Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Tao of Star Wars, Or, Cultural Appropriation in a Galaxy Far, Far Away - Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

This is fun...


George Lucas has acknowledged the myriad of debts which the original Star Wars trilogy and The Phantom Menace owe to Asian cultures, especially Chinese and Japanese cultures.Cinematically, the films have been impacted by the film work of world renowned auteur Akira Kurosawa.James Goodwin observes that “Lucas has acknowledged the debt Star Wars owes in story and style to Kurosawa’s comic adventure epic The Hidden Fortress (Kukaushi Toride no San-Akunin, 1958),” whose Japanese title is better translated as “Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress” (8).Kurosawa’s film is set during Japan’s civil war era and relates the story of a bold princess, rescued by an old general, who must travel through enemy territory to reach the hidden fortress.The film begins with a pair of bickering farmers who are inadvertently drawn into the conflict, much as Star Wars begins with a pair of bickering droids around whom the story also develops.Similar to the plans stored in R2D2 which must be brought to the hidden rebel base at Yavin, Kurosawa’s characters secretly transport gold which will allow them to turn the tide of war when they reach their home territory.

The visual influence of Japanese film and culture is also evident in Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi (whose name even sounds Japanese, as further discussed below) wears a costume that, with its long brown robe and white underrobes, suggests the kimono of a samurai.Joseph Campbell, writing of Star Wars in The Power of Myth observes that Ben Kenobi is “a Japanese sword master,” seemingly implying that the character is more similar in philosophy and action to a samurai than a Western knight (145).Likewise, the two-handed lightsabre suggests the Japanese katana of a samurai more than Western swords.The shape and sweep of Darth Vader’s mask, his breastplate, and cloak suggest the formal armor of a samurai or daimyo.Visually, the followers of the light and dark sides of the force are much more Asian in appearance than the more Western-clothed Han Solo or Grand Moff Tarkin, both of whom disbelieve in the Force, although both have seen evidence of its power.

One can also detect the influence of Asian thought in the philosophy of the Jedi and the construction of religion in the Star Wars universe.While Lucas does not see Star Wars as “profoundly religious,” he does tell Bill Moyers in an interiew that “almost every single religion” found the film contains elements suggestive of faith: “They were able to relate it to stories in the Bible, in the Koran, and in the Torah” (92-93).Indeed, within a few months of the release of the original film in 1977, Frank Allnutt wrote The Force of Star Wars which viewed Lucas’s film as a “prophetic parable” about the coming of the Antichrist in which the Force is God, the Emperor is Satan, and the Rebellion represents the Church (26, 201).Allnutt offers a fundamentalist Christian analysis on the film which, for reasons too lengthy to debate here, attempts to make the Star Wars narrative fit the Book of Revelation, but fails.In the absence of a true Christ figure (Allnutt suggests Obi-Wan), the theory does not work.

Bill Moyers, in his interview with Lucas, suggests that the Force is an “Eastern view of God—particularly Buddhist—as a vast reservoir of energy that is the ground of all our being” (92).Lucas agrees that “it’s more specific in Buddhism,” but he also argues that “it is a notion that’s been around before that,” without specifying what he means exactly or to which religious philosophies he refers.Lucas’s own view notwithstanding, the language the various characters use to describe the Force suggests Taoism.Moyers’ “reservoir of energy” implies the Tao.Obi-Wan tells Luke, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.It’s an energy field created by all living things.It surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.”The theology of Buddhism maintains that this world is an illusion that generates misery and so must be transcended.It is in Taoism that the idea of energy is a principle tenet.Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching that the Tao (the way) “gives them [people] life and rears them. It gives them life yet claims no possession. . . . It is the steward, yet exercises no authority” (I: x).Unlike the Western notion of God, an authoritative, anthropomorphic patriarch, the Tao is both life giving and binding, yet does not actively control human beings or demand worship or authority.The Tao is a non-present presence: “The way is empty, yet use will not drain it” (I: iv), which further suggests Moyers’ “reservoir of energy,” albeit one which will never be emptied.The theology and cosmology of Star Wars constructs an ultimate reality much closer to Taoism than to any Western religious philosophy.

Western religious philosophy does not have the idea of “flow” on which both Taoism and the Force are centered.The famous metaphor in the Tao Te Ching compares the Tao to water: “In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.This is because there is nothing that can take its place” (II: lxxviii). The ideal follower of the Tao flows with the Tao as water flows.While seemingly weak and submissive one will overcome any difficulty by flowing.Likewise, both the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back contain repeated lessons for Luke given by Obi-Wan and Yoda about how to learn to flow. The following passage from Star Wars is typical:

OBI-WAN: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.

LUKE: You mean it controls your actions?

OBI-WAN: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.

Yoda repeatedly tells Luke, “Feel the Force flow.”This idea of the divine being a flowing energy which both controls and can be controlled is Taoist, not Western.

A further example of the Taoist nature of the Force is its resistance to intellectual understanding.Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, writing in The Shambala Dictionary of Taoism, observes: “All Taoists strive to become one with the Tao.This cannot be achieved by trying to understand the Tao intellectually; the adept becomes one with the Tao by realizing within himself its unity, simplicity, and emptiness” (165).During the training session on the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan tells Luke he is thinking too much: “This time let go your conscious self and act on instinct. . . . Stretch out with your feelings.”The Force cannot be understood or used intellectually; only by experiencing within one’s self, by feeling can one become one with the Force and use it.At the climactic battle of the Death Star, Luke turns off his tactical computer and “uses the Force” to hit the Death Star with his torpedo.It is only by “trusting his feelings,” “letting go,” and “letting the Force flow” that the huge, mechanical Death Star can be beaten and destroyed.Like water, a single man in a small ship seems weak and defenseless against the huge mechanical (read: Western) terror of the Death Star, and yet, through the use of the Force, the living being overcomes the mechanical monster.By learning the Taoist-like teachings of the Jedi, Luke is able to defeat the Dark Side and save the Rebellion repeatedly.

Yoda is the Taoist master of the Star Wars universe.Once Vader and Palpatine have destroyed the Jedi, Yoda, like Lao Tzu, turns his back on civilization and goes off to the wilderness—in Yoda’s case, to the planet Dagobah.In Empire, like Zen masters and Taoist teachers who initially play the fool to test potential students, Yoda pretends to be an insignificant native in order to evaluate Luke while teaching him valuable lesson in Taoist thought.When Luke claims that Yoda is a great warrior, Yoda responds, “Wars do not make one great,” and Luke then learns that this small creature is powerful in the Force but does not resemble what Luke believes a warrior to be.This sentiment echoes the Tao Te Ching: “One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable; One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger . . .” (II: lxviii).The Jedi, likewise, is not roused in anger when he fights, for anger leads to the Dark Side.

It is in the dualistic nature of the Force that Lucas comes closest to Western religious philosophy.While Taoism recognizes that good and evil, light and dark, are merely opposites in which balance must be sought, Western philosophy judges light to be good and dark to be bad.The yin-yang symbol is the embodiment of Taoism—both light and dark aspects are present and balanced.Western religious philosophy acknowledges a dualistic nature from which the darkness must be purged.Evil is seen as separate from good and must be not only resisted and rejected but overcome.The Dark Side is the result of Taoism’s being subjected to the Western concept of evil.


At 12:02 AM, Blogger Kazuya Wright - Actor said...

Very nicely written.

At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Aliza said...

My kids are a great fan of Star Wars Costume and accessories. I have bought Yoda and Darth Vader Costumes for the Halloween.

At 6:34 AM, Anonymous Cindy Welson said...

that is funny to see machines go for bathroom too


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