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, where 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 precious creation. 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 screaming 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 original 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 things down and splash gore around as Tamaki saw fit, 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. From here, this first film of the manga that introduced rogue romantic Captain Harlock shifted its structure to match what would come to be known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Rather than having Tetsuro kill Count Mecha after his mother is murdered on Earth, he restrains himself from his revenge until a stand-off between the two towards the end, in the count’s Time Castle on the planet Heavy Melder.