The Last Jedi and the Infinite Appeal of Akira Kurosawa
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Woven into the Star Wars DNA is the influence of Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. Often cited as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Kurosawa is known for films like Seven Samurai, Ran, and Throne of Blood. From historical epics to intimate crime dramas, his work is built on questions of moral responsibility. Famously, George Lucas used Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, a film about an exiled princess who is helped by a rogue and two bumbling peasants in restoring her kingdom, as inspiration for A New Hope. Following suit, Rian Johnson, director of newest franchise installment The Last Jedi has often referenced Kurosawa in writing and interviews. He even listed crime drama The Bad Sleep Well, about a young executive tracking down his father’s killer, on his Criterion Top 10 list, and tweeted in favor of Kurosawa’s Five Act Story Structure. In The Last Jedi, Johnson unmistakeably borrows from Kurosawa’s use of narrative structure, costume and set design, sound, music, and choregraphy.
In 1950, Akira Kurosawa released Rashomon, a film told from three different points of view. After a samurai is found murdered, a priest, a commoner and a woodcutter each tell their story about how it happened. In The Last Jedi, Johnson uses a series of flashbacks told from three different points of view about the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. First, Luke tells the story of Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) burning down a Jedi temple in cold blood. Second, we see Kylo Ren explain the betrayal he felt when Luke tried to murder him. Third, Luke, full of shame, revises his initial story, suggesting that in a moment of weakness he was going to murder Ben in his sleep, only to decide not to. These three perspectives share fragments of truth but showcase memory as imperfect documents shaped by emotion.
Johnson not only employs Kurosawa’s narrative structure here, but he also imitates Rashomon’s perspective on morality and truth: that, fundamentally, nothing is black-and-white. Throughout The Last Jedi, the pure goodness of the Jedi is questioned. While in The Force Awakens, Leia believed that Luke — and his connection with the light side of the force — would revive the resistance once he returned, Luke continually struggles with his own potential for darkness. In The Last Jedi, we learn how, while training Ben Solo, he saw that same darkness in his padawan, which caused him to commit the fatal mistake that led to the creation of Kylo Ren.
Johnson also borrows from Kurosawa’s set and costume design. Cloaked in deep red, Snoke’s throneroom shares the same color scheme as late Kurosawa films like Kagemusha and Ran. Oversaturated with the color of passion and war, even Snoke’s special guards, The Praetorians, are unmistakably inspired by samurai. They even display a touch of Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. In an interview for Verge, Johnson told the film’s costume designer Michael Kaplan, “[The Praetorians] have to be more like samurai. They have to be built to move, and you have to believe that they could step forward and engage if they have to. They have to seem dangerous.”
However, it is in the action sequences of The Last Jedi that Kurosawa’s influence is perhaps felt most greatly. In films like Seven Samurai, the personalities of the characters are revealed in the way they fight and the decisions they make in the heat of battle. Suspense is built by complex intercutting that uses different temporal speeds (Kurosawa is famous for his use of slow-motion). In the heat of their action sequences both directors’ use of sound and music is highlighted. The contrast between loud and quiet is used to emphasize tension, which Johnson uses to dramatic effect. For example, when Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) drives a resistance ship into Snoke’s flagship, amidst the loud spectacle of space violence, the sound cuts completely as we watch Snoke’s ship split in two.
The influence of Akira Kurosawa in Hollywood extends far beyond the Star Wars franchise, of course. In 1980, Kurosawa could not secure funding for his next epic, Kagemusha. Hearing about his struggle, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola enlisted their influence to get Twentieth Century Fox to provide some funds. They are both listed as executive producers on the international prints. The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, Biutiful, and A Bug’s Life were all influenced in some way by Kurosawa’s storytelling, and countless other films have made use of the techniques he perfected and popularized. The Last Jedi is just the most recent film that reflects Akira Kurosawa’s enduring appeal.