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The Phantom Menace: Japanese Archetypes and Iconography in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

I’m an unapologetic fan of The Phantom Menace (though I must confess that I used to be a bit embarrassed to admit it). In the past, I struggled to articulate exactly why I found it to be so appealing; eventually, however, I discovered the answer in the more obscure corners of the jidaigeki genre: like A New Hope, the film is refreshingly transparent about its narrative and stylistic influences, making it an endlessly-satisfying treat for the truly devoted cinephile.

Consider, for example, the scene in which Qui-Gon Jinn uses his superhuman abilities to cheat at a game of chance, delighting in the opportunity to humiliate his morally-bankrupt opponent. Sounds a lot like Zatoichi, doesn’t it?

The dual identities of the shadowy central villain (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious), meanwhile, are reminiscent of Shinobi no Mono’s Sandayu Momochi/Nagato Fujibayashi, who likewise manipulates both sides of a bloody conflict in order to solidify his own power.

Even the controversial Jar Jar Binks shares a certain kinship with Akira Kurosawa’s “Clown” characters, who are often more helpful or insightful than their foolish behavior would initially suggest.

And in my opinion, these allusions, references, and mythic archetypes are what make Episode I so entertaining and memorable; they provide compelling evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the movie was a genuine labor of love.

[Originally written January 8, 2020 in response to a social media post.]

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