Say what you will about George Lucas, the man steals from the best. Both my ancient VHS copy and the Criterion Collection version of The Hidden Fortress brag that it inspired Star Wars.
The Hidden Fortress is one of Akira Kurosawa’s films. For anyone who is familiar with Kurosawa’s works, it goes without saying that it is a great film. For those people who have never heard of the greatest director of all time, is a Japanese samurai film from 1958. The story follows two greedy peasants, fleeing the aftermath of a clan war, who stumble upon treasure and are then forced by a very scary man to help transport it. Little do they know they’re actually part of smuggling the wealth of a defeated clan and helping its princess escape.
The obvious similarity to Star Wars is a princess being added to escape by a general and a pair of comic relief characters. Lucas states, however, that the princess aspect more of a coincidence, although earlier drafts of Star Wars had more with the princess and an older Jedi/general type character. What really influenced him was the idea of telling the story from the point of view of the lowliest characters. The peasants became R2-D2 and C-3PO.
As fun as C-3PO and R2-D2 are, Tahei and Matashichi are hilarious. Whereas R2 has more a straight man role to 3PO’s nuttiness, both Tahei and Matashichi are bumbling, comic, and exceedingly avaricious. They cling to each other in terror, but at the first chance of taking the gold for themselves, they’re at each other’s throats.
The Hidden Fortress begins with Tahei and Matashichi stumbling along bickering. They get into an argument over whether to loot a dead samurai’s body and split up only to be captured separately and finding each other again as prisoners–not unlike 3PO and R2 splitting up on Tatooine and coming together again in the Jawa’s sandcrawler.
It’s certainly interesting to see the similarities but the inspiration isn’t something that you would necessarily notice if you hadn’t been told about it first.
Another Kurosawa movie from which Lucas apears to have stolen, but one that I haven’t heard referred to, is Yojimbo. The theft is relegated to a single scene. Yojimbo is itself a strange mixture of elements stolen from western sources (good artists copy; great artists steal, etc.).
A ronin wanders into a town torn apart by warring outlaws and proceeds to wreak havoc on them. In order to get one faction’s attention, he takes the advice of the obnoxious little constable and kills a couple hired swords. Watching the movie the first time, the scene was shockingly familiar. The main character stops in the street surrounded by outlaws. The yakuza brag about how he doesn’t want to mess with them because they’re so tough. They brag of having committed every crime in the book and how they’ll be executed if they’re caught. Sanjuro kills two and lops another’s arm off which falls to the ground in a splash of blood. It’s like the cantina scene. And given that Lucas lists Yojimbo as one of his favorite Kurosawa movies it seems highly unlikely for it to be a coincidence.