watching this film actually makes me appreciate Star Wars more than I used to as an adult. I’ve long thought I’ve grown out of it, but understanding what Lucas did to transform this into Star Wars – well, there’s a lot of creativity in the synthesis.
Though this is definitely on the sillier side for Kurosawa, it’s still hugely influential and was a fun watch. I suspect it would have been even more fun if I had recently watched Star Wars, a film I haven’t seen all the way through in a long, long time.