Note: Beware spoilers for the first four episodes of The Mandalorian, and be sure to see Paste’s impressions of the premiere.
Disney’s first shot at a live-action Star Wars TV show could’ve been basically anything and it would be guaranteed a burst of initial interest. It’s therefore a little disappointing that they’ve decided to stick to desert planets and ice worlds. What they’ve decided to do with story structure in the first three episodes of The Mandalorian, however, is a much more interesting return to the kind of thrilling serials that inspired George Lucas to create the original Star Wars.
Even as it features a terse Man with No Name slinging guns and counting up his blood money, The Mandalorian takes some clear inspiration from the other genre that Star Wars references so often: samurai stories.
After the cold open of The Mandalorian, the eponymous helmeted anti-hero sits across from his bounty hunter guild handler and we learn from their pay negotiations that the Empire has fallen. It’s a period that’s been explored in some of the tie-in novels from the perspectives of major players in the grand political conflicts at the center of Star Wars lore. From the start, The Mandalorian signals that its characters are living with the repercussions of those epic stories. “Mando,” as he’s called (sometimes sneeringly) is just trying to live in a world where political upheaval has destabilized interstellar currency.
That sense of a world far from the center of civilization, viewed from the margins of crumbling society giving rise to listless wanderers, is a staple of the chanbara samurai flicks Lucas took direct inspiration from as he put together his Space Western. It’s true that movies like A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven all cribbed from Kurosawa, but the specific feeling of being in a dirty backwater corner of a realm in steep decline is the sort of theme that mostly stayed in its native country even as the plot points traded out swords for six-guns.
As we wrote in our exhaustive list of the best samurai films of all time, movies about steel-on-steel duels between wandering ronin tend to fall in the historical period near the end of the samurai, after centuries of isolationist dictatorship that bred societal stagnation.
That connection is made clear only at the very end of the first episode, after the Mandalorian has zapped his way to his bounty: An infant who bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the series’ most storied characters.
“You would’ve been happier if you’d joined your late mother. My poor child. An assassin with a child. Remember, Daigoro, this is our destiny.”
The Edo Period was a stretch of Japanese from the early 17th century to the late 19th century, a sort of prolonged exhale that followed the country’s previous 140 years of bloody feudal wars. The country was run by a shogun—a military dictator whose title was passed down through just one clan for more than 200 years. A rigid caste system ensured no peasant could ever rise above their station (a state of affairs imposed by a shogun who himself was born a peasant, if you like irony). Fiction set during this period paints it as one of scheming treachery in the halls of power, and lawlessness at the margins.
Both those themes color Lone Wolf and Cub, first published in 1970, well after Kurosawa and a generation of Japanese filmmakers had codified the tropes of the wandering masterless samurai. Set in the Edo Period, the manga tells the story of Ogami Itto, a samurai who once served as the master executioner of a paranoid and murderous shogun. His wife is killed when he’s betrayed by a rival clan seeking to consolidate power within the shogunate. Obviously the only thing he can do is pursue revenge with single-minded fury, and so Ogami (whose name is very close to okami, the Japanese for “wolf”) juggles vengeance with fatherly obligation. Traveling the land on foot with his son in a bulletproof perambulator loaded with concealed weaponry and a sign on his back reading “Sword for Hire, Son for Hire,” Ogami and his son Daigoro are known as Lone Wolf and Cub.
The Mandalorian’s second episode, the fleet, 33-minute-long “The Child,” evokes some of the same imagery and the exact same narrative tension as Lone Wolf and Cub. Beginning as it does with a wordless action sequence in which the Mandalorian battles off more assassins gunning for a tiny Yoda-like baby and ending with another fight with a massive beast, the episode is filled with shots that remind you where the kid is and situations that force his protector to act quickly to get him out of harm’s way. Moreover, it feels like the kind of extended mishap that might occur in any wandering hero narrative.
Ogami: “Daigoro, of course you don’t understand anything—not your father’s words, nor what is about to happen. However, the blood of the Ogami clan in your body shall determine your destiny. Now … choose.”
Mando: “It wasn’t a noble kill. I was helped by an enemy.”
Armorer: “Why would an enemy help you in battle?”
Mando: “It … did not know it was my enemy.”
The third episode, “The Sin,” ties in what I think is the last and most important theme from its inspiration: The contrast between the assassin’s calculating violence and the child’s innocence. The original Japanese title of Lone Wolf and Cub is literally “Wolf Brings Along His Child,” a phrase meant to evoke absurdity.
Knowing full well that he must forsake all pretense of honor and propriety if he’s to avenge his wife and clear his name, Ogami calmly informs his oblivious infant son that they will walk the way of the assassin, “filled with slaughter and cruelty,” and poses a choice for the boy the only way he knows how: placing a sword and a ball next to each other and seeing which the kid crawls toward, figuring that if there’s a killer in him, his impulses will naturally steer him toward the blade. When they do, Ogami is genuinely distraught—it would’ve been better for the poor kid to be spared the life ahead, but his blood has spoken.
The Mandalorian’s code as a bounty hunter is a sort of diametric opposite to Ogami’s samurai honor: Where Ogami is dedicated to family and authority, the Mando’s two rules are to take his pay and shut his mouth. Even the insular Mandalorian community must admit that it’s pointless to be angry with him over doing business with the Imperial insurgents who drove their people into hiding: Money is security, no matter who’s paying it. Yet, just as Ogami forsakes the code of the samurai to walk the Demon Path in Hell, the Mandalorian finds that his bounty hunter code must be cast aside if it means an innocent foundling suffers.
Each successive episode of the show has tied The Mandalorian seemingly closer and closer to this inspiration, and I wonder how far it’ll go. The New Republic has been scoffed at off-handedly—might we get to see some glimpse of mismanagement that eventually gives rise to the First Order, and will it look like stifling palace intrigue? Where will the Mandalorian go with every gun in the Outer Rim after him and his young charge floating in tow? And how many arrogant chumps are going to bite the dust trying to stop them?
Kenneth Lowe is on the Demon Way and no longer an ordinary human. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.