December 20, 2010

The static hero

The story structure of Yashakiden (I'm finishing the translation of volume 3) reminds me of The Hidden Fortress, the Kurosawa samurai actioner that helped to inspire Star Wars.

The Hidden Fortress was for Kurosawa a commercial effort (movie studios do have to turn a profit). He would reportedly arrive at work every morning, present his protagonists with a seemingly intractable situation, and charge his writing staff with getting them out of it.

The result is quite enjoyable, but believe it or not, Lucas actually improved on it (the last time that would ever happen) by giving Han Solo a compelling character arc.

In The Hidden Fortress, General Makabe (the great Toshiro Mifune) is pretty much cool, smart and heroic, like a 1950's superhero who is ultimately unaffected by the consequences of his daring-do, and who might catch a bad case of cooties hanging around girls too much.

Series television used to avoid character arcs, with the protagonist resetting at the end of each episode. Think of the original Star Trek and even TNG. And while too much character arc produces soppy melodrama, none results in plots summed up as, "And then a bunch of stuff happens."

Which is fine for a ninety-minute actioner. But what the hero does should affect him, hence the tried and true rule of fiction writing that the main character is the person who changes the most. (In Star Wars, this means the main characters are Darth Vader and Han Solo.)

Actually, I'd argue that Star Trek has what I'd call a "steady state" character spiral, a relationship between the three leads that grows and matures as the actors and writers settle into their roles. So might the Setsura/Mephisto pairing in Yashakiden, but at this point I can't tell.

For now, Setsura is an impassive superhero of the old school, a kind of aloof and detached Peter Parker taking arms against an uninvited sea of troubles. As in The Hidden Fortress, these conflicts present themselves as an obstacle course, which he will eventually and inevitably overcome.

At the end of volume 3, he does dispatch a vampire in a very clever way. But most of the fun for me is generated by the supporting characters.

To start with, the sidekicks, including the wily mayor of Shinjuku, an animatronic doll with a soul, a wisecracking crow (a direct descendant of Poe's raven), and a fat witch who will only save you if it pays well.

Then the victims, some of whom have very compelling mini-arcs of their own before getting bumped off like the red-shirts on Star Trek (don't get too attached to them). Lastly, the villains. Hideyuki Kikuchi has done an excellent job making the bad guys as fascinating as they are bad.

Through Kikuchi's best character of all is the setting itself, Demon City Shinjuku. More about that later.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
12/20/2010 2:52 PM   
I found The Hidden Fortress dreadfully boring and simply did not see a strong Star Wars connection. (Even Lucas denies there is one, or at least used to before he believed all the BS written about him.)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
12/20/2010 3:44 PM   
According to Wikipedia, "Lucas started on a completely new outline, this time borrowing heavily from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, so much so that at one time he considered buying the rights to the film. He relied on a plot synopsis from Donald Richie's book The Films of Akira Kurosawa and wrote a 14-page draft that paralleled The Hidden Fortress, with names and settings reminiscent of the science fiction genre."

And then there's this. The first paragraph contains the entire plot of The Hidden Fortress (which points to one of its weaknesses). To be sure, I don't see a problem here. You can't copyright plots and this kind of borrowing went on all the time in Renaissance art, music and theater. If anything, the number of drafts Lucas went through speaks to the refinement of the final product, something missing from his subsequent productions.
# posted by Blogger Joe
12/20/2010 4:09 PM   
Yet Lucas is quoted as saying that he didn't borrow so much from The Hidden Fortress as borrowing the idea of telling the story from the perspective of the two sidekicks.

(It may be that one draft was simply retelling The Hidden Fortress but the end result clearly does not.

I do agree that there is a distinct lack of refinement is Lucas's work as he ages. The first three films in the series seem like they went to film straight from the moment of conception as ideas.)