A samurai and Darth Vader

The Samurai Influence on Star Wars

You don’t have to wait until the November opening of Star Wars and the Power of Costume to get your Star Wars fix at the Denver Art Museum. Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection (on view through June 5) showcases some of the world’s finest examples of the types of meticulously crafted armor and weaponry that inspired George Lucas and the Star Wars costume designers.

Helmets in the samurai exhibition

Samurai & Darth Vader

Throughout the Samurai exhibition, there are several helmets (kabuto) and facemasks (menpō), which were not only functional, they showcased the beliefs and individuality of the wearer. Likewise, the dark helmet and mechanical mask of Darth Vader give viewers some insight into the Star Wars villain’s sinister personality. These iconic pieces of armor also take their shapes directly from those of the samurai. Early drawings of Vader reveal other near-direct quotations of samurai gear, including specific pieces of body armor.

Beyond the vast array of helmets and facemasks showcased in the Samurai exhibition, visitors can explore the influence of religious, social, and environmental forces in the design elements of the samurai armor. The oni is a demon figure in Japanese folklore that appears in several helmets. He is often horned and believed to be invincible. In the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, Sith Lord Darth Maul likewise possesses menacing horns and a frighteningly tattooed face.

Gallery view of Samurai exhibition

Swords & Sabers

In addition to the influence of the samurai on the costumes of Star Wars, the weaponry of the samurai impacted the movies’ props. The sword was known as the “soul of the samurai.” The same importance is given to the light saber of the Jedi Knights.

A lesser known weapon of the samurai class known as a naginata also makes an appearance in early drawings of the Star Wars universe. The naginata, a long pole with a blade at the end, was used by the women of the samurai class to protect their homes. In drawings for Princess Leia’s bounty hunter disguise, Boushh, in Return of the Jedi, the weapon depicted looks quite similar to the naginata. The heroine Rey, in The Force Awakens, also uses a long, pole-like weapon in her battles.

There are many other connections to be made between the artistic armor and weaponry of the samurai and the unconventional characters of the Star Wars universe. Perhaps the furry shoes from a samurai armor set will remind you of Wookiee feet. Perhaps the mon, or family crests, displayed prominently on the helmets of the samurai will call to mind the individualized insignia found on the helmets of the rebel pilots.

SW Samurai action figures
Available in the Samurai Shop at the DAM.

Action Figures in the Samurai Shop

Be sure to visit the DAM before June 5 to find your own connections as you view Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection. Stop by the Shop and pick up Luke Skywalker or Kylo Ren lightsaber chopsticks. You will also find several different Star Wars samurai action figures, including Samurai Taisho Darth Vader, Ashigaru Stormtrooper, and Ronin Boba Fett.

Stefania Van Dyke, interpretive specialist for Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume, also contributed to this blog.

Top image-LEFT: Nimaitachidō tōsei gusoku (armor), Muromachi period, ca. 1400 (helmet bowl), mid-Edo period, 18th century (armor). Iron, shakudō, lacing, silver, wood, gold, brocade, fur, bronze, brass, leather. © The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Photo: Brad Flowers. RIGHT: Darth Vader, Star Wars™: Return of the Jedi. © & ™ 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.

Sarah Magnatta is the interpretive specialist of Asian art in the learning and engagement department at the Denver Art Museum. Sarah has been at the DAM since 2015 and her favorite collection on view here is the Buddhist gallery on Level 5 of the North Building.

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