The real first Star Wars movie

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS

It is a period of warring states. The Akizuki clan, defeated in battle, have their lands seized by rival Yamana clan.

In the aftermath, Akizuki Princess, Yuki managed to survive and take refuge in a hidden fortress with a handful of loyal servants and what remains of her family’s gold.

Led by the courageous General Makabe, Princess Yuki journeys through enemy territory, her only hope to reach allied lands, gather an army, and restore her family’s rightful place. . .

That is the crawl1 to THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, the first Star Wars movie.

What the fuck?

Yes, that’s right. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS came out in 1958, almost two decades before A NEW HOPE. Kakushi Toride no San Akunin (in a Japanese mouthful that translates as The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress), THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is a samurai adventure film set in a fictional Japan mirroring the 16th century Warring States period. Lucas has admitted he was heavily influenced by the film’s plot structure, storytelling elements, and cinematic style.

Lucas stole2 a lot from THE HIDDEN FORTRESS including telling the story from the perspective of the lowliest characters, in this case two gold-digging bickering peasants, whose love-hate relationship provide much of the movie’s comic relief. Like two droids we know, the peasants are not as hapless as they seem at first. And even in times of trouble, fortune seems to eventually shine their way. Unlike the two droids, however, they are greedy and their behavior is sometimes less than honorable3.

Princess Yuki is Princess Leia’s badass girl power sempai4. She is headstrong and listens to no one. Concerned that her willful personality and forceful way of speaking will reveal their identities to the Yamana, General Makabe convinces her to play mute as they travel through enemy territory. He is the OG Jedi knight. He is loyal and courageous in combat. In a duel scene that puts Obi-wan and Vader’s to shame, Makabe spear fights a respected rival general.

Among other “stolen” elements are scenes of the peasants traversing slanted barren landscapes, wipes for scene transitions, and a closing scene that will make you even angrier than you already are that Chewie never got his hardware at the end of A NEW HOPE.

So, if you were thrown off by some of Rian Johnson’s barn burning decisions in THE LAST JEDI and are hankering for something that feels more traditionally Star Wars, check out THE HIDDEN FORTRESS. It is one of the more mainstream of Kurosawa’s movies, but it is nonetheless a well-made entertaining romp. The samurai aspects are done with Kurosawa’s usual deft hand, while the elements that led to Lucas’ first Star Wars movie are surprising yet delightfully familiar.

P.S. Kurosawa also made the best Shakespeare adaptation, but more on that some other time.

  1. Long lost to the world until recently "discovered" by an intrepid blogger (you're welcome). ↩︎
  2. Good artists copy, great artists steal.
    -Maybe or maybe not Picasso via Steve Jobs ↩︎
  3. They lust after the princess more than a couple of times. Fortunately, the princess is more than a match for them. ↩︎
  4. Sempai is the senior to the kohai or junior in the important sempai/kohai relationship. ↩︎