Exploring the Japanese Roots of ‘Star Wars’


Bizarro Darth (Mifune as Vader)

Though Toshiro Mifune balked at the chance to play Obi-Wan, somewhere out there, there is an alternate reality where he might have played Darth Vader, with his face showing, under a black space-samurai helmet. According to Mifune’s daughter, Lucas also courted the actor for the Vader role. This was before concept artist Ralph McQuarrie came up with the design for the character’s skull-like mask.

In one of five original McQuarrie paintings commissioned by George Lucas for his 1975 pitch meeting at Fox (before Star Wars was ever green-lit), you can see Deak Starkiller, another early iteration of Luke Skywalker, with a weird contraption affixed to his face. He is fighting Darth Vader. Vader has his mask on, too. From Deak’s mask, there is a tube snaking up over his shoulder, into a tank on his back. It almost looks like scuba gear.

This is because they were supposed to be squaring off in a passage between ships, where there was no air, only the vacuum of space. As McQuarrie initially intended it, the mask was just an apparatus for breathing in space. And so what we have here looks, definitively, to be one of those “happy accidents” that people who work in collaborative creative mediums are always gushing about. The Vader mask was never meant to stick!

Ironically, not only did the mask graft itself to the character as a permanent symbol of the Dark Side; it also lodged itself in the public’s imagination, as an emblem of modern myth.

Imagine what it would have been like if a maskless Vader had made it into A New Hope. The sight of the Sith Lord, whose grim visage was meant to inspire fear in denizens of the Galactic Empire, might, instead, have inspired chuckles — with the noble Toshiro Mifune trotting about in a kabuto helmet and bad 1970s costume, as some sort of Bizarro Darth (without the benefit of James Earl Jones to voice him, either.)

Were it not for Ralph McQuarrie, Vader could have easily turned out like Dark Helmet, the character played by Rick Moranis in the Mel Brooks spoof Spaceballs.


Kurosawa Deep Cut: Dersu Uzala

In wrapping up, it might be nice to leave fans with something for their Kurosawa to-view list. You can also trace Kurosawa’s influence through the Star Wars sequels and prequels, with the best of them, The Empire Strikes Back, pulling from a lesser-known Kurosawa film called Dersu Uzala. 

Despite the fact that it won the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, this one surely qualifies as a Kurosawa “deep cut,” especially since it can be tough to track down a good quality version. The title Dersu Uzala is not available on the U.S. iTunes Store, and Amazon only has a low-quality SD dubbed version available to stream.

Even so, a few choice plot elements from the film do merit mention. Set in Siberia, Dersu Uzala also features a snowbound setting in which two men survive a blizzard together. Shades of Han and Luke on the ice planet Hoth.

The cover of the Japanese DVD even looks like it could be an image straight out of The Empire Strikes Back: that moment when Han waved in the snowspeeder, with the frozen tundra stretching out ahead of him, and the morning sun gleaming off its surface.

There are other images, too, like when a character looks out over a flat horizon, and sees the moon and sun in the sky simultaneously. Shades of Tatooine’s “binary sunset.”

That brings us back to where it all began, 40 years ago now. As the Star Wars saga goes rolling ever forward, rather like BB-8, who knows what other ripples from Japanese cinema might spread across the pond.

May the Force be with you from Tokyo, Japan!

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