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. ↩︎

JAZZINN - Yes, this Japanese tea soda is the best drink in the world

A rainy night. A man and a woman sit in a car. The man, wordless and mostly unseen, drinks from a bottle. Jazz plays in the background.

Varying shots of the man drinking play across the screen. Only the sounds of rain, music, and swallowing. In a lilting Osaka dialect (think American Southern accent), the woman speaks in a voice over.

Ah. I’m parched. Can I have some JAZZINN. Come on. Give me one sip. You’re such a cheapskate.

The woman glares face forward into the camera. Her left eye-brow rises and rises.1

The commercial closes with an announcement by a male voice in a strange faux non-Japanese accent.2

A delicious adult beverage for everyone. Now on sale.

This was from the 1990 commercial for the launch of JAZZINN, a tea soda beverage produced by Pepsi Inc. Japan for an all too brief three years. I was a teenager living on a naval base in southern Japan when I discovered it. I can’t specifically remember my first taste but I loved it right away. And I remember the adult feeling it gave me with its slightly sweet, slightly bitter flavor. I loved the off red can, the cheesy English copy (below), and the big JAZZINN and 350 (for 350ml) printed on the can. I searched for it at convenient stores, supermarkets, and in vending machines. It wasn’t a secret but it was my hidden portal into a world that was less childish than the world of cokes and juice. The copy gets it right. It had an adult taste- whatever that means. It tasted of tea but it was a soda. It was mysterious and irresistibly satisfying. If it went back on sale I’d make a mad dash to the nearest place selling it. At the same time, I’d be afraid to drink it and be disappointed. The memory is a ghost but such a delicious ghost. That’s probably how it should remain. RIP JAZZINN 1990-1993

JAZZINN: THE NEW SOFT DRINK WITH THE ADULT TASTE. YOU'LL BE SURPRISED AT THE UNIQUE COMBINATION OF BLACK TEA AND CARBONATION. AND, THE LESS SWEET, LONG-LASTING FLAVOR OF CAREFULLY SELECTED INDIAN TEA LEAVES IS IRRESISTIBLY SATISFYING. YOU ALWAYS FIND IT JUST WITH YOU. JAZZINN: IT'S THE WHOLE NEW KIND OF SOFT DRINK.

  1. Natsuki Mari is a Japanese actress and singer. She voiced Yubaba in Spirited Away and played Obaba in the manga-based table tennis cult classic movie Ping Pong. Interestingly, she uses a Kansai dialect in the commercial, even though she was born and raised in the Tokyo area. I think her accent is pretty good but would have to ask a Kansai native to be sure. ↩︎
  2. Japanese sometimes use a fake foreign accent to make something seem more exotic or cool, or to micro-aggressively mock foreigners speaking Japanese who often do not even realize they’re being mocked. ↩︎