The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Kagemusha

It was never any secret that George Lucas was a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s. In the first installment of this column, we looked at the inspiration of The Hidden Fortress on Episode IV, but that’s not where the influence between Lucas and Kurosawa ended. By the late seventies, Kurosawa was a legend, but couldn’t get the money to finish his epic film, Kagemusha.

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola were shocked by the Japanese master filmmaker’s inability to find the rest of his budget. Since Lucas and Coppola were two of the most influential filmmakers in the world and both fans of Kurosawa, they lobbied Twentieth Century Fox into giving Kurosawa the money he needed to make the film.

It’s a beautiful samurai film, set in the 1500s, telling the tale of a criminal who bears an uncanny resemblance to a powerful warlord. The criminal’s sentence is commuted and he’s trained to become the double for his master. When the warlord is wounded mortally, the double is forced to carry on the charade for years so that the surrounding clans will not attack. The film is epic in scope, beautifully shot, and bittersweet. It’s a film that I would expect George Lucas is proud to have his name on.

The inspiration of Kurosawa on Lucas caused this wonderful film to be made, then it, in turn, inspired an episode of The Clone Wars. Kagemusha translates literally to mean “the shadow warrior,” which just so happens to be the title of a particularly good episode from the fourth season.

One of the key underpinnings of “The Shadow Warrior” is that the Gungan Boss looks strikingly similar to Jar Jar Binks. The Boss is under mind control of some kind and is ordering the Gungan army to fall in line with a Separatist plot. While Anakin and Padme bring him to his senses before the plot can be carried out, he’s stabbed by a traitor working with the Separatists before he can rescind his orders. That leaves Jar Jar to play the part of the shadow warrior and handle negotiations with General Grievous himself.

The episode manages to take some of the best elements of Kurosawa’s filmmaking, as well. Kurosawa was notorious for his use of weather to heighten the mood of tension of scenes, from something as subtle as a kicking wind to something as over the top of as a lightning storm. In this episode, the storms gathering in the horizon and flashes of lightning were expertly added to the scenes in a way that was very reminiscent of Kurosawa. For a live action director, Kurosawa directed the weather the same way he would direct an actor and The Clone Wars team has learned how to do the same thing.

Though the episode doesn’t explore all of the emotional and philosophical issues present in the Kurosawa film, it uses the premise as the underpinnings for some really great Star Wars and in very unexpected ways. Both Kurosawa and Lucas have used political doubles and decoys in many of their films, and it’s no surprise that they were able to collaborate in some small way on the film that does it the best. And it’s no surprise it formed the basis of an episode of The Clone Wars.

More than anything, it’s great to see this circular cycle of influence and creativity channeling back and forth between such skilled groups of storytellers.

Kagemusha was released in 1980 and is rated PG by the MPAA. If your kids can handle subtitles, you’d be fine watching it with them if they have the patience for carefully paced films. The colors and cinematography are sweeping, and it’s a wonderful movie full of meaning and incredibly worth watching.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can follow him on twitter.

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