East Asia: The Force Behind Star Wars

Navira Trimansyah
Art: Sagar Aadarsh

 

‘Star Wars’. A classic franchise worshipped across generations, defined by one of the greatest plot twists of all time. As much as I loved its gripping tale of good versus evil, the prevailing of justice, and Han Solo’s wittiness, there was one thing lacking throughout the first six movies: diverse representation. If we were to deconstruct the series, it undeniably alludes to East Asian cultures. So why is there a lack of Asian representation throughout the films?

First off, Lucas’ Jedi Knights are almost an exact mirror of Japanese Samurai culture. George Lucas has openly expressed his love for Akira Kurosawa’s work – a praised Japanese director whose works are little known outside his home audience. Lucas was “inspired” by Kurosawa’s ability to engage Western audiences in a film based on a culture considered “alien” to them. Lucas took the term literally, and created a sci-fi series he hoped would encapsulate an audience inside a world he created.

In what ways does the franchise reflect Asian traditions and cultures? The word “Jedi” derives from the Japanese word Jidaigeki, which means “costume/period drama”. Kurosawa specialised in this genre, complete with stories of princesses, peasants, samurai and rōnin. These dramas were set between 1603 and 1863, usually located in Edo — Japan’s military capital. Thus it made sense for conflict to be at the centre of the film. Lucas aimed to surprise and excite his audience, and sought inspiration from Kurosawa’s work, in an attempt to join the ranks of Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg. These directors all found success following the release of their action-packed films, and were figureheads of the ‘New Hollywood Era’. Lucas decided to pitch the idea of a “space opera”, loosely based on Kurosawa’s film ‘The Hidden Fortress’. Consider the following plot line:

Two bickering peasants are on a long journey when they come across a man and a woman hiding in a fortress. They ask the peasants to help them flee an imperial army, and get them to safety in exchange for gold. What the peasants don’t know is that the man is a General, and the woman a Princess, both trying to run from enemy forces. Now, the General and the Princess must use their skills along the way without exposing their identities.

Sound familiar? While the plot line of ‘The Hidden Fortress’ isn’t identical to Star Wars, there are obvious parallels between the characters. C-3PO and R2-D2 are the “two bickering peasants” who encounter Obi-Wan Kenobi, the “General”, and Princess Leia, the “Princess”. The robots help them escape and fight the Stormtroopers (the “imperial army”). There have been many arguments about whether Lucas crossed the line from inspiration to plagiarism, but I believe that this comparison reveals he blatantly stole Kurosawa’s work, and altered it to appeal to a Western audience.

The costumes in the Star Wars franchise are another appropriation of Japanese culture. The most obvious example is the monk-like robes worn by the Jedi, which closely resemble traditional kimonos worn by the samurai when not in training. Darth Vader’s black armour and his triangular helmet also mimics samurai armour worn in battle. Traditional Mongolian attire is also represented in the series through Queen Amidala’s clothing. These parallels have led many to believe that Lucas deliberately appropriated traditional clothing for the unique visuals and placed it on white actors, claiming that it is all simply part of the world he created. The various traditional attires Lucas imitates are full of stories of tragedy, heroism, and victory. They embody and signify a complicated and extensive history, which Lucas has disrespected by simplifying it for his own gain.

But “The Force” is what I believe the most flagrant example of Lucas’ appropriation of Asian tradition. It is easy to assume that the respected relationship between master and apprentice in the films is somewhat linked to an East Asian culture. This is a trope used in both ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Kill Bill’. We do not know where this phenomenon originally stems from, but Star Wars in particular uses the culture of Bushido — a moral code and lifestyle for the samurai. While katanas provide inspiration for the lightsaber, “The Force” reflects the ancient East Asian belief in qi — the energy and spirit of the body.

The films’ intense battles were choreographed to mirror kung fu and martial arts films, and the Jedi Order’s discipline is reflective of Bushido’s strict code of conduct. This is exemplified in Luke Skywalker’s struggle to become a brilliant and respected Jedi Knight. Nitobe Inazō defined the Bushido code by eight virtues: righteousness, heroic courage, compassion, respect, integrity, honour, loyalty, and self-control. Whilst not identical to the lessons Yoda teaches Luke, they are qualities that Luke learns and embodies throughout the series.

Why does Lucas take on these Asian ‘influences’ and not cast Asian actors to take on significant roles in his films? Because Lucas profited off Western audiences’ lack of knowledge about Asian cultures. ‘Star Wars’ was created by Lucas post-WWII, making it difficult to find Asian influences in Hollywood, especially with the dominant prejudice against Japan given its role in the Pacific. Western audiences who may not have understood, or even encountered, Asian culture were mesmerised by Lucas’ galactic universe largely because everything seemed ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’. While Star Wars does present a classic case of good versus evil, the question does remain: is it really a unique and mystical fantasy world imagined by George Lucas, or is the universe simply a melting pot of East Asian Cultures dressed up as science fiction?