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GRAVITATIONAL PULL OF JAPAN SHAPES STAR WARS SAGA


It is 150 years since Commodore Perry pointed the Death Star of technology at the head of this once feudal nation and ushered it into the modern era with the unequal Treaty of Kanagawa. This not only taught the Japanese the importance of being kind to shipwrecked foreign sailors, but also the significance of keeping up with the latest scientific trends, a lesson it has never stopped taking to heart. So, what better way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of US-Japan relations than “Star Wars: Science and Art” an extensive exhibition at the National Science Museum that combines science with elements of cultural interaction between the two nations?

Some might cavil at a museum dedicated to the propagation of science staging an exhibition with a strong entertainment bias, but exhibition curator, Katsuhiro Sasaki, sees this kind of sugaring of the educational pill as part of an international trend that included the James Bond exhibition held at London’s Science Museum last year.

"Worldwide museums are tending to become more corporate with the need to attract a mass audience dictating a higher entertainment quota," he admits. "But we have to also keep focused on the educational meaning and organize the exhibitions not only to make them fun."

Despite such criticism, there is no denying that, for Japanese audiences, Star Wars is more than just a popular science fiction import. Unlike, say, Star Trek or Alien, Lucas’s brainchild owes a great deal to Japanese culture, making it the perfect vehicle to not only play the role of scientific appetizer but to also commemorate US-Japan relations.

With a rich array of materials, including sketches, storyboards, prototypes, props, models, and costumes, the exhibition is also of great interest to students of film, revealing the workings of the Hollywood "dream factory" and how some of the key components of the movie evolved. Models of Han Solo’s famous Millennium Falcon spaceship show it metamorphosing from a long, tubular prototype to its final gadget-encrusted disc shape.

Whether it’s the face of Darth Maul, influenced by the kumadori make-up of kabuki, or Darth Vader's iconic helmet and mask, which clearly echo the kabuto helmet and mempo mask worn by samurai warriors, elements of Japanese design abound. But, perhaps more significantly, Lucas was also deeply influenced, as a young film student, by the sense of wonder he experienced watching the historical period films of Akira Kurosawa.
"I found it very interesting that nothing was explained," he once told an interviewer. "You are thrown into this world, and, obviously, if you know about feudal Japan then it makes sense to you; but if you don’t, it’s like you’re watching this very exotic, strange thing with strange customs and a strange look. And I think that influenced me a great deal in working in science fiction because I was able to get around the idea that you have to explain everything or understand what everything is."
This sense of exploring and gradually understanding the unknown is at the heart of Star Wars. This is also what gave Lucas and his team the imaginative freedom to gradually build up their fascinating world layer by layer.

The debt of gratitude to Kurosawa is signaled in the name given to the heroes of the saga: Jedi is a contraction of jidai-geki, the Japanese term for period drama. Also, with their long, kimono-like robes and their reliance on graceful swordsmanship, the Jedi knights have more than a passing resemblance to the ideal of the samurai.

But Star Wars also shows the imprint of other cultures. The Force used by the Jedi to power their lightsabers has clear affinities with the Chinese concept of chi. A strong Middle Eastern flavor also emerges in many of the costumes on display, such as Princess Leia's skimpy slave girl costume from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. This is modeled by a black mannequin next to the model of everyone’s favorite giant slug, Jabba the Hutt.

A classic test of great science fiction is how well it predicts the future. Whereas the novels of H.G. Wells predicted such phenomena as tanks, aerial warfare, and hand-held electronic communication devices, Star Wars often seems more adept at reflecting the present. The model of the ASN-121 flying assassin droid from 2002s Episode II - Attack of the Clones had its contemporary counterpart in the unmanned drone aircraft the CIA used that year to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

But, according to Sasaki, Star Wars can claim at least one major success in foreshadowing the future, in the person of the perambulating droid C-3PO.
"In 1977, there wasn’t a robot that could walk on two legs, but now Honda have developed Asimo and Sony Qrio. Even robots that can run or jump have now appeared."
As with these dancing robots, the direct usefulness of the scientific vision in Star Wars is questionable, but, for Sasaki, the primary justification of the exhibition is the possibility it might inspire the yearning for the impossible that ultimately leads to scientific advance.


C.B.Liddell
Asahi Shimbun
16th April 2004
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