Our man in Japan Dave Hackerson reports on a wonderfully unique event in the run up to The Last Jedi.
Bydoin Temple, a World Heritage site located in the Uji district of Kyoto, served as the stage for festivities celebrating the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Priests were on hand to conduct a prayer for the film’s success, which was then followed by a special Star Wars-themed kyogen (medieval Japanese comedy) performance and the unveiling of a folding screen with characters from The Last Jedi.
The connection between Japan and the Star Wars saga runs deep. Thus, it was only fitting that the World Heritage Site Byodoin-Temple would welcome the saga’s latest director for a special ceremony to pray for the upcoming film’s success. “My love for Star Wars as a kid is what got me into Akira Kurosawa’s films,” said Johnson excitedly. “It’s truly an honor to have the chance to experience Japanese culture in this fashion. This morning was truly special.” Mr. Keiji Yamada, the governor of Kyoto Prefecture, gave Johnson a warm welcome. “It is a privilege to have the opportunity to bring Star Wars back to Kyoto again and hold festivities here at Byodoin-Temple, one of the very pinnacles of Japanese culture,” he said. “Uji is also the district that made Kyoto famous for its green tea. I would love for all who see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in Kyoto to enjoy some of our wonderful tea as they watch the film.”
Kylo Ren with his trademark cross-guard lightsaber, a storm trooper, and fan-favorite C-3PO also “attended” the austere prayer ceremony. Members of the press on hand to witness the ceremony were wowed by the special Star Wars kyogen and The Last Jedi folding screen that were unveiled, two gorgeous examples of the fusion of Japanese culture and Star Wars. Director Rian Johnson was moved to tears by these enchanting Japan-infused interpretations of the Star Wars universe.
R2-D2 and C-3PO have featured in all of the Star Wars saga films. Much of the inspiration for this droid duo comes from a pair of farmers named Tahei and Matashichi, the two main characters in Kurosawa’s film Hidden Fortress. These characters are based on the tarokaja and jirokaja, two archetypes often employed in kyogen. The tarokaja is one of the superstar and truly definitive roles in kyogen, often serving as the main protagonist or retainer of a daimyo (warlord). He takes on a number of different personalities, depending on the play, being portrayed as a shrewd character, noble individual, reliable servant, or village fool. The tarokaja is generally full of charm and strength, capable of overcoming any adversity he encounters, and exhibits an extreme level of determination that borders on hilarity. The jirokaja almost always appears as the tarokaja’s sidekick. He’s a downtrodden character that is often portrayed as the servant to a master. The jirokaja’s attempts to outwit his master form one of the basic facets of kyogen, and they produce many of the more comedic moments of a play. The piece selected for Star Wars treatment by Sensaburo Shigeyama, a practitioner of the Okura school of kyogen, was called Fumi-ninai, a play that features both the tarokaja and jirokaja. Sensaburo donned a mask resembling C-3PO and played the part of the tarokaja, while Doji Shigeyama wore an R2-D2 style mask and took on the jirokaja role. The master in this adaptation was Kylo Ren, and he was portrayed by the kyogen actor Minoru Suzuki, who wore a mask that evoked the Dark Side character. Each of these masks was an original work that has been used in other kyogen plays. They were all equipped with voice changers to add that Star Wars feel to one of Japan’s traditional performing arts.
“I settled on Fumi-ninai for this adaptation because it features the tarokaja and jirokaja roles that inspired Akira Kurosawa,” explained Saburo Shigeyama. “They always seem to blunder their way through things, just like R2-D2 and C-3PO. The vocal performance sounds a little different than normal kyogen, but we still recite the same medieval Japanese text.” The way the tarokaja and jirokaja play off each other resembles how the two droids interact in Star Wars. Rian Johnson gave the adaptation two glowing thumbs up of approval. “It was a truly wonderful performance and brilliant presentation of what kyogen is. I could see the elements of the tarokaja’s and jirokaja’s interaction and body language reflected in not just other droids, but a number of other characters in the saga,” commented Johnson. “This entire experience reminded me again of the connections between Japanese culture and Star Wars. It was really a sight to behold.”
Byodoin Temple also served as the venue for the unveiling of a special Star Wars-themed folding screen created by Masayuki Kojo, a local samurai portrait artist from the Uji district. The screen is an officially licensed work by Lucasfilm, bearing the characters of Kylo Ren, C-3PO, and R2-D2. It is composed of two folding panels, which combined together stand 1.685 meters tall by 1.654 meters wide. The Japanese interpretations of these characters are powerfully depicted, with the intensity of Kylo Ren offset by the playful dynamism of the two beloved droids. “This piece provided me with a canvas to combine my 20 years of Star Wars fandom with Japanese culture,” said Kojo. “My goal was to express the sense of conviction each character possesses in this samurai-style portrait.” Rian Johnson was truly impressed by the stunning and beautiful work and its traditional Japanese representation of the Star Wars universe. “I’m really grateful for such a gorgeous piece,” he stated. “The transfixing beauty really captures the connection between that ‘Star Wars’ feel and the Japanese aesthetic.”
The Star Wars: The Last Jedi screen will be on display at the Uji Tourist Information Center until October 1.