How Star Wars was inspired by Japanese cinema and samurai history

Photo: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.. Copyright: 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™, All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.. Copyright: 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™, All Rights Reserved. /

Star Wars and Japanese cinema go way back. There are few true original cultural commodities out there. Nearly every film, television show, comic book and novel can trace its influences back to some other franchise that came before it. Star Wars included.

Specifically, Star Wars has been heavily influenced by Japanese culture, especially samurai history and other iconography of the feudal Edo period that lasted from the early 17th century through the mid-19th century. During this period, the country was ruled chiefly by a shogun, or “supreme military leader” that presided over classes of samurai, artisans, merchants and farmers.

Even with an abstract knowledge of feudal Japan history, the connections between it and Star Wars mythos are clear. From iconic Edo period dramas and masterless ronin to Japanese anime and manga and just plain cool samurai helmets, here are some notable ways Japanese culture has influenced Star Wars.

Akira Kurosawa and The Hidden Fortress

George Lucas has often been transparent about what exactly inspired him to create Star Wars. Specifically, famous Japanese cinematographer Akira Kurosawa and his 1958 film The Hidden Fortress.

In a 2001 interview for The Criterion Collection’s new DVD version of The Hidden Fortress, Lucas said he was “struck” by the 1958 film’s story being told from the point of view of the lowest characters.

"“I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. Which, in the Star Wars case, is the two droids, and that was the strongest influence,” Lucas said."

Does this description of The Hidden Fortress sound familiar? The film follows two bickering peasants traipsing across an inhospitable desert following a battle only to be dragged back into the war to help a disguised general and a princess cross enemy lines. A feature by BBC in 2016 described the two peasants as both C-3PO and R2-D2, “but they’re Han Solo and Chewbacca, as well” because they’re “opportunists with an eye on the princess’s gold.”

The war-torn general, of course, is analogous to Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi with the princess a clear influence for Lucas’ Princess Leia.

The similarities don’t stop there when considering The Hidden Fortress and A New Hope, including filmmaking techniques like the use of transitional wipes and action sequences now considered iconic in the Star Wars canon. YouTube channel Star Wars Explained created a side-by-side comparison video to show just how much of Kurosawa’s narrative and filmmaking style made it into Star Wars films.

While the droids are the clearest link between the two films, the video also explores other narrative similarities, like the general having to battle a former friend who becomes badly scarred (Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader) and that former friend getting redemption by helping the heroes at the end (Darth Vader/Anakin).

Jidaigeki and samurai

By the time Lucas created Star Wars, Kurosawa was already a well-known filmmaker, especially of jidaigeki or “period dramas.” These Japanese period films were often set in the feudal Edo period and featured adventurous samurai, shogun warlords and innocent peasants and others of “lower classes” caught between them and other warring factions.

And, the term “jidaigeki” gives us the word Jedi — say it out loud and you’ll see. It’s pronounced “jid-EYE-geh-key” with the first part sounding like how General Grievous says Jedi.

In some ways, Star Wars is a jidaigeki film because of its samurai-adjacent Jedi warriors. Like samurai, Jedi were chiefly peacekeepers but also served as a protective military force during certain periods in history. And like their real-life historic counterparts, the Jedi wielded specially-crafted swords and held dear a code of honor that emphasized discipline, morality and compassion.

The Jedi attire of robes and tunics also clearly have samurai and historic eastern influences. The Jedi chose loosely-fitting clothing over armor, just like Saigō Takamori, the last and one of the most famous samurai who lived at the end of the Edo period.

Like the Jedi, samurai warriors existed for hundreds of years and understandably went through several evolutions. The samurai of the peaceful Edo period transitioned to more civilian roles of governing and protection and, like the Jedi, trained in both martial arts and spirituality (for the samurai, it was the principles of Confucianism).

Jedi code and Bushido

As the Jedi trained in the ways of the Force and held dear their Jedi code, so did the samurai warriors of feudal Japan with the bushido code of conduct. Bushido translates to “way of the warrior” and established moral standards for the samurai class.

Bushido codes changed over the years just like the samurai’s place in Japanese society, but what remained consistent was its emphasis on warrior spirit and skill along with frugal, minimalist living, honor and kindness. During the Edo period, bushido also came to emphasize duty to morals and ethical behavior over the will of authority.

If that all sounds familiar, it should. The Jedi code is strikingly similar to the codes held by samurai, especially because of the priority placed on spiritual morals, compassion and being a champion for these ideals and peace.

Also like the Jedi, the samurai weren’t all “good.” Whether by the death of their master, defeat in battle or their own bad behavior, some samurai became ronin — masterless warriors who were sometimes rebellious or even vengeful.

Sith and ronin

While not as similar as the Jedi and samurai, there are certainly parallels between the ronin and the Dark Side-serving Sith of Star Wars lore.

Following the installment of a new shogun in the early 1600s, the need for military protection dropped, prompting the samurai to adapt and transition to new roles while the masterless ronin wandered Japan trying to find employment and purpose. No matter their reason for becoming ronin, some ronin were resentful or vengeful because of their marginalized status.

The Sith in Star Wars could also be considered “masterless” as they serve none but themselves and their own desires rooted in greed, hatred, fear and want for power. And while the Jedi “serve” and respect the Force, the Sith see the Force as a tool to be melded and weaponized for their own ends.

More connections between the ronin, feudal Japanese history and the Sith are expected in the forthcoming Visions novel, Star Wars: Ronin, by Emma Mieko Candon. The novel, which publishes on Oct. 12, follows an unnamed former Sith who goes by the Ronin as he wanders the galaxy. The novel builds upon the story seen in Star Wars: Visions short The Duel.

Candon has also said much of the foundation of their Ronin novel is grounded in “jidaigeki (period dramas), Japanese monsters and folklore, and war trauma.” They also said the novel, like the Star Wars that came before it, showcases the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai stories.

Samurai armor

Some of the most recognizable images in Star Wars are Darth Vader’s mask, stormtrooper armor and the helmets of characters Boba Fett and Kylo Ren. Darth Vader’s helmet and plated attire, especially, is strikingly similar to some worn by Edo period samurai.

In a 2020 interview with Inverse, Markus Sesko, Visiting Researcher for Japanese Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, said samurai wore long coats called jidori and helmets with elements focused on neck protection. Darth Vader’s helmet is well-known for its bottom plate that extends down the back and covers his neck.

With so many similarities between Star Wars armor and samurai attire, Bandai Tamashii Nations crafted a line of figurines of iconic characters wearing full samurai gear. The results are stunning examples of just how much Star Wars has been influenced by the warriors’ history and aesthetic.


With similar samurai influences seen in the armor and helmet of Kylo Ren, The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams noted the bright red, vein-like cracks on Ren’s repaired helmet were inspired by the tradition of kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing pottery by highlighting the imperfections with paint.

Star Wars: Visions

With so many notable comparisons to Japanese culture, it’s a wonder that it took more than 40 years for Star Wars anime to be produced. And, Star Wars manga adaptations didn’t come around until the 1990s.

Still, with Star Wars: Visions premiering, fans now have nine anime shorts of unique spins on a galaxy far, far away. Without the constraints of having to fit in the canon, Visions creators reimagined classic Star Wars elements like twists on the Force, the Jedi’s and Sith’s places in the galaxy and the look and function of lightsabers.

In Visions, many of the lightsabers are designed to look more like katana swords like those wielded by samurai. The shorts “The Duel” and “Akakiri” notably contain narrative elements similar to The Hidden Fortress and other samurai films. And, of course, “The Duel” is about a masterless warrior and former Sith called the Ronin.

Related Story. Review: Star Wars: Visions is fantastically creative but may not be for everyone. light

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