The Ki awakens – How much Aikido in Star Wars?
Star Wars. Jedis and Samurais. The Force and the Ki. How many similarities! When Luke Skywalker in the second film of the original trylogy, The Empire Strikes Back, flies to the Dagobah system to meet master Yoda, he does not recognize him in the little funny being in front of him. Annoyed, he replies to the tiny one’s many questions trying to dismiss him by saying he’s looking for a “great warrior”. “Great warrior! Great Warrior? …War not makes one great“, is master Yoda’s wise reply. Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba would have said the same. So bear with me as the Ki awakens…
The Star Wars saga has always intrigued me for its similarities with Aikido and martial arts in general. Obviously, the first analogy is the one between Force and Ki. But what about the Jedi knights and the Japanese Samurai? The light saber is the katana in a futuristic science-fiction. Jedis are respected and feared in the same way the Samurai were at their times.
The mistique around the Jedis surely derives from eastern philosophy, mainly from Taoism (Tao = Do = Way), but there’s also a lot of Zen. Aikido has much to do with Star Wars mistique as well as Kung Fu. The shamanism Carlos Castaneda describes in his Don Juan involves concepts like the “life force” and many more are the western-derived religious and mistical influences in Star Wars. But here I would like to highlight the similarities with our martial art in particular.
Starting from the clothing, Luke Skywalker, as well as many other characters, wears something that is clearly inspired to what we call “keikogi” (Japanese martial arts kimono); it is also held together by means of a belt (and a rather dark one, I’d say). The mantle and hood look more like they’re of western inspiration (medieval monks?). Dart Vader’s helmet and armor – and his stormtroopers’ – seem to be modeled after Samurai helmets (maybe with some hints from WWII); furthermore, let’s not forget Dart Vader often retires in meditation. The light saber is the katana of the future. Like the katana represented the power and honor of a Samurai and embodied his own soul, the light saber represents the Jedi warrior; only a completely trained Jedi is able to build one.
Japanese Budo and Chinese Kung Fu aim to fight our inner enemies, things like pettiness, ambition, selfishness, which prevent us from becoming real human beings. If you let go to those human quirks you’re going to be in trouble – Morihei Ueshiba used to say: “As soon as you concern yourself with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter“; Yoda’s words also deal with good and bad: “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering” (The Phantom Menace). Once in the dark side, we would be off the Way, we would become some Dart Vaders, using our techinques to subjugate others, to gain personal advantages. Luke wonders if the dark side may be stronger. Yoda replies: “No! No! No… quicker… easier… more seductive…!”. I often say that using pain, hurting a partner (in Aikido there is no opponent) to perform a technique is a quicker and easier way. Aikido is more difficult: we must be able to perform a technique causing no harm to the partner (or we will fall to the dark side).
A true aikidoka, as well as a Jedi knight, needs to learn how to master the power of Ki (of the Force), avoiding to feel attracted by the obvious possibilities of abuse. If we do become strong it is for helping others, not for destroying them. “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack”. Luke will understand later, when he will throw his light saber away instead of killing his father, as the Emperor would have liked. It is not easy to feel strong and powerful without also feeling a sense of superiority. Staying humble is a fundamental principle of Budo. It is the same for the Jedi – lest he will fall to the dark side of the Force.
George Lucas was raised as a methodist but he embraced Buddhism rather early. Rumors on the net suggest he even took some Aikido training in Los Angeles at the Ki Society under Shoji Nishio. Some of Nishio’s students say they affectionately called him “Yoda Sensei” for his resemblance to the fictional character. The same students do assert it might be possible that Lucas, or more likely his collaborators, had been insipired to Nishio’s looks rather than Ueshiba’s for the Yoda character.
In Star Wars, the idea was to integrate themes that were not merely religious but that were fully inspired to what religions have in common, from the eastern and middle-eastern to the native American ones. But when thinking of the moral code of the Jedis, it is impossible not to see the resemblance to the Samurai code, the Bushido.
Do you know how the Samurai movies are called in Japan – all those stories set in the feudal period of Japan? “Jidai Geki”: period representation, historical drama. A strong similarity with the word Jedi.
A Jedi master in the prequel trilogy is called Ki Adi Mundi. Ki and the Force are clearly similar concepts: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together…“; again: “A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him“. It sounds like the desciption of Ki. These are the words of the Jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi, a name that sounds vaguely Japanese: “obi” means belt, “ken” is the sword, “wan” means bay or gulf, a container, a bowl – maybe the container of knowledge (with a sword in his belt)? When Luke asks Obi Wan if the Force controls your actions, he replies: “Partially, but it also obeys your commands“. In the same way, aikidokas should command the Ki to efficently perform their techniques.
Yoda’s size does not convince Luke at first sight. Even the Aikido founder was not awe-inspiring in the second half of his life. He was diminutive and often showing big smiles. But his techniques were very effective since the power of Ki was “his ally”. In Aikido, we often talk about small-sized practitioners putting down big ones. “Size matters not” Yoda states, Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is“.
As well as the Force, the concept of Ki (or Chi for the Chinese) is related to the fundamental energy of the universe. Both nature and the functions of the human mind are part of it. Ki represents energy in its ethereal form, that particular cosmic energy which hovers and flutters in nature and is vital to Man. Therefore, Ki is also the cosmic energy that supports everything.
The similarities are strong, indeed, although Lucas described a completely different influence in forming his idea of the Force. However, some say he talked to many Aikido masters while developing his ideas for the first movie, that is clearly inspired to a Jidai Geki: The Hidden Fortress, by Akira Kurosawa, where a character similar to Han Solo is played by Toshiro Mifune – there’s also a princess to be rescued. According to Aikido and eastern philosophy, the human being is alive as long as the universal Ki is flowing within and the human being exchanges it with the surrounding nature. Without Ki the human being si no longer alive and dissolves. Reminds of Yoda’s passing…
Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba used to say: “In the practice, when your opponent attacks, you must already be moving. After you’ve seen him moving it’s already too late and any movement from you part is pointless, since your opponent’s blow will be almost deadly. Move simultaneously with the attack; you must feel your opponent’s intention. Actually, it is not a question of using your mind. You should move naturally, without thinking. When you will reach this status you will be able to move simultaneously with the other. If you think too much when your opponent’s attack begins, you will not be aware of his movements. Only when your mind will be quiet like a water puddle and you will be physically alert, you will be aware of your opponent’s movements and of his natural breathing. In such a state you will feel the changes of feelings of your opponent“.
A Jedi knight, too, shouldn’t think but act instinctively. Obi Wan urges Luke to do the the same during his early training: “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them! …Feel the Force, Luke! Trust your instincts, Luke“. One of Yoda’s instructions to Luke is also to “unlearn what you have learned”. It is exactly what we should do in martial arts. Ueshiba said: “Eventually you must forget the techniques. The more you progress, the less are the teachings. The Big Path is actually a no-Path“. We should forget the technique so that it can flow naturally without thinking – just as a musician does with his/her instrument, when he/she doesn’t think what he/she’s doing and thus art is created. It is not easy at all. Many do not believe it and therefore they fail. That’s what happens to Luke when he tries to remove his spacecraft from the swamp using the power of the Force. A disappointed Yoda shows him it is indeed possible – Luke exclaims: “I don’t believe it!” “That is why you fail…” Yoda sadly replies…
To sum it up, Ki is the Force, the katana is the light saber, and the Samurai is the Jedi knight. We have it all. But between you and me, since we know something about Japanese swordmanship thanks to a little aikiken/kenjutsu training, the actors impersonating the Jedis in the movies are quite embarassing while they play the combat scenes – come on, they should have hired a better master of arms!
So, do you want to be prepared when the Force awakens? Do you want the Force to be strong with you? Come on and try Aikido!
Sorry… “Do or do not. There is no try”!
Star Wars Philosophy, Kevin Decker, Jason Eberl