‘Visions’ of Samurai

Star Wars Visions artwork

Yes, I am one of those crazy people who still enjoys Star Wars. I loved it as a kid growing up, and I love the new stuff that has been coming out recently, especially Star Wars Visions. Released on Disney+ on September 22, 2021, this analogy series has brand new stories to tell and have been created by Japanese animators. Considering that Star Wars has taken a lot from Kurosawa, this was a nice nod back to its Japanese roots. Out of all of the episodes though, its the first one that really pays homage to Japan’s most famous director. In this review, I would like to talk about this first episode and talk about how samurai shaped Star Wars.

NOTE: We will be discussing the first episode of Star Wars Visions in detail. A SPOILER ALERT is now in affect.

Episode 1: The Duel

Episode 1 from Star Wars Visions pays homage to Kurosawa

It even sounds like it is an Akira Kurosawa film, doesn’t it?

This first episode of Star Wars Visions is only about fifteen minutes in length, yet it tells a familiar story. For anyone who has seen Yojimbo, the story is very similar. A mysterious man wanders into a village that ends up being attacked by remnants of a bygone war. He jumps into the fray when a Sith appears and begins attacking the village’s defenders. The fight is taken to a waterfall nearby and he defeats her at a place that looks like a Star Wars version of a Buddhist temple. He returns to the village and the son of the chief asks him his name. The man does not answer, but cuts open the Sith’s lightsaber to take its crystal and the interior of his jacket is lined with the same crystals. Instead of keeping the crystal from his latest victory, he hands it to the child and leaves the village.

The story is not the only reason why this episode stands out from all the rest. It is one of the truly Japanese themed episodes. It mixes the village life of feudal Japan with Star Wars technology, such as droids and blasters. What makes it feel like a Kurosawa story though is that the episode is almost all in black and white. Save for the glow of lights, blaster fire and lightsabers, the episode looks and feels like a samurai movie classic. Even if you do not watch the rest of the series, if you are a samurai film fan, I definitely recommend watching this short little episode.

Star Wars and Samurai?

Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga (Films 1-9) Poster

I’m actually surprised to see that there is a small minority of people who believe that the Jedi are not influenced by samurai. While it is true that there are some differences between Jedi and samurai, there are many things that point into the direction of there being an influence from Japanese culture. First and for most, let’s get the most obvious out of the way. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, took many aspects of Kurosawa’s film Hidden Fortress and turned it into the first Star Wars film, the one we now call Star Wars IV: A New Hope.(1) For an interesting comparison night, sit down and watch both films back to back and you can see what Lucas took from Kurosawa to make the film that has turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Still not convinced? How about the word “Jedi”? This comes from the type of film that Hidden Fortress was, which is called a “jidaigeki”. “Jidaigeki” translates to “period drama” and is a film, television show, theatre production or even a video game that takes place during a specific era in Japanese history.(2) While most of the time jidaigeki productions are usually set in the Edo Period (1603-1868), this is not always the case as others have been set in Sengoku or even Meiji eras. Hidden Fortress falls into this category, being set in the 16th Century: the Sengoku Jidai.(3) The comparisons do not stop there. Jedi robes look extremely similar traditional samurai attire, and many of the Sith leaders wear clothing that look oddly similar to samurai armor.(4) Looking forward to the prequels, Padme Amadala’s regal attire takes inspiration from traditional kabuki clothing and makeup and even the fan favorite Darth Maul’s character design looks like he is an oni mask come to life. Yet, there are a couple of things that are not so obvious that I would like to cover.

Masamune vs. Muramasa

Duel between Rey and Kylo Ren

While the Rebels can be seen as the poor peasants whose way of life is constantly disrupted by the Empire, which can be viewed as the shōgun’s army (or any invading army for that matter), the difference between a Jedi and a Sith in terms of a Japanese comparison is a little bit harder to figure out. At least to me, the comparison can be seen with the swords created by the famous sword smiths, Masamune and Muramasa.

For those who may not know, Masamune (c. 1264-1343) is considered to be one of the greatest sword smiths in Japanese history, with many of them being owned by shōguns like the Hōjō and the Tokugawa, and even owned by people like Ishida Mitsunari and Miyamoto Musashi.(5) Muramasa was a student of Masamune’s, however, there is a significant difference between the two sword smiths, which can be explained in the legend of their swords.

According to the story, Muramasa challenged Masamune to see which of them could create the better sword. They both created their masterpieces and to test them, paced them upright into a creek with the blade facing the current. While the legend varies, the gist of it stays the same. Masamune’s sword did not cut the dead leaves and fish that passed by, but Muramasa’s sword cut through them. Muramasa saw this as a victory, but a monk who witnessed the entire thing, came up to them and expressed an entirely different view. He stated that Masamune’s sword would not kill anything that is innocent and undeserving of violence, while Muramasa’s sword cut anything in its path, making it a bloodthirsty and evil sword.(6)

This is not the only legend that talks about the bloodthirsty aura that surrounds Muramasa’s swords. Apparently, Muramasa swords were a favorite of Tokugawa Ieyasu, but after things like stabbings, slips and other events that led to fatal injuries due to Muramasa swords, they ended up being banned from the court. Word got around, and Muramasa swords became a symbol of the anti-Tokugawa movement.(7) Pop culture furthered the idea that Muramasa’s swords were violent, as authors used the swords for their villains and were in the hands of possessed killers in plays in the theaters. Yet, the violent legend of these swords have gone back to Muramasa himself. Despite very little information on both Masamune and Muramasa, it has been said that Muramasa himself was mad, which somehow made its way to his work. The swords he made apparently would not let the owner sheath the sword until it had drawn blood, which contradicts the positive popular reputation Muramasa had while he was still alive.(8)

It is possible that legend of the Masamune and Muramasa leaked over into Star Wars. The Jedi are more peaceful and follow an honor code that can be seen as a form of bushidō. When it comes to the Sith, they are fueled more by emotion and focus on hate as their driving force. Of course, this is also represented by the color of their lightsabers. Jedi’s lightsaber colors are blue and green (at least the most popular colors) while Sith lightsabers are always red. This has not been a confirmed theory, but it is my interpretation of the difference between a Jedi and a Sith.

Darth Vader and Date Masamune?

Darth Vader and Date Masamune’s helmets side by side

Darth Vader is probably one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history. From his all black attire, signature helmet and command of the force, it is easy to see why he is a fan favorite. So, where did George Lucas get his inspiration for such a character? Well, that actually comes from Nazi Germany. Star Wars came about in the 1970s so World War II was still fresh in people’s minds, including George Lucas. The all black looks similar to that of an SS Officer from Nazi Germany.(9) Even the Stormtroopers are based off of the Sturmabteilung that served under Adolf Hitler.(10) Yet, that was not the only inspiration for him. It is obvious to anyone who is into samurai that Darth Vader’s helmet represents one a samurai would have worn. Interestingly, while sources do not state whose helmet served as the inspiration, many people have jumped to the conclusion that Darth Vader is based off of Date Masamune.

So many articles claim that it has been revealed (as far back as 2015 on some articles I found) that George Lucas’ actual inspiration for Darth Vader was Date Masamune all along. I have not been able to find anything coming straight from Lucas on this, so I am not entirely sure where people are getting this from. The biggest comparisons they cite are the helmet, which is an okay comparison since other helmets have a similar style, and the other is the all black samurai-like armor. While it is true that Date Masamune did have all black armor, he was not the only one. Tokugawa Ieyasu also had black armor, which he wore at the Battle of Sekigahara. In many of these articles, people go to the prequels for more comparisons between Date Masamune and Darth Vader, which were not released until almost twenty years later after the first Star Wars film. The parallels between Date Masamune and Darth Vader look more like an afterthought, but as for being the original inspiration for the iconic villain, unfortunately, fans will have to deal with its dark German heritage.

The all black armor of Tokugawa Ieyasu

As a side note, I think people might have gotten this idea from the Chief Bandit in Seven Samurai, who just so happens to look like the one-eyed daimyō and who more than likely served as George Lucas’ inspiration for Darth Vader.

The Chief Bandit from the Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai

Final Thoughts

Star Wars has taken the world by storm and it is amazing to see how it got to what it has become today. It has taken inspiration from samurai films, science fiction and even Westerns, with something for everyone, making it enjoyable for all ages. With Star Wars Visions, the franchise opened up new doors by adding itself into the domain of Japanese animation. While it welcomed a new audience, it also paid tribute to its roots, which tends to be forgotten about as the franchise gets older. Some of it is not pleasant, as we learned with Darth Vader, while others are a little more hidden in its meaning. Yet, despite the ties to one of darkest times in human history, it also does keep the spirit of the samurai alive in modern times. After all, Jedi are just space samurai.


  1. Barder, Ollie. “Understanding The Japanese Influences Behind ‘Star Wars’”, Forbes.com,https://www.forbes.com/sites/olliebarder/2015/12/21/understanding-the-japanese-influences-behind-star-wars/?sh=7f16f2335e1c, last visited 12/15/2021
  2. “Jidaigeki”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jidaigeki, last visited 11/13/2021
  3. moviediva.com. http://www.moviediva.com/MD_root/reviewpages/MDHiddenFortress.htm, last visited 12/15/2021
  4. “Sith & Samurai: What You Didn’t Know About ‘Star Wars’ and Japan”, Inside Japan.com.https://www.insidejapantours.com/blog/2015/12/17/sith-and-samurai/, last visited 12/15/2021
  5. “Masamune”, Wikipedia.com. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masamune, last visited 12/15/2021
  6. “Masamune and Muramasa: The Secret History of Japan’s Two Greatest Katana Swordmakers (Part 2)”, OrientalSouls.com. https://orientalsouls.com/blog/traditional-crafts/masamune-and-muramasa-the-secret-history-of-japans-two-greatest-katana-swordmakers/, last visited 12/15/2021
  7. “Masamune and Muramasa: The Secret History of Japan’s Two Greatest Katana Swordmakers (Part 2)”, OrientalSouls.com. https://orientalsouls.com/blog/traditional-crafts/masamune-and-muramasa-the-secret-history-of-japans-two-greatest-katana-swordmakers/, last visited 12/15/2021
  8. “Masamune and Muramasa: The Secret History of Japan’s Two Greatest Katana Swordmakers (Part 2)”, OrientalSouls.com. https://orientalsouls.com/blog/traditional-crafts/masamune-and-muramasa-the-secret-history-of-japans-two-greatest-katana-swordmakers/, last visited 12/15/2021
  9. “A Brief Design History of Darth Vader, Nazi Inspiration and All”, Inafarawaygalaxy.com.https://www.inafarawaygalaxy.com/2016/05/darth-vader-design-concepts.html, last visited 12/15/2021
  10. “Sturmabteilung”, Wikipedia.com. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturmabteilung, last visited 12/15/2021