INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Donnie Yen’s ‘Star Wars’ Star Turn

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GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTONBy GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

It’s no secret that 1977’s “Star Wars” was inspired by its writer-director’s admiration for Japanese culture. (You could say “stole from” if you wanted to be less diplomatic.) Luke Skywalker’s tunic? A judo gi. Darth Vader’s helmet? A samurai kabuto. The light sabers wielded by Vader, Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi? Futuristic katana. (Then there’s the Kenobi character’s actual first name “Obi,” which is also the Japanese word for belt or waist sash.)

The Jedi Knights? Samurai. The Force? Zen-inspired superhuman martial arts mumbo-jumbo. The symbols worn on the helmets of the X-Wing fighters pilots? Japanese family crests or mon.

Then there’s the movie’s plot itself, with elements appropriated from director Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress,” from which the droids C3PO and R2D2 were also supposedly inspired.

In the second installment, 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” we met Jedi master Yoda, which is also a Japanese surname. (Just ask my friend, Steven Yoda.) Yoda was not played by a Japanese actor, either. He wasn’t even human. He was a darn puppet!

Without a doubt, the original “Star Wars” succeeded beyond George Lucas’ wildest thoughts, and those Japanese elements were clearly a big part of it. (It’s also been said that Lucas was inspired by comic book artist Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Forever People titles, which had a villain named Darkseid.) Old wine in a new bottle? Yes — but I enjoyed the first two movies as much as anyone. (As for all the rest, not so much.)

One of the things I enjoyed were all the out-of-this-world (literally) aliens from the imagination of special effects makeup artist Rick Baker. But among the humans, there was little of the diversity found among the creatures from the Mos Eisley cantina scene. Among the original “Star Wars” cast, there was nary a non-white actor or actress to be found.

Even back then, there were those who realized this and criticized “Star Wars” for its casting limitations. To Lucas’ credit, when “Empire” came out, he added to the cast Billy Dee Williams, the handsome African American heartthrob, as Lando Calrissian. (Maybe he was Armenian?)

This weekend will be the latest installment, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” It being 2016, the cast is more balanced. This installment introduces us to a character named Chirrut Imwe, played by Hong Kong-based superstar action actor Donnie Yen.

Yen is somewhat known in the U.S., but he’s far from a household name. In Hong Kong and China, though, he’s been for a time now arguably bigger than either Jackie Chan or Jet Li, since they’ve kind of aged out of doing action movies. Yen has over the years appeared opposite both Chan and Li; he was in Chan’s “Shanghai Knights” in 2003, for example.

Yen, incidentally, did spend some of his youth growing up in the Boston area, where his mother, Bow Sim Mark, is a renowned tai chi and gung fu teacher. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that Yen has a reputation for having a temper and an imperious attitude. Maybe that’s what has helped him rise to the level he has attained. Regardless, I’m happy for him to appear what has to be his biggest production yet: a “Star Wars” movie. If this doesn’t make him a household name, nothing will.

Incidentally, if you’ve seen pictures of Yen as Imwe, you might have noticed his greyed-out eyes. Yen wore special contact lenses for the part because his character, who is supposed to be an extraordinary fighter, is blind. Yes, the filmmakers have again dipped into the Japanese well, since this sounds a lot like the Japanese character of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. Some things never change …

Donnie Yen plays Chirrut Imwe in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," which opens Friday.

Donnie Yen plays Chirrut Imwe in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which opens Friday.

Land of the Rising Rates Dept.:  In case you missed the announcement in the Dec. 8 Rafu Shimpo, the cost of subscribing to the print version of this newspaper is increasing effective Jan. 3. The regular or one-year subscription is rising $20 and will be $169; six months will be $85; and three months will be will be $68. Meantime, the old student rate is disappearing, as is the one-month rate. Remember, this is only for the print edition of the paper. If you’re an electronic newspaper subscriber only, the price of $50 remains the same. If your print subscription is expiring soon, renew now and save. And if you were thinking of giving the gift of the print version of Rafu Shimpo to some relatives or friends, great! Just do it ASAP and save.

Honor & Glory Dept.: There is a new book about the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. It is titled “Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese American GIs Who Rescued the Lost Battalion” (Da Capo Press, ISBN: 9780306824456; 304 pages, SRP $25.99) and is written by Scott McGough. It was released Oct. 11. I just got a copy and will write more about it in an upcoming column; hopefully I’ll be able to interview McGough, too.

SAG Award Nominations Dept.: The Screen Actors Guild on Wednesday released its nominations for its annual awards. It’s important from the perspective of on-screen diversity, whether it’s something like “Star Wars” in 1977 or “Rogue One” in 2016, as well as in light of the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign that arose after a second consecutive year in which the 20 acting noms for that awards program were all white actors and actresses.

There have been recent articles about how that’s been rectified for this awards season, but the emphasis has been on how there are more roles for black actors and actresses being recognized. But that’s also a problem, because it’s not just a black and white issue, even though some media reports seem to focus just on that. There also need to be three-dimensional roles for actors who are Latino, Native American and, of course Asian.

I did get an email from someone decrying the absence of Asians among SAG Award nominees. Well, that’s not necessarily true. Emma Stone of “Aloha” fame was nominated for “La La Land” — and she’s part Chinese and Hawaiian, as well as Caucasian, right? (Yes, that’s an attempt at humor.)

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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