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Friday 28 November 2014

The Greatest Martial Arts Movie in the Galaxy?

Just prior to the release of what was supposed to be the final live action motion picture in the Star Wars franchise, the end of the third park of the prequel trilogy, "The Revenge of the Sith", I approached the martial arts magazine, "Martial Arts Illustrated" with an idea. In order to bolster sales for a magazine that had shown drastic decline in circulation I would write an shameless piece of self-indulgence linking Star Wars with martial arts. I like nothing better than linking two disparate passions and this was the perfect opportunity. I wrote regularly for the magazine at the time and would do for a further five years, so I was given the go ahead and I freely indulged. 

I recently found my old article online on this site. The editor has done a very sound job in locating images to convey the obvious similarities between George Lucas's creations and the Asian martial arts, which I have reproduced here. In the wake of growing anticipation of the first third series of movies, I thought it was time I re-aired this piece.

Darth Vader's helmet design was clearly inspired by the medieval Japanese Samurai. Picture from Smick

"I admit that when one considers the usual theme of what we term a Martial Arts film. Lucas’s space opera is not the most obvious candidate in this genre. It has nothing to do with Asia , it doesn’t feature an illegal tournament, it’s not a cop film and there aren’t thin excuses thrown in to explain why guns are not used. In fact if one goes through the normal criteria again, the location is not even on this planet, the duels are incidental, law is not in the equation and guns are used regularly against the martial artist. Nevertheless, it is still a martial arts series epic through and through that was inspired by Martial Arts cinema and continues to inspire Martial Arts culture."

“Star Wars owes its approach Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai epics of the 1960s. Along with the Flash Gordon chapter plays of the 1950s, George Lucas took much of the plot for his original film, Star Wars IV: A New Hope from Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 feature, The Hidden Fortress. The Japanese film’s storyline centres on perilous quest involving Princess Yuki, her courageous Samurai protector, General Rokurota Makabe and two bumbling thieves. The princess and the warrior bodyguards have their obvious counterparts in the characters Princess Leia and the Jedi padawan (learner), Luke Skywalker. The two bickering buffoons who provide the film’s comic relief, are replaced by the two equally bickering droids C3PO and R2D2, who feature in every star wars film (in fact they are the only actors who appears in each instalment).”

“George Lucas draws heavily upon ideas from traditional martial arts in his original trilogy (episodes IV to VI). Amongst the myriad of futuristic space vehicles, gadgetry and multi-shaped aliens there are many prominent and typical martial art qualities represented in all of the films. Lucas’s early influence definitely comes from Japanese Samurai Culture. The pivotal character of the series, Darth Vader, wears a fearsome black helmet and mask clearly based on the shape of Samurai battle helmets. Luke Skywalker, in Episode IV (the first film), is decked out in a white tunic outfit and in Episode VI a black version of the outfit that resembles the dogis of traditional Japanese martial arts. Thw standard long robed uniform of the Jedi and their nemesis, the Sith, can be compared to the traditional Japanese kimino and hakama clothing often worn in the dojos of Aikido, traditional Ju Jutsu, Kendo, Iaido and so on.”

“Then – in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – champion Wu Shu exponent Ray Park used his entertaining skills to take the battle to an entirely different level. Using the previously unseen double-ended light sabre, Park demonstrated far more than simple gymnastics and wire –assisted leaps in his portrayal of the dedicated Sith lord, Darth Maul, who became the face of the film’s publicity campaign. Park’s athletic ability embodied what George Lucas called the golden era of the Jedi. The British martial artist wielded the double-ended weapon like a Chinese Wu Shu staff and threw in standard and 360 degree butterfly kicks amongst his tumbling tricks. He takes on his two Jedi enemies in a peculiar fighting set up that was only recently introduced to Western audiences when Jet Li took on Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 4. Before then two good guys against one bad guy was not good audience psychology for the fair-minded westerners.”

“Maul and his immediate enemy Qui Gon Jin (who has part of his name derived from the genuine Oriental aer of Qi Gong), display distinctly different methods in preparing for their final round. Qui Gon Jin sits in the Japanese Seiza position, meditating, whereas Maul paces like a wild animal in a manner self-defence instructors consider to be an aggressive Fence. The whole section of the fight would appear to be a fantastical comparison of the Japanese Do and Jutsu philosophies. Darth Maul is the perfect fighting machine, totally committed to war, which was the base of the Jutsu systems. By contrast, Qui Gon Jin embraces life and the universe using his powers to become a better person, which is reflective of the Do philosophy of Martial Arts expression.”

"The Force is a single word to describe the prominent martial art in Star Wars. Users of this power are the Jedi Knights. Samurai culture is most certainly a strong reference point for these Jedi Knight characters: focused, trained and noble warriors who are employed as keepers of the peace. Their evil counterparts, the Sith, go against the Bushido-like code and are the antithesis of what Japanese culture respects. The order of the Sith embrace anger and fear; the way that leads to the dark side as Yoda, the wisest of the Jedi says in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. The dark side of the force is a quick and easy route that is all about aggression and hatred for personal gain. One solid cautionary ethic that is thought in all good martial arts schools is to never misuse your skills. Another resounding philosophy taught by most dedicated martial artist is to accept that their chosen art or arts can be found in everything. Likewise Yoda explains that the Force surrounds us. He describes the human form and what normal people see and feel to be crude by comparison to this all-binding and all-powerful energy. It is a spiritual metaphor and is easy to compare with martial art philosophy. Learning martial arts requires a degree of feeling certain techniques”

"Religion is bound up in many of the traditional Asian arts, particularly in the various styles of Shaolin Kung Fu, Shorinji Kempo, Aikido and Goju Ryu Karate. In modern times we find that many of the arts have become so bound in abstract ritual that they are dismissed as ineffective as the new systems take centre stage. There is also a strong sense of individual and collective faith that I have discovered happens amongst the martial arts community; as our society changes, our scepticism for the past grows. Likewise in Episode IV, when nearly all the Jedi have been eradicated some nineteen years previously, the memory of the force has almost completely been wiped out. It is even referred to as an old religion by the Imperial senior officer, Gran Mof Tarkin and is not believed in by the jaded smuggler, Han Solo. The first character thinks of it as antiquated and therefore no-longer an issue and the latter one considers it as so-much mumbo jumbo. How often have we heard or read similar opinions on martial arts?”

 “The Jedi Temple and the celibate monkish lives led by the Jedi Knights in Episodes I-III along with the more flamboyant fight choreography seems to indicate that Lucas was drawing as much from the Chinese Shaolin arts as he was from the Japanese warrior culture in the original trilogy (Episode IV-VI if you are keeping up!). The martial arts historical connection is even more appropriate when we consider that popular theory often places Chinese martial arts being established before the systems in the surrounding Asian countries.”

“The last instalment of the Star Wars saga, Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith, ties together the entire series and puts the tragedy of Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) – his rise, fall and redemption – at the centre of the continuing storyline. It is a fable that underlines the ethics of martial arts. We see someone who is extraordinarily gifted and with good intentions becoming tainted by tragic circumstances and seduced by power. Sadly I have seen many good martial artist, who are held in high esteem by their peers, lose their centre and become consumed by the easy path because they were vulnerable, greedy or impatient. The character of Anakin, who becomes Darth Vader, commits heinous crimes in the latest films after he feels his fellow Jedis are holding him back from his true potential and threatening the evil chancellor Palpatine who Anakin believes is helping him. Palpatine is really manipulating the precautious Jedi for his own end.”

“Palpatine, a master of the dark side of the force himself, builds an almighty galactic empire that suppresses Jedis in a manner that could be symbolically compare to the way the Samurais were made obsolete in the nineteenth century and martial arts, in general, have been suppressed by occupying powers. Examples can be drawn from the slave masters who forced their human thralls to hide their fighting art in dances, forming capoirea, to fabled massacre of the Shaolin Monks by their emperor (an appropriately direct comparison with Episodes III Jedi temple slaughter), to the suppression of Korean and Japanese martial arts by the forces that occupied them.”

“ So, in conclusion we have seen that George Lucas was undeniably influenced by Samurai cinema when he first made Star Wars and later, when he made the prequel trilogy, he recognised not only the very obvious advance in cinematic technology but also the level of sophistication that fight choreography had reached thanks to the acceptance of Far Eastern directors and stars into the mainstream. Furthermore the philosophies behind the cultures that are intertwined in the various martial arts were also in Lucas’s mind. Yoda is the strongest voice-piece on these issues and he seen in a teaching capacity throughout the series. His famous line, size matters not, is a dictum that could be written in any number Judo or Aikido instruction manuals and was pretty much the message that Bruce Lee represented in his films. When Luke Skywalker tells the wizened teacher that he will try his best, Yoda gives it to him like a true martial arts instructor: ‘Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.’ Later when Yoda succeeds in doing an incredible feat that Luke has given up on, the young Jedi-in-training exclaims in astonishment “I don’t believe it” to which he explains “that is why you fail”. This is the core principles of the films. It is the faith in the inner spirit and commitment to it that makes Star Wars a great martial arts fable. Lack of faith leads to evil things happening and undying faith ultimately prevails.”

 Looking back at the article, I see far more disturbing central ideas that have become a part of the culture of martial arts and are reinforced through Star Wars. The film clearly has a lot of religious connotations and a very simplistic view of morality. Recently I finished a chapter in my second martial arts book, which pushes for martial arts to follow the scientific model and to embrace critical thinking rather than "undying faith".

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