This week’s episode of The Mandalorian makes it difficult not to talk about Akira Kurosawa. That is also true when talking about Star Wars in general, yet this week the link is undeniable. For the uninitiated, Akira Kurosawa was a Japanese filmmaker known for perhaps perfecting the samurai genre, while also heavily influencing the popular film genre of westerns… while also heavily influenced by westerns. There is a lot of ouroboros involved with these genres, not just the usual cross-pollination and remakes.
A New Hope opens with a battle scene before giving way to C-3PO and R2-D2—a tall skinny dork and a short stout dork—wandering around lost. They get swept up in the tale of a princess, a rogue and have to deal with an enemy fortress. The plot may sound familiar if you’re a fan of Kurosawa and you remember Hidden Fortress. There’s even an interview with George Lucas in the Criterion edition of Hidden Fortress where he pooh-poohs Hidden Fortress as not exactly his favorite but it becomes immediately obvious why they opted to include a dialogue with Lucas for the movie: he sampled a lot from it.
What does this have to do with the Mandalorian? Well, a lot.
I’ve already talked about the link between the Lone Wolf and Cub series and the Mandalorian prior, considering the direction the show has taken. Additionally, it should be immediately evident to anyone that the show borrows heavily from the realm of samurai and westerns, if not blatantly. That’s what makes it entertaining to watch, though. There’s no attempt to remake the wheel with the Mandalorian, which remedies a common stumbling block for Star Wars outside of the original trilogy. Instead, they’re proud of the show’s influences and can own it while presenting their own, entertaining show without veering into Tarantino levels of homage and repurposing. The purpose of the Mandalorian isn’t just to call out its influences but to tread in their footsteps while telling its own story.
This week they treated us to a more obvious homage in the way of an episode that very much felt like the plot of Seven Samurai. The idea of a loner hero wandering into a helpless village being tormented by bad guys only to train them to defend themselves and stick around to help them win the impending battle is a plot that most of us know pretty well by now, considering how often it seems to happen. I mean, seriously. Seven Samurai and the Magnificent Seven (a western remake of Seven Samurai) are the obvious examples, but episodes of Star Trek, Firefly, Xena, Dr. Who and many others have used this same plot. The list could go on forever.
The Mandalorian is hiding out, attempting to find a place to lay his head for a while with the ever-adorable Baby Yoda, only to find Gina Carano’s Cara Dune. After she gets the better of him, we get the whole “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” and our titular character makes up his mind to depart, only for two bumbling farmers (one taller, one short!) offering him money to help them out. Thus, we get the two heroes working together to help the village where the Mandalorian meets a bad-ass widow that he maybe could see himself settling down with, only for his duty and honor to get in the way after the dust settles.
The discovery of a bounty hunter with a tracking fob on the planet and Cara preventing the death of Baby Yoda opens us up to this lone wolf perhaps needing more help than he realized moving forward and we’ll probably get more of Gina Carano doing muay thai in space, which absolutely no one should complain about.
Carano has three episodes to her credit on IMDB, which means she probably won’t be in every episode of the eight episode season’s remaining episodes, but at least two more. That means there are two she won’t be in. You know, math.
Sadly, a lot of conversations surrounding Star Wars seems to get toxic in a hurry. Arguments about which characters are “Mary Sues” or criticisms about the role of women and diversity have become the norm, even for the seemingly universally loved Mandalorian. There’s definitely some criticism to be had when it comes to the depiction of women in the show, but the show also has a story that it wants to tell and sometimes there are tough decisions made for narrative and structural purposes. The first few episodes of the Mandalorian were very isolated, desolate affairs. The worlds visited were sparsely-populated, his job required a degree of secrecy, and most of it was a contrast between quiet isolation and intense action scenes. There was hardly room for other characters considering the narrative style, but this week brings our pal that we still don’t have a name for (gee whiz) into a population and things immediately get more diverse and interesting.
This episode introduced former MMA world champion Gina Carano’s character, Cara Dune, who gets the better of our titular character in a straight fight and saves his hide multiple times. On top of that, it was the second female-directed episode of this season, seeing Bryce Dallas Howard at the wheel. Maybe it makes sense that the daughter of acclaimed director Ron Howard took on an episode that felt like a film school homage while also being the episode that continued to show the Mandalorian’s softer side and complete comfort with relying on powerful women for assistance. The Mandalorian has seen a diverse crew of directors behind the camera and the women featured in the show have felt like they serve a greater purpose than men scratching their heads trying to fit women into the plot without a clue.
Another conversation has been about the cinematic influences on the show and how to categorize it in the broad realm of genre fiction. Is it a western or is it a samurai story? Kurosawa himself was heavily influenced by American western director John Ford, while we’ve established Kurosawa’s influence on Lucas and Star Wars already, which makes those genre definitions fluid, at least in my view. I mean, Lucas, along with Spielberg, worked to get Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams funded by Warner Bros., Lucas knew the kind of influence that Kurosawa’s films had on him. What I’m establishing here is that westerns and samurai genres can be relatively interchangeable, have all influenced by each other, and most genre fiction tends to be a mishmash of influences, anyway.
So then there’s this.
Collider’s John Steven Rocha made a head-scratcher of a tweet (now deleted) insisting that the Mandalorian is NOT a western, imploring viewers and commentators to “do the work” and understand that it’s a ronin samurai show instead.
Adherence to any sort of rigidity for classification seems elitist and like it’s missing the point entirely. It’s also counterproductive to chide people for not being as informed of viewers or readers instead of pointing them in the right direction. On top of that, the idea that to enjoy a work someone needs to know each and every influence or reference is equally as crass. We’re living in a world where Martin Scorsese has said his piece about Marvel and superhero films and has faced immense criticism for claiming they were not “cinema,” which is a lot to unpack. It’s easy to understand where he’s coming from considering the role that big budget entertainment has had in reshaping their respective industries.
The Mandalorian is no different, with Lucasfilm under the umbrella of Disney, who have more influence and money than just about anyone else in the entertainment space right now. The endless parade of comic book fare in the film industry has more or less killed the mid-budget film dead in the water, meaning that studios are either willing to make smaller investments in indie projects that don’t cost much and will see a modest return, or invest a ton into big budget, action-packed comic movies. The budget alone for the Mandalorian is a ridiculous $120 million for the first season, and it shows. The show looks great, everyone involved is talented, exceptional and the show’s polish reflects that.
Scosese’s statement also sorta reeked of elitism, even if you agreed with the basic premise. Sure, there are a lot of these movies and shows now and yeah, it’s reshaping media landscapes with popcorn flicks and shows. They’re also keeping talented people employed, busy, allowing them some room to experiment and explore and they’re keeping audiences happy. We recently watched Captain Marvel, and I was blown away by the fact that the first 45 minutes or so was essentially just a space marine sci-fi story. Like with everything else, cross-pollination happens and nothing is just one thing or another. Entertainment evolves and changes, borrows, steals and pays homage to those that come before them.
That’s the game.
It also shows us that Akira Kurosawa films are considered art by many (for good reason, they are) while a lot of modern genre film, television and fiction is snubbed for appealing to the masses. Corporate art complicates things, dilutes the potency of whatever message is contained in it but is still by-and-large created by people with their own ideas, artistic vision and aesthetics, even if they are at odds with their source of funding and the rigidity of the demands for mass appeal.
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This episode of the Mandalorian showed that there is room for both experimentation and evolution in a largely corporate, pop art world while still staying true to its influences. Hopefully, it also opens up some doors for those watching and aren’t well-versed in older films. Imagine being a Star Wars fan and not having ever seen Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone films? We were all there at one point and the Mandalorian shows that these classic stories can still resonate with audiences and the curious will always have new rabbit holes to fall down. Those of us who had our Japanese and Italian film phases, only for them to branch out and lead to other discoveries should embrace the fact that a show like this exists and can start a dialogue about the work that influenced it, because otherwise what’s the point?
So, I suppose I end talking about this week’s episode with a plea of sorts: we’ve all got our own tastes in books, shows, movies and music. That taste was acquired through years of exploration, of consuming something, falling in love with it and diving deep into it to learn its influences and then track those down. It doesn’t matter if someone discovers Lady Snowblood and Lone Wolf and Cub via a through-line of Japanese cinema or because they loved Kill Bill. It doesn’t matter if someone discovers Led Zeppelin because of a parent who loved them or because they like a contemporary band like Greta Van Fleet. What matters is that people get to explore and discover this cool stuff.
Don’t take that away from anyone or discourage them. If someone reads my books on a whim, digs them and look into books that inspired me and that’s how they discover the Foundation series or Dune, that would really be awesome. There’s a lot of cool stuff in the world and a lot of great art has been made. Some of it has been made in the name of commercialism, some in the name of art, but there’s a lot of stuff and it’s not always easy to know where to start.
I like to think about this: someone out there watched episode four of the Mandalorian and heard people comparing it to Seven Samurai. They’ve never heard of it, or heard of it and never watched it, but now are going to watch it and get to experience Kurosawa for the first time.
How can you not love that?
Also, seriously Baby Yoda drinking the soup from that little bowl?
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