Date Masamune: the samurai who inspired Darth Vader

Date Masamune: the samurai who inspired Darth Vader

Date Masamune: the samurai who inspired Darth Vader 1140 585 Michaël da Silva Paternoster

Did you know that George Lucas was inspired by the kabuto of a Japanese samurai to create the famous helmet of Darth Vader, the main antagonist of the first Star Wars trilogy? This samurai is Date Masamune, one of the Lord of feudal Japan who had the most influence on his country’s history.

Darth Vader is one of the most outstanding character of the cinema. The real central figure of the Star Wars saga is actually inspired by the warriors of feudal Japan, and especially by a warlord of this period: Date Masamune.

Date Masamune is certainly not as well known as the big three reuniters of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. But he still is a feudal lord who has significantly influenced the History of Japan, and particularly the Tohoku region.

On the menu of this article:

Between reality and fiction: two famous helmets

Darth Vader and Date Masamune helmets

It is not really obvious at first glance, but the helmet that made Darth Vader, this character that stayed in all minds, is of Japanese inspiration. The American illustrator Ralph McQuarrie and British sculptor Brian Muir are the two guys who made this character design in 1976 for the Episode IV of this famous space saga.

Indeed, George Lucas wanted to draw into the Touareg culture to make the costume of his “Dark Lord of the Sith”, but Ralph McQuarrie was the first to submit to the movie director sketches influenced by the samurais’ armors, and specifically by the helmet of Date Masamune.

Date Masamune’s Helmet

Date Masamune's armor
Date Masamune’s armor

Date Masamune’s helmet is famous in Japan as its crescent moon-shaped central ornament (the “maedate”) distinguish it from other samurais’ hard hats. Strangely, this device is not included in the Darth Vader design while it is one of the elements that have forged the legend of this warlord from Tohoku.

Despite its mild Western inspiration, this Japanese kabuto is part of an helmet style that mushroomed during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the “Kawari Kabuto”, or “strangely shaped helmets”. Indeed, in the late sixteenth century, the Japanese blacksmiths had to be very inventive to achieve exuberant helmets for their lords, who used them in order to be recognized on the battlefield, but also to show their power and wealth.

Below are some examples of Kawari Kabuto:

The helmet of the lord of Oshu is so famous that it is possible to buy a replica on Amazon for as little as 410 euros. This is the price to pay to become a true samurai.

A back to basics

You still do not believe your eyes? Expect to see these Namco Bandai figurines of feudal Japan Darth Vader reinterpretations. Quite easy !

Here is the first plastic model of Japanese Darth Vader. It is available on Amazon for “only” 80 euros. A great detail : there is a Death Star-shaped maedate on the helmet of that plasmo.

This second Darth Vader figurine is more detailed, and you can easily understand why when you see it costs 140 euros. If you’re a fan of these plastic models, note that there are also Japanese Boba Fett and Stormtroopers figurines.

Georges Lucas and Japan

With these figurines, which are not very different from what is shown in the Star Wars universe, we realize that feudal Japan is undeniably one of the sources of inspiration for Lucasfilm. And this is not surprising, given that George Lucas is a big fan of Akira Kurosawa, a famous Japanese movie director.

The Japanese filmmaker transcribed in several of his films in the most turbulent periods in the History of Japan. As examples, we will mention only the Seven Samurai and Kagemusha which take place during the lifetime of Date MasamuneGeorge Lucas is also one of the executive producers of Kagemusha. See… it is not a coincidence!

Now that we have talked about the relatedness between Darth Vader’s helmet and Date Masamune’s kabuto. We will now look into the fascinating life of this unconventional samurai.

Date Masamune’s life

One-Eyed Dragon’s Youth

Date Masamune was the eldest son of Terumune Date, one of many feudal lords in the Tohoku region. He was born in September 1567 in the castle of Yonezawa in present-day Yamagata Prefecture.

The Japan where Masamune grows was plagued by civil wars affecting the whole archipelago for nearly a century. This political instability affected both the center of the country, where Oda Nobunaga began its reunification plan of the Japanese islands, and the remote areas of northern Japan where many small local lords made alliances games and fomented betrayals in purpose of absorbing their neighbors.

Date clan emblem
Date clan emblem

But this is just a detail for the young Masamune who faced personal difficulties very early in his life. Indeed, the young Date clan heir lost his right eye after contracting smallpox. A legend tells that he would have torn with his own hands this troublesome organ.

Now blind, the young Masamune was left behind by his mother, who prefered his younger brother as Terumune’s heir. She has not hesitate to try to poison his eldest son. Masamune resolved to kill his brother, when he was barely ten years old, and so ended the plan of his progenitor.

The rise to power to the hegemony in Tohoku

In 1581, Date Masamune participated in his first military campaign alongside his father against the Soma clan. Four years later, he became the head of the Date clan, when Terumune abdicated to avoid potential inheritance conflicts.

But everyone did not see favorably this accession to power. One of the Date clan vassals deserted for the Ashina clan of the Aizu region. So Masamune declared war on the Ashina for treason. This declaration of war was the beginning of a bloody campaign in which the young daimyo of Yonezawa subjugated many neighboring lords, among whom there were relatives of his family.

In 1585, the cruelty of Masamune terrify the Hatakeyama clan, who implored Terumune to convince his son to stop its expansionist policy. But this request was rejected by the father of Masamune, who recalled during a banquet with Hatakeyama clan members, he has retired and he no longer had power over the Date clan.

Lord Date Masamune
Lord Date Masamune

This answer was unsuitable for Hatakeyama clan that captured Terumune and tried to bring him in their domain. Shortly after, Masamune learnt that his father has been kidnapped, and then began to pursue the abductors to execute them and recover Terumune.

He catched them up on the banks of a river, while the kidnappers and Terumune were about to cross it. It was at that moment that the father of Masamune ordered him to shoot the Hatakeyama clan members without worrying about him. Masamune’s men executed that order and thundered the samurai group. This is how Terumune died under the bullets of his own son’s army.

After this tragedy, Date Masamune tortured and killed the families of all the men involved in the kidnapping of his father, and spent the next few years to continue his conquest by steel and blood.

Masamune in the service of Hideyoshi

Meanwhile, the rest of the country was agitated. Oda Nobunaga was murdered by one of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, in 1582. It is Hideyoshi Toyotomi, another vassal of Oda clan who continued the work of his former master by subjecting most of the clans that were not yet under the yoke of the Oda.

In 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi has almost completed the unification of the archipelago. Only the Hojo clan and Tohoku were not under his control.

At that time, Date Masamune was the most powerful warlord in northern Japan, and Hideyoshi was concerned about that potential rival. The future master of the archipelago requested allegiance to all the clans of Tohoku, so that they participate in the siege of Odawara, the capital city of the Hojo clan. But Masamune refused.

However, Hideyoshi managed to subdue Masamune with an army of 100,000 men. Once the country unified, Masamune participated in the two attempted invasion of Korea led by Toyotomi family in 1592 and 1597.

Masamune, the staunch ally of Ieyasu

Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598, leaving a country unified in appearance but in which several lords intend to benefit from this upheaval to take power. The most opportunistic of them is Tokugawa Ieyasu, a former rival of Hideyoshi who became his ally by necessity, or rather by interest.

In 1600, Japan was officially divided into two sides. Southern lords remained loyal to the Toyotomi clan, whereas northern daimyos were supporting the ambitions of Tokugawa clan.

Masamune Date's statue in Sendai.
Masamune Date’s statue in Sendai.

Date Masamune took the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who won against overwhelming odds the decisive battle of Sekigahara. With this victory, Ieyasu became shogun, the military ruler of Japan. Date clan support to the new shogunate was rewarded with the gift of the rich Sendai domain. With this, Masamune became on of the richest lords of Japan.

A daimyo at the forefront of modernity

A letter written by Masamune to Pope Paul V.
A letter written by Masamune to Pope Paul V.

As lord of this new domain, Masamune Date enhanced the infrastructure of these newly acquired territories, and transformed the small fishing village of Sendai in a commercial and prosperous city.

Masamune Date is also known to have promoted the arrival of Westerners on his fiefdom, including Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries. A rumor says he would have secretly converted to Christianity, but no evidence attests that conversion.

It is more likely that the lord of Sendai was more interested in foreign technologies than Western customs and beliefs, as Oda Nobunaga did before him.

In a country that was about to close its borders, Date Masamune was a strong supporter of foreign missionaries who were hounded by the shogunate. As an example, Christian proselytising was authorized in the Sendai domain.

Date Masamune was also behind of the only diplomatic missions conducted by feudal Japan, it was by the same token the first Japanese expedition around the world. Once the archipelago was pacified, he undertook the construction of Date Maru, a ship that used European shipbuilding techniques. This vessel sailed the oceans, and traveled to the Philippines, Mexico, Spain, France and Italy.

Some members of the Japanese diplomatic mission stayed in Spain to dodge persecution against Christians in Japan. Their descendants still live in Spain today and some have the surname “Japón”.

Date family remained the masters of Sendai domain until the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century. They supported the Tokugawa shogunate throughout its existence, and have been a major actor in the Northern Alliance which fought for the maintenance of this military authority during the Boshin War.

With such a eventful life, it’s hard to distinguish historical fact and legend. This is surely why Date Masamune still fascinates Japanese people today.

Date Masamune, a pop icon!

Date Masamune is one of the most famous figures of the Sengoku period, he is often represented in works that deal with this part of the History of Japan. This period of civil war is particularly popular with Japanese teens. It is therefore not surprising to see many licenses using Sengoku Jidai characters, particularly in the manga and video games fields which target primarily this age group.

Date Masamune in video games

Date Masamune is one of the main playable characters of the two largest beat-them-all licenses taking place during the Sengoku period: Tecmo-Koei’s Samurai Warriors (and its spin-off Warriors Orochi) and Capcom’s Sengoku Basara. He is portrayed as a brutal and dashing young lord. His openness to foreign technologies and customs is also transcribed in these games. In Sengoku Basara, the One-Eyed Dragon speaks in “Engrish”, which is Japanese mixed with broken English. While in Samurai Warriors, he often evokes his desire to escape from Japan.

Date Masamune in manga

Masamune can be found in many manga. He is also one of the main characters of Samurai Deeper Kyo under his childhood name, Bontenmaru.

Date Masamune on TV screens

Watanabe Ken as Date Masamune.
Watanabe Ken as Date Masamune.

In 1987, NHK chronicles Date Masamune‘s life in its annual taiga drama, which is historical TV series of about fifty episodes usually broadcasted on Sunday evening. This is the great Ken Watanabe who plays the lead role in this series “Dokuganryu Masamune”, or “Masamune, the One-Eyed Dragon” in English. This taiga drama still remains the most popular among Japanese TV viewers among all the NHK historical series.

Date Masamune had an impact on pop culture far more important than what transpires of him in Darth Vader. This historical figure continues to fascinate the Japanese people with his dark side of bloodthirsty samurai, and his lighter side of philanthropist and open-minded lord. A complex character who has experienced many tragedies that have brought him into a spiral of revenge, much like Anakin Skywalker actually.

Michaël da Silva Paternoster

I’m a French guy living in Tokyo, where I work as a digital marketing manager and consultant for several years now. I’ve decided to share my travel recommendations and various tips to help people settle in Japan.

All stories by : Michaël da Silva Paternoster
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