Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Hidden Fortress is not the Death Star

I may have mentioned in previous posts (here and here, perhaps) that Star Wars has become all the rage in my house. (But not the prequels. Get off my lawn.) This seemed like a good opportunity, then, to finally watch The Hidden Fortress, the 1958 Akira Kurosawa movie that I've heard for years was the inspiration behind Star Wars, and report back.

It pains me to report that the Hidden Fortress is not the Death Star. I liked the idea that Akira Kurosawa, who I submit is the greatest director the movies have yet produced, had somehow made Star Wars, more or less fully formed, but with samurai. Fear of discovering that was not the case is probably what prevented me from seeing The Hidden Fortress until now. In the interviews I've seen, George Lucas freely admitted that there are connections between the two movies, but he downplayed them, saying only that there are princesses in both movies -- but they're very different -- and that the Kurosawa movie gave him the idea for C-3PO and R2-D2. But George is pulling our collective leg a little bit.

First of all, the princesses are quite similar. George says that Leia is "more of a stand-and-fight" princess than Kurosawa's Princess Yuki, but I found the differences to be cosmetic, and really more a product of the particular circumstances each woman found herself in. Yuki is pretty bad-ass, especially without access a blaster. I'd like to see Leia, in the middle of crossing enemy lines to re-establish her kingdom, trade her only means of transport to save one of her former subjects from a life of forced prostitution. What's really interesting with Princess Yuki, though, is how much she influenced Padme Amidala in the dreaded prequels. Sure, there's the bizarre geisha face paint, but in addition Yuki relies on a series of doubles and look-alikes to keep her safe, something that figures prominently into the first two prequels.

When it comes to Tahei and Matashichi, the two inspirations for R2 and 3PO, "similarity" definitely gives way to "quotation," as the whiny and constantly bickering pair are lifted almost directly out of Kurosawa's movie. Except for the part where they seriously consider raping the princess while she sleeps. Lucas wisely left that out.
Hidden Fortress, Star Wars
These two jackasses were reincarnated as fastidious robots.
Without the overwhelming greed and rape-eyes.
Where things get harder to parse is the Han Solo/Luke Skywalker origination. In my mind, Luke is the product of Lucas' Hero's Journey fascination, and not really derived from The Hidden Fortress. Han Solo, the swaggering, super-capable, roguish smuggler, though, can be traced straight back to Toshiro Mifune's General Rokurota Makabe.
Toshiro Mifune. Hidden Fortress, Star Wars
Han Solo's cool, but ain't nobody Mifune-cool.
The plots of the two films are not terribly similar, with The Hidden Fortress focusing on the efforts of a loyal General to safely transport his princess across enemy territory while two of their traveling companions constantly try to steal the gold reserves they are smuggling to help rebuild the kingdom. I take for granted you know the plot for Star Wars. But a simple comparison of the finished products doesn't tell the whole story. The original treatment for The Star Wars, which George Lucas actually sold to Fox in 1973, was a bizarre mashup of The Hidden Fortress and Peter Pan, where "General Skywalker" was tasked with transporting his princess across enemy space while two low-level bureaucrats tried to steal the spices they needed for money. Then, General Skywalker fell down a hole or something and found some kids, who he trained to be starship pilots, and save the princess. Really.

To be honest, I don't know why Fox bought that story. I wouldn't watch that for all the hairbrushes in Kashyyyk.