Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery
Or Maybe It’s Really Just Theft?

           It just seems like our ever-shrinking world has caught up to itself. The cross-fertilization of ideas has been happening at an amazing pace. Trace any contemporary film today, and you can find its roots in classical American theatre or Italian or even Japanese. Believe it or not: some of our most beloved American movies have striking similarities to foreign films.

         In 1977 a film was released that is still grossing big money to this day. Worldwide it has grossed more than fifteen billion dollars. The franchise has spawned action figures, video games, clothes, board games, TV shows, books, and even more film prequels. This movie is Star Wars.

         Star Wars has been seen by an unimaginable number of people. It is a part of our culture, ingrained so much that many of the sayings in the film are part of our natural dialogue. To put it shortly, it is tremendously successful.

         Some have said that Lucas simply borrowed from Kurosawa. But some things are too similar: “[The use of] Flash Gordon "vocabulary" to create an outer-space version of the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, in particular Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Tsubaki Sanjûrô (Sanjuro, 1962) and Yojimbo (which means "bodyguard," 1961). Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces eventually gave Lucas a final major story direction, but many elements from Kurosawa's work remain, including the two bickering peasants (who evolved into the droids), elements of the Obi-Wan/Luke relationship and the queen who often switches places with her handmaiden. The Darth Vader-like evil general who has a change of heart at the end wears a kamon (commonly called simply a "mon", a Japanese family crest) that looks very similar to the Imperial Crest” (“Conception Influences”).

         Even the name of Jedi is taken from Japan. “Lucas said in an interview that he was inspired by a Jidai Geki (samurai-era soap opera) on TV during a visit to Japan.”

         For the record, Lucas is not alone. There is also another famous director of today that has borrowed a lot from foreign films. That man is Quentin Tarantino. Kill Bill (2003) is almost a replicated combination of two or three Japanese movies.

         Anyway, so there seems to be undeniable facts showing the similarities of today’s movies and movies of the past. The big question: is it ethically permissible or morally reprehensible for a person to imitate the work of another (almost to a level of “identicality”) if it is legally acceptable?

         I think that the success of Star Wars speaks volumes on this subject. At the same time I do not think that most Star Wars fans have knowledge of how similar it is to Kukosawa’s films. If they did, I do not think it will make much difference.

         But it is important to note that because of international copyright laws it is not illegal per se to steal from another’s work. This is one of the reason the pirating of DVDs is such a big issue. But, before we go on the reader needs to ask himself or herself an important question: Where does the idea of imitating ends and stealing begins?

         It seems that the sheer abundance of similarities between Star Wars and Kurosawa’s work is enough to see that it is stealing, but stealing is only stealing when a law is there to back it up. So legally, Lucas has not stolen anything. It leads one to think: are the audience members who idolized Lucas betrayed because it is not all his work?

         These questions have no answers. This paper does not have an answer to its thesis questions. Because upon first understanding of the similarities I also learned this: Kurosawa said that Star Wars was a good fantasy movie. He liked it! On top of that Lucas produced Kurosawa’s later works because he could not get funding in his own country. So, is this retribution and does this make up for all the thievery?

         I am still not sure. If both parties are O.K. with what happened, then why beat a dead horse? But as a fan of Star Wars and subsequently Lucas’ work, I feel a bit betrayed. The whole ordeal just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

         But as we move into later in the twenty-first century and we progress into the twenty-second century, we will find that more and more of this “borrowing” happens. Because of this I ask, when does it end? When does the originator get the credit he so rightly deserves?

A. J. Casey

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