The Animated 'Star Wars' Shows Owe A Great Debt To A Classic Sonny Chiba Samurai Film

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films that inspired, or help us better understand, George Lucas's iconic universe. In this edition: Shogun's Shadow.)

Samurai films have been a strong influence on the Star Wars saga since its very earliest days. When George Lucas was sitting down to write his first drafts of what would become A New Hope, he even copied out the synopsis of Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress and replaced all of the Japanese names with early Star Wars names. It served him well over the years and when it came time to break down The Clone Wars animated series, what better well to go to than back to Samurai films?

Shogun's Shadow is an over-the-top Samurai action film from 1989. Sonny Chiba and his Japan Action Club stunt players provide all the adventurous thrills you'd want in this film about the young eldest son of the Shogun, on his way to Edo with the seemingly limitless forces of Japan trying to kill him. He's under the protection of a motley crew of seven samurai and one has to wonder if he'll ever make it to see his family again under such long odds. The film unfolds carefully, slowly revealing the intrigue behind who might want to kill the young heir and we're shocked by how it all plays out.

As they fight their way through the Japanese countryside, the film gets more and more bombastic in its action. On the surface, it seems to have more in common with the '80s action films of Jean Claude Van Damme and Bruce Willis than the work of Akira Kurosawa, but that's not exactly a bad thing.

The Clone Wars McGuffin

In 2008, just 19 years after the release of Shogun's Shadow, Star Wars would release its first animated film, introducing the world to Ahsoka Tano. Though it wasn't terribly well received at the time of its release, The Clone Wars as a whole is now hailed as a masterpiece of long-form storytelling and the film fits neatly into that. The film, which consisted of a few episodes of the show scotch-taped together, told a story of political intrigue. The Republic and Separatists both need access to the hyperspace travel lanes controlled by the Hutt clans. When Jabba the Hutt's son, Rotta, turns up missing, he promises access to those routes to whoever brings his son back to him safely.

Naturally, the Sith have kidnapped Rotta and hope to blame that kidnapping on the Jedi, but Count Dooku underestimates Anakin Skywalker and his brand new padawan, Ahsoka Tano.

Henry Gilroy, one of the co-writers of 2008's Star Wars: The Clone Wars and longtime writer on the resulting television show (as well as the producer of Star Wars Rebels) spoke of the inspiration for that film in a 2008 interview with Newsarama:

"Originally, the Mcguffin of Jabba's son being kidnapped was inspired by a Sonny Chiba samurai film entitled Shogun's Shadow that I always liked. I also wanted to touch on Anakin's history and illustrate how he has a tendency to hang onto his past. Because we were going back to Tatooine eventually for the story, I wanted to give Anakin a physical representation of his past. Some in the audience would know that Anakin has an issue with the Hutts—besides being Mafia-like criminals, they originally sold him and his mother into slavery, so he's bound to not like Hutts because of that. Just the idea of Anakin having to save this little huttlet, Rotta, and carry him around on his back is like a constant reminder in the back of his mind of what the Hutts did to him and his mom. A literal 'monkey on his back' is what we were going for."

In fact, throughout Shogun's Shadow, the young heir is carried along by a samurai in a basket not unlike the backpack that Rotta is carried in by Anakin and Ashoka as they fight their way back to the palace, be that in Edo, Japan or Jabba's Palace, Tatooine. The initial protector of the young master is Lord Hotta, which can't be too much of a coincidence either.

Classic Inspiration

Shogun's Shadow makes its presence known in The Clone Wars, but that's because it shares similar DNA with Star Wars. Both really are heavily influenced by Kurosawa. Shogun's Shadow blends elements from The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, The Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, and even Yojimbo, creating a unique synthesis. Like Hidden Fortress and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, the beleaguered and disgraced samurai, played with a strong reserve by Ken Ogata, is thrust behind enemy lines to save the life of a young heir, sometimes overtly and sometimes in disguise. The team here is the same size as the one in Seven Samurai, each of them going above and beyond the price they were paid for their job in order to finish because it's the right thing to do. The final showdown plays out on a dusty street just like Yojimbo, with Sonny Chiba himself cast as the heavy.

The fight scenes, choreographed by Chiba and performed by his Japan Action Club, are much more dynamic and stylized than Kurosawa's fight scenes, but that influence is definitely there. There's one moment where two combatants are running through the grass when the wind picks up that feels very much like Kurosawa, as well as another beautiful tracking shot through a hallway, timed expertly, by Chiba during his first big action sequence. It's breathtaking. There's also an almost direct call out to a moment in Yojimbo where a combatant loses a hand and you see a closeup of the severed limb, a long-standing tradition in Star Wars as well.

The more frenetic pace of the action feels much more like what we see in The Clone Wars. In fact, there's a sequence in Shogun's Shadow where samurai zip down on ropes and fight in a way that reminds one of the battle of Teth in The Clone Wars, as Anakin and Ahsoka battle up the side of a sheer cliff face on their way to rescue Rotta the Hutt.

Western Influence

Akira Kurosawa got much of his inspiration from Hollywood director John Ford and the western pictures popular from the '30s through the '60s. He told uniquely Japanese samurai stories through the lens of western influence that changed samurai cinema forever and that same feedback of influence can be seen in Shogun's Shadow.

There's no denying a distinct Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vibe from more than a couple of sequences in Shogun's Shadow. The first comes when the samurai are forced to a cliff with a raging river beneath them and they have to jump in order to survive. In the George Roy Hill western, it's played for adventure and laughs, in this samurai picture, it's played for suspense and it works. As I watched the film the first time, I thought it might have been a mere coincidence, but there was no denying it when we reach the end of the film and see Roy Ogata's character completely surrounded by an opposing army. He smiles grimly and goes for his sword, but instead of seeing the battle play out, the shot freezes and turns to a black and white photograph, much like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as they make their last stand in Bolivia.

Shogun's Shadow

Shogun's Shadow might not be considered great cinema, but I'll be damned if it isn't fun. Sonny Chiba's mustachioed bad guy is a joy to watch, especially during the fight scenes, and Ken Ogata's heroic samurai has the stoic presence of Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune. The film is no more absurd than the other action films of the '80s, but this one has an advantage in that its a samurai film. It's also fascinating when you watch it through the lens of Star Wars and see how differently people take inspiration from the films that inspired Star Wars and what they do with it. Watching it back to back with Star Wars: The Clone Wars gives you a real sense of the cyclical nature of those inspirations and casts the movie in a much different, more enhanced light.

Shogun's Shadow is currently available on DVD. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) is available on Netflix and physical home formats.