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Edging Toward Japan: Does Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi have a Japanese source?

George Lucas (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

By Damian Flanagan

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.

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.

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.

In the first half of Star Wars, we see some early examples of Obi-Wan's adept use of "mind control." When he and Luke are stopped by Imperial troops, Obi-Wan easily plants words into the mouth of the soldier-clone. Storm troopers are easy to manipulate, but when Obi-Wan tries the same trick again in a raucous bar with a surly outlaw, it has no effect, requiring Obi-Wan to strike him down with his trusty lightsabre.

Obi-Wan 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.

This aspect of the film always connects in my mind to that most famous Japanese novel of the modern age, "Kokoro."

The novel tells of the spell cast on a young narrator by a slightly older figure he refers to as "Sensei." It turns out that "Sensei" is harbouring a deep secret from his past which he reveals by means of a long letter to the narrator. 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.

Sensei manages through a carefully staged suicide to create a bond that supersedes even the bond between father and son.

I've no idea whether George Lucas read Kokoro or watched Kon Ichikawa's 1955 film, though Kurosawa, whom Lucas both admired and supported, was, like many Japanese, a great fan of Soseki.

The aggressive nature of Sensei's suicide has tended to be overlooked by generations of fans in Japan. And as with Kokoro's Sensei, 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.


(This is Part 20 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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