Before Star Wars even landed in Japan, there was already pornographic manga of Luke, Leia and co. in open circulation. The films’ advertising publicity supervisor, Charles Lippincott, and star Mark Hamill arrived in the East for a press tour. There they stumbled across a few choice manga and brought them back for boss-man George Lucas as a bit of a giggle. But they hadn’t counted on his aversion to porno, fan made or otherwise, spawned from his magnum opus. The only thing that prevented Lucas from suing the artists was a legal loophole, since the film hadn’t yet been released. Despite his disgust, the immediacy of this international response must have stunned him outright. Even then, he was unaware that this was the starting signal for an enduring Japanese fascination with Star Wars, looping Lucas’ samurai inspired movie right back around on itself.
Flash forward to the 1990s and illustrator Hisao Tamaki was working to recreate the original trilogy as a manga series. With the time and space to consider the style, themes and flow, this series came to be more highly regarded among comic fans than its earlier American counterparts. Having a far more flexible format and page limits, the manga could afford to luxuriate, expand and pontificate on any moments they wished. With the freedom to slow down and splash gore around, the resulting sequential adaptation was broodier and bloodier than the comparatively kid-friendly source material. The manga were far more text-minimalist than the 70s/80s comics too, the stark monochrome visuals opened up to a darker sense of visual expression. In a piece for io9, WIRED writer Graeme McMillan says that it wasn’t even just an issue of “pacing and available space – while Marvel’s 22-page limit for each issue reduces the destruction of Alderaan to one panel, the manga spends six pages on the same event – but also of editorial restrictions: Vader cutting off Luke’s hand is shown in all its gory detail in Japan, but American audiences find a piece of machinery suspiciously in the way.”
Long before the arrival of the Star Wars manga, however, came the first anime feature adapting Galaxy Express 999. Leiji Matsumoto’s 1977 manga is set in a future where humans have learned to perfectly transfer their minds and emotions into mechanical bodies. This film arguably does a better job than the prequel trilogy of putting a character like Anakin Skywalker under a sympathetic spotlight. Tetsuro is obsessed with getting his own mechanised body, giving him eternal life and freedoms he could never have as a human. And so, he and his mother quest to get aboard the Galaxy Express 999 – a space train that only comes to Earth once a year – so they can travel to the Andromeda Galaxy, the fabled utopia where anyone, from any walk of life, is free to inhabit one of these otherwise astronomically expensive bodies. Before they even reach the station, however, Count Mecha and a gang of “human hunters” kill Tetsuro’s mother, who tells him to go on, find his mechanised body and live the eternal life she couldn’t.
Galaxy Express 999, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, the star-bound operatics of Space Battleship Yamato, and the beloved Mobile Suit Gundam franchise are all in line for the title of the ‘Star Wars of Japan’, ever being argued over by anime fans. Although many think Gundam’s giant lightsabers in space are the only crossover point, the two universes share more in common than it would seem at first glance. Gundam is celebrated for working in shades of grey, with a sympathetic villain and questionable hero consistently present, while Star Wars is often disregarded as light and dark. But you only need look as far as the prequels to see that this view is flawed.
Anakin spends his whole life before he becomes Darth Vader in the ghostly grey area of the conscience; pained, prideful, yet devoted to those he loves. And when you delve deeper than the movies, considering The Clone Wars TV show, the offshoot video games and novels, you find even more characters who feel most at home drifting between the light and dark. Take Anakin’s padawan Ahsoka Tano, who later exists outside of the Jedi and the Sith, or Revan of the Old Republic, the Dark Lord manipulated for the Jedi’s own ends.
But going by more than lasers and starships, Star Wars could be seen as the catalyst for maybe the most greyed-out space opera in anime history. Cowboy Bebop takes a nudge from the movies by breaking into territory that hadn’t been explored often in anime beforehand, putting a Japanese spin on Lucas’ used universe concept. In the delicate balance between drama and space battles, character revelations tip the story emotionally for shock effect, but never for moral stance. Queer and genderqueer characters are simply stumbled across without needing a reason for being there, or even a motive, good, evil or otherwise.
These people pass each other as though in the vastness of the galaxy, their paths overlapping only temporarily. Their memories remain as wounds of regret, heartache and fury, but in space, there’s only the immeasurable distance, no hope of comfort or vengeance. In Star Wars, love and friendship over hatred was the victory, a sentiment that anime fans know well. But Cowboy Bebop took the anguish, grief and deprivation running somewhere within all of Lucas’ characters, swapping out a finite triumph for a transient, indefinite new hope.