Photo:Betsy Weber on Flickr

Japanese Jedi: Why Japan Loves Star Wars

Well, in the year or so since I got back into writing for a living, I have to say this is the story I’ve been itching to write. For today two of the great passions of my life come into focus together. My love of Japan and my love for the greatest movie series of all time: Star Wars.

In case you’ve been in a state of hibernation for the past year or so, it may have escaped your attention that at the end of this year the story of the Star Wars Saga will once again come to our cinema screens for the 7th time. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is scheduled to hit cinemas across Japan, and worldwide on December 18th.

As someone who wasn’t even born when the original trilogy came to cinemas (I missed out on Return of the Jedi by about 6 months) my first exposure to Star Wars in a cinema was through viewing the much maligned Episode I: The Phantom Menace and its inferior sequel Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Things perked up a bit again with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith which is undoubtedly my favourite of the “prequel” trilogy.

An interesting observation I’ve made over the years since Revenge of the Sith’s release in 2005, just before I came to Japan for the first time: For some strange reason, the prequel trilogy seems to be far better received in Japan than it was in Europe and the US.

Whilst most of us western Star Wars fans agree that the Phantom Menace could have been improved exponentially if the opening scene had shown Jar Jar Binks being disemboweled by the film’s criminally under-utilized antagonist, Darth Maul, everyone’s most hated Gungan actually enjoys quite a popular following in Japan. What we call pointless and puerile, many in Japan call “kawaii” and “cute”.

Likewise, if Episode II and III star Hayden Christiensen is still suffering from self-esteem issues after his horribly wooden acting performance, he’ll be pleasantly surprised if he comes here to Japan, where there are still to this day no shortage of young ladies ready to throw themselves at his feet. He better stay away from the Tattoine-esque Tottori dunes though, since we all remember his infamous monologue from Episode II about how much “I don’t like sand”!

Photo : em° on Flickr

It just goes to show, as one of my favourite online movie critics, and fellow Star Wars obsessive, John Campea, recently put it succinctly “All film is subjective.”

Anyway, enough prequel bashing, it’s already been done by plenty of other, far more capable critics than me.

The Japanese influence on Star Wars is a thread that runs through all six movies to date in the saga, and hopefully this trend will continue into Episode VII.

For starters the original Star Wars (later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) from 1977 was almost a scene by scene reimagining of famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s classic Samurai epic: The Hidden Fortress. Substitute primary antagonist Darth Vader for a feudal warlord, and the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO for a couple of lowly servants and you have pretty much the same movie.

The Jedi order, whose fall and resurrection is a central plot thread running through all six movies to date, are also in some ways similar to the Samurai of old.

Attaching their “lightsabers” to their long flowing robes much in the same way a Samurai would carry his katana, the Jedi are very much a sci-fi update of these contemporary Japanese peacekeepers. Their code of honour, lifetime dedication to their craft and respect with which, in the prequel trilogy at least, they are regarded by wider society certainly draws many parallels with the Samurai of Feudal Japan.

Of course, it’s not just the heroes who draw influence from Japanese history.

As a visitor to Akita Prefecture, I have to say I also noticed more than a passing resemblance between the aforementioned villain Darth Maul and local legendary demon Namahage. With their fearsome faces, coated in red and black patterns the two could almost be brothers.

So what say you Bandai?

You’ve given us a samurai Darth Vader and a Ronin Boba Fett, how about a Namahage/Darth Maul crossover action figure?

As you can see, for lovers of Japanese history and culture, there are clearly no shortage of “easter eggs” to look out for in the Star Wars movies.

Then of course, Japanese interest in Star Wars isn’t purely cultural and artistic.

Putting it simplistically, Japanese people love robots. Especially big, powerful destructive ones!
As such the weapons of the Galactic Empire such as the dog-like AT-AT walker, famously piloted by General Veers in the opening scene of The Empire Strikes Back, and its Return of The Jedi offspring, the chicken-legged AT-ST remain today, more than 30 years after their debut, favourites to Japanese model makers and toy collectors alike.

These huge mechanical behemoths certainly have a distinctly “anime” feel to them, as do the eponymous X-Wing fighters of the Rebel Alliance, and their Imperial counterpart, my personal favourite, the Tie Fighter. One shouldn’t forget of course the massive Star Destroyers and Super Star Destroyers. Ships so huge even Godzilla would feel intimidated!

Photo : Tom Simpson on Flickr

So, what is to come for the future of Star Wars in Japan?

Episode VII will be joined over the next 5 years not only by episodes VIII and IX but also a trilogy of “Star Wars Anthology” movies, stories set within the same universe, but at different time periods and perhaps focusing on lesser characters.

The marketing machine is already kicking into high gear. Pass any 7-11 in Japan now and you’ll see posters of the Saga’s new villain Kylo Ren, claymore-type lightsaber in hand, adorning the entrance.

Again, whilst he doesn’t seem quite as intimidating as Darth Vader or as terrifyingly evil as the Emperor Palpatine, I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, this black-masked figure will become a favourite of cosplayers all across Japan. There is something distinctly Japanese about his dark demeanor, faceless mask and seemingly cybernetic appearance. He wouldn’t look out of place in the likes of Ghost in the Shell or other such dystopian anime movies.

One thing’s for sure, when it comes to living in Japan, The Force is definitely strong with us!

Photo : yuki_alm_misa on Flickr

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