Sunday, 28 February 2016
My Star Wars Theory of Japanese Literature
The Japanese influence on the original Star Wars films is so well known that it hardly needs recapping. It's long established that George Lucas took many elements of the plot of the 1958 Akira Kurosawa film Hidden Fortress - about a couple of bickering peasants escorting a princess across enemy territory - and transformed it into a sci-fi spectacular, set in a distant galaxy, a long, long time ago, Kurosawa's peasants became C3PO and R2D2, samurai swords turned into lightsabres and the code of bushido somehow became subsumed into 'The Force'.
Yet for me the most fascinating moment in the original Star Wars is when Obi-Wan Kenobi after half-heartedly engaging in a lightsabre duel with his nemesis (and former pupil) Darth Vader allows himself to be struck down. 'Allows himself' are the operative words. The standard interpretation is that Obi-Wan sacrifices himself in order to let Luke, Princess Leia, Han Solo et al escape as they blast off in the Millennium Falcon from the imperial mothership.
Such an interpretation seems inadequate: Obi-Wan's final action appears far more calculating and significant. Pitted against Darth Vader, who could fail to notice how Obi-Wan deliberately looks across at Luke and slightly smiles, then willingly offers himself up for death? This is not someone who is resigned to oblivion, but who is intent on becoming reborn, more powerful than ever, in the mind of his young apprentice Luke.
The plot device of Obi-Wan dying in the middle of Star Wars IV was apparently a last minute re-write: originally Obi-Wan was supposed to not only survive until the end of the film, but also continue to be a major character in the subsequent two films. Sources disagree as to whether the plot change was a last minute idea of Lucas that displeased actor Alec Guinness or (perhaps more likely) a plot change suggested by Guinness himself to minimalize his commitments in the subsequent films after he had already tired of a film which would go on to make him extremely rich.
However it came about, like many last minute plot changes, it's crucial to the meaning of the film as a whole.
Obi Wan therefore clearly appreciates that to gain the upper hand on an opponent, sometimes you can use simple psychology, other times you need to resort to physical force. But to truly gain lifelong control of someone's psyche, you have to be prepared to lay down your own life. A lot of very calculated thought has gone into that life-parting, little smile.
This aspect of the film always connects in my mind to the most famous Japanese novel of the modern age.
Natsume Soseki's Kokoro (the Japanese word for spiritual 'heart' or 'mind'), written in 1914, is an overwhelmingly popular work in Japan, that has been recently serialized in its entirety in the leading national Asahi newspaper to commemorate its centennial anniversary. The novel was translated into English by Edwin McClellan in 1956 and a new translation by Meredith McKinney published by Penguin Classics in 2010.
The novel tells of the spell cast on a young narrator by a slightly older figure he refers to as 'sensei', the Japanese term for a respected teacher or elder（still from the 1955 Kon Ichikawa film below, narrator left and 'sensei' right). The character 'sensei' it turns out is harbouring a deep secret from his past which he reveals by means of a long letter to the narrator which comprises the second half of the book. It turns out that 'sensei' has been haunted by the suicide of his close friend K as a consequence of a love triangle back when they were students. The suicide has had the effect of K effectively seizing control of Sensei's heart ('kokoro') from beyond the grave.
Sensei understands the power of suicide to affect the heart of the person left behind and carefully bides his time looking for someone on whom to exert the same influence. Sensei indeed waits until the narrator has returned home to nurse his dying father before revealing his devastating secret and announcing his own suicide. The novel ends with the narrator fleeing his own father's deathbed as he rushes back to the place where Sensei lived. Sensei manages through a carefully staged suicide to create a bond which supersedes even the bond between father and son.
I've no idea whether George Lucas read Kokoro or watched Ichikawa's film, though Kurosawa, whom Lucas both admired and supported, was, like many Japanese, a great fan of Soseki. Kurosawa's 1990 film Dreams for example was a straightforward homage to Soseki's 1908 work Ten Dreams.
The aggressive nature of Sensei's suicide has tended to be overlooked by generations of fans in Japan, just as Obi-Wan's self-perpetuating suicide in Star Wars is mistakenly seen by legions of fans as noble self-sacrifice.
Famously, Alec Guinness when told by a fan that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times is said to have granted an autograph provided he didn't watch it again. Guinness, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, might not have felt the film worth as many repeat viewings as the Bard's great plays. Yet ironically it is Guinness' character whose influence resonates endlessly beyond the grave. As with Kokoro's Sensei however the true nature of Obi-wan's final action is strangely missed by viewers determined to believe in impulsive self-sacrifice rather than shrewdly calculated psychological manipulation.