****Spoilers ahead for the Mandalorian! If you have not seen the show and don’t want it spoiled , stop reading now!!!****
Chapter four of the Mandalorian has just dropped and did not disappoint. I am thoroughly enjoying this program and I am not alone. Fans and new comers alike are falling in love with this story of an unknown Mando making his way after the fall of the Empire. The show has created an uncommon consensus among Fans on the internet, everyone loves it. This is not an easy feat to achieve in this day and age.
For regular audiences, the drama, setting, and action will be more than enough to get one on board. But Star Wars Fans are notoriously fickle and argumentative. But not so with the Mandalorian. There has been hardly a negative reaction to this series. Some fans even saying this is the best Star Wars adventure they have experienced. Possibly because it is drawing from the same well as the very first movie (the one I know as “Star Wars”). And not only are they returning to the same genre inspirations as the original outing, but they are taking liberally from two of my favorite examples of each.
The show has achieved such a high saturation and appealed to so many ever critical viewers, it is reminiscent of the original movie hitting the theaters in the ’70s. There is something for every one for sure. From pulse pounding action, good wit and humor, and of course, Baby Yoda. The show packs lots of entertainment in it’s shorter than average running time. But they achieve something that the original movies did as well. And it is this that I think is the main reason for its success.
The show liberally takes inspiration from 2 other genres of narratives ;Samurai stories and Old Gunslinger Westerns. The show melds them into a world of bounty hunters and deposed military leaders fighting over the scraps of the Empire. Tales of lawless places and lawless people. It draws from past eras and cultures to create a vibrant and authentic world for us to visit.
These two genres are closely related. Many Early and influential Japanese Samurai movies like Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and the Seven Samurai took their own cues from Hollywood Westerns. Later in the 60’s and 70’s, this came full circle with the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” taking many cues from the Japanese movies like, Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven. And the cycle continues to this day.
The Man with No Name
The influences of westerns on the aesthetic and setting of the Mandalorian should be fairly obvious to American viewers. But core to the story and appeal of the show, is the titular character simply known as “The Mandalorian”. This is a plays on the ever popular “man with no name” trope made famous by Clint Eastwood in the “A Fistful of Dollars”. Eastwood plays the unnamed (or simply nicknamed) stranger that comes to town and starts the excitement. The man with a mysterious past, with seemly no or shallow motivations, being central to the story. The Mandalorian slips right into this idiom like a frog down Jaba’s throat. The use of Mandalorian culture as ways to both keep that a mystery alive and reveal things about his character are inspired. Not only does our hero not have a name, because of his culture, he also has no face.
This use of the stranger or anonymous and unlikely protagonist as seen in A Fistful of Dollars et al, finds its predecessor, in of all places, Japan, and the films Yojimbo and Sanjuro by Akira Kurosawa. The films follow the exploits of nameless ronin, Toshiro Mifune, and his trouble making around mostly organized crime figures. A Fistful of Dollars was unofficially a remake of Yojimbo. But Kurosawa himself based the film on the Westerns he saw from his youth. So here, the circle is complete.
The Mandalorian follows this idea and to great effect. The setting of the unstable galaxy after the fall of the empire provide a prefect backdrop for the colorful cast of characters our very subdued and subtle hero will come across. The mystery of what has happened to the Mandalorians after the fall or the Empire adds to the hero’s mystique. The bounty hunters. The untrustworthy allies. The chaos and anarchy that follows war and regime change.
It makes a universe that is ripe with possibilities.
Mando and Child
The breakaway star of the show is undoubtedly the Child, affectionately known as “Baby Yoda”. The Client, played by Werner Herzog, is after this youngling of Yoda’s species. As the narrative progresses our hero essentially adopts the role of caregiver and protector for the little one. So, now, it is a Mandalorian with a Baby Yoda in tow. This dynamic leads to some fun and suspenseful moments in the story, and adds an element of risk as the Child is put into harms way. The image of the pod containing the child floating after the Hero as he chases down a Jawa Sandcrawler is a stand out for me.
This dynamic has its lineage also in Samurai and Japanese culture. In the early ‘70s, A Manga by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima called “Lone Wolf and Cub” was published. This was the story of a Samurai of High station named Ogami Ittō being framed by a rival family, loosing his wife and his house at the hands of those rivals, but being left with his one year old son Daigoro. Ditto wishes to go on the road of revenge, to abandon the normal world of social connection and instead follow the path of the ronin, a masterless samurai. Ion this path Into will embrace death and suffering, it is stoic path. But before he begins, he gives his child a choice, a ball or a sword. If Daigoro crawls to the ball, Itto will kill him and send him to be with his mother. If he crawls to the sword, the child will accompany his father on the “Eightfold Demon Path”. He chooses the sword. What follows are chapters that follow Itto and his son through adventures in various level of Japanese Society in the Edo Period. It is a sprawling narrative and has many incredible moments.
Seeing the Child appear in the Mandalorian immediately screams of this story. The main hook of the narrative being the same; Our hero is saddled with seemingly an insurmountable burden, a child. What would happen to a child who is with an interstellar bounty hunter or vengeful Samurai? This brings in a tension that remains through out the entire experience. The audience’s mind tends to drift back to the child as being helpless, which in both stories it is not. Baby Yoda’s cuteness also helps people connect with a world which is, by design, an alienating place, full of miscreants and criminals. The relationship that grows between father and son in Lone Wolf and Cub follows their experiences among the people. The pair go from place to place taking jobs for all kinds of people. Officials, actors, beggars. And each time their world is opened up and laid bare. This sets up an exciting premise for the Mandalorian. The Star Wars universe is replete with unknown cultures and societies that have been mentioned and those that have not.
Eastern Westerns in Space
Westerns and Samurai films have similar settings both being set at the end or margins of a time or place. Someplace where the law, oversight, or the safety of society are not present. Wether it be at the end of the Edo period, or after the Civil War, the themes of who lives in the debris of upheavals and rebellions and what do their lives look like are universal in both. The Mandalorian is set 5 years after the fall of the Empire, setting much the same environments as one would find in these a Gunslinger or Samurai film. The landscape filled with scum and villainy, the icing by a code of survival and having deep connections to a past that may have been destroyed by the very thing they are a part of now. All of these themes are a perfect fit for a faceless bounty hunter of a culture that is just mysterious.
The final thought I have about this excellent series and why it is resonating with me and possibly so many other fans is because not only are these themes and genres so accessible to most people, but they are the very same ones that Lucas drew from to create the original Film. Westerns, Samurai epics, Shoot ‘em ups, and serialized narratives from books, TV and film. The mix was potent back when Star Wars first hit the scene, and hit still carries with it the same power and appeal today.
All of this really deserves a deep dive into it. These influences run deep and are etched into the fabric of our being. They are plentiful in the world of the Mandalorian. The ways these three genres are connected, the way these specific movies have influenced the greater star wars universe is far too involved to do justice here. Also, the show is only half over. We will revisit the topic at season’s end. I, for one, cannot wait to see were this will lead. We will resist the topic when this season is over.
This is the way.
I have spoken.