The genesis of the original Star Wars film has spawned more than its share of mythical legends. However, one of the more intriguing tales surrounds the fact that George Lucas had someone completely different in mind from Sir Alec Guiness to play the sagely hermit-turned-Jedi-mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. More in line with the original samurai influences of his Jedi concept, Lucas allegedly first turned to the definitive cinematic samurai himself, Toshiro Mifune.
While the legend of the potential casting of the iconic Kurosawa katana wielder is known and hardly breaking news, it seems that we now know why it never came to fruition. At an event in Tokyo announcing the very first Tokyo Comic Con, the legacy of Mifune was well represented by way of the late screen legend’s daughter, Mika. Joined onstage by Star Wars onscreen alumni like Ian McDiarmid and Ray Park, Mika reportedly revealed the reasoning behind his fateful rejection of the Obi-Wan role. As she recalls:
“I heard from my father that he was offered the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, but he was concerned about how the film would look and that it would cheapen the image of samurai, on which George Lucas had based a lot of the character and fighting style.”
Yet, ever the film fanboy, Lucas was undeterred in his desire to have Mifune be part of his experimental effort and subsequently offered him a role in which his face, much like Kurosawa’s famous influential “fortress,” would be safely hidden underneath the visage of a black helmet as the villainous Darth Vader. However, this offer apparently did little to assuage Mifune’s reservations. As Mika further explains:
“At the time, sci-fi movies still looked quite cheap as the effects were not advanced and he had a lot of samurai pride. So then, there was talk about him taking the Darth Vader role as his face would be covered, but in the end he turned that down too.”
It seems that the prolific Japanese screen legend who popularized the image of the samurai on a global scale by starring in films such as Yojimbo, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai was afraid that his presence in an inauspicious science fiction effort like Star Wars would damage the movie-shaped image of the honorable samurai. It’s certainly an understandable fear since, on paper, 1977’s original Star Wars was an unfeasible, era-anachronistic project that seemed imminently destined for late-night television showings at best.
Yet, whether it’s the thinly-veiled sporadic Japanese terms, the flowing robes, the austere wandering lifestyle or the obvious nods to ancient swordplay seen as obsolete by a world that abandoned them, the Jedi have clearly become the most famous samurai in cinema — they just happen to live in a galaxy far, far away. Indeed, the franchise has Toshiro Mifune to thank for that fact, regardless of his non-participation.