Unmarked The Last Jedi Spoilers in this installment.
No other portion of this episode has been broken down quite as much as the final lightsaber duel. A thousand think pieces and YouTube videos have been made talking about Akira Kurosawa and the parallels to Qui-Gon’s death. As such, there’s not nearly as much that I can add to the conversation beyond what has already been said. Well, not as much in comparison to every other part of this close read. God willing, this installment might actually stay beneath 4,000 words.
So let’s start with a common topic broached when discussing this fight – classic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
PULLING FROM THE CLASSICS
Kurosawa is another of those influences on Star Wars that has been around since the beginning of the franchise. Not only was his film Hidden Fortress an influence on the story of A New Hope, but Kurosawa’s frequent leading man, Toshiro Mifune, was approached to play Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader (The Hollywood Reporter). As such, it is hardly surprising when other Star Wars creators pull inspiration from Kurosawa as well. The Clone Wars’ “Bounty Hunters” episode was a direct homage to Seven Samurai. In preparing for The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson chose to watch Three Outlaw Samurai “in lieu of rewatching Kurosawa,” as he had already seen Kurosawa’s work multiple times over and wanted to delve deeper into the samurai genre (Uproxx).
Maul and Obi-Wan’s first meeting after Naboo, where their relationship and rivalry was well and truly established, was in the episode “Revenge,” which Christian Blauvelt at Entertainment Weekly said was “dripping with Kurosawa vibes.”
This place looked like the village Sanjuro the bodyguard stumbles upon in Yojimbo. I’m kind of surprised, given Star Wars’ general proclivity for dismemberment, that an anooba or nek didn’t come trotting down the street clutching a severed human hand in its teeth. What would Cartoon Network have thought about that! I did like the telephoto-style long-shots from inside an abandoned store of Obi-Wan making his way through the debris. (Blauvelt)
Sanjuro is played by Mifune – the man Lucas initially wanted for Obi-Wan Kenobi – and the comparisons are very apparent in Yojimbo. Sanjuro first displays his prowess as a swordsman when three criminals goad him into fighting, citing their crimes and sentences as a means of intimidation. It’s a scene that clearly is referenced by A New Hope – “You just watch yourself! We’re wanted men! I have the death sentence on twelve systems!” – complete with the removal of an arm and an accompanying shot of the lost limb.
I find it very fitting that Obi-Wan’s first encounter with Maul post-Naboo carries a touch of Yojimbo and his final meeting Maul is heavy with the theme from its sequel, Sanjuro.
In Yojimbo, Sanjuro wanders across a town that is caught in oppression and bloodshed because of the feud between two gangs. Throughout the movie, he takes a great degree of glee in killing men who deserve it. Not exactly a matching personality to Obi-Wan Kenobi, but the amount of destruction and slaughter that occurs around him is comparable to The Clone Wars when put into contrast with Sanjuro. In Sanjuro, he is criticized early on in the film by the wife of a man he is attempting to rescue. The lady calls him a “sword without a sheath” and frequently asks him to check his violence, to resort to methods that do not required death.
While outwardly scoffing her, Sanjuro also takes this criticism to heart. He seeks out alternative solutions and becomes furious with the young samurai he allied himself with when they end up causing more death than was needed. At the movie’s end, Sanjuro even finds himself arguing against his foe Muroto, who demands a duel to satisfy the injury Sanjuro has done to him.
Sanjuro: “You insist on fighting?”
Muroto: “Yes. I have never been so outraged. You made a fool of me.”
Sanjuro: “Don’t get so angry. I had to do it. I knew you were stronger than me, so I had to–”
Muroto: “It’s too late for words. Draw!”
Sanjuro: “I’d rather not. If I do, one of us must die. It’s not worth it.”
Muroto: “It is to me. Otherwise I can never be at peace.”
Sanjuro: “Very well.”
This is the Ben Kenobi reflected in “Twin Suns,” the Jedi who would rather not fight, who doesn’t see Maul’s death as being worth anything. The dialogue from Muroto is also very close to the emotional state Maul is in – rage, the belief that words cannot resolve the situation, and a desire for peace that he can only see as being sated through combat. Like Sanjuro, Ben also reflects sadly on the death of his foe.
It’s a poignant set of bookends to have the violence of Yojimba reflected with General Kenobi and the meekness of Sanjuro evidenced in Old Ben. And meekness is not timidity, but power in restraint, a theme in many of Kurosawa’s films:
This idea of power that is useful because it is restrained is closely related to the concept of meekness. … the meekness of a samurai was not thought to diminish his power but to enhance it, giving guidance and structure to the violence he’d spent a lifetime mastering how to dispense. (Jesse Porch, “Sheathing the Sword: Akira Kurosawa and the Virtue of Meekness,” Christ and Pop Culture)
“The best sword is the one that stays in its sheath” (Sanjuro)
Oh, we are getting to this boy soon enough, my friends!
A more direct reference to Kurosawa in “Twin Suns,” comes as Filoni again pulls from Seven Samurai, using the introductory fight of Kyūzō to highlight the different mental states between Ben and Maul.
…the very still movement of the samurai (Kyūzō), who is moving with intention and grace. It’s contrasted versus the anger in the one man, and that guy’s moving his feet a lot. He doesn’t have a steady position. And I’m like, ‘Well, there you have it.’ Obi-Wan has intention. He is calm in this moment; he is centered. Maul is on the edge. Maul is angry. Maul is getting ready – ‘I want to kill you! I’ve been waiting for this!’ He has all this energy built up. (Season 3 Bluray Featurette, “Apprentices to Outcasts”)
There multiple visual parallels, including the staging as the fight’s aggressor tries to goad the swordsman into a duel:
The moment before the fight itself, not only is the framing similar, but so are the stances taken by both opponents.
And then of course it is complete with a tracking shot of the fight’s aggressor as he gives a shout and lunges forward to strike the swordsman down, which leads to my favorite decision of cinematography in the episode.
There a certain language we expect from cinematography, even if we are only aware of it subconsciously. Framing a conversation from below and above on two different characters, instead of straight on, implies an imbalance of power. Not every member of the audience will consciously recognize this, but the effect is still there to evoke a particular emotion or assumption.
In fight scenes, the language we expect is that the winner of an exchange will dominate the camera. Take for instance, the famous fight in The Princess Bride.
Whenever Inigo or Westley get the upper hand, they begin to drive the other off camera, out of frame. Right before Westley wins, he corners Inigo in the upper left corner of the frame, while he takes center stage.
In the Halo Legends episode “The Duel,” the combatants have equal share of the frame.
This leaves the identity of the winner a mystery until the right, dramatic moment. Even then, Fal and Haka share the center of the frame, which fits the outcome of this duel perfectly.
The duel of “Twin Suns” was similar in the pacing to Halo Legends, beginning with the combatants facing each other, strategizing and scrutinizing their opponents, followed by a quick, decisive strike. Both cartoons are of course drawing influence from Kurosawa, “The Duel” leaning heavily on the fight in Sanjuro. But in “Twin Suns” the camera language is closer to The Princess Bride‘s than “The Duel,” Seven Samurai, or Sanjuro.
Maul crosses from the right side to center and stays in the center throughout the whole fight, while Ben is kept just away towards the left frame. We of course know that Kenobi will win this fight – he’s got a whole other movie to get to – but as an audience, we’re expecting the camera language to show us when he gets the upper hand. We’re expecting him to take center stage and force Maul to the edge of the frame before the final blow comes.
At the very least, we’re expecting him to come to center frame, sharing the space equally with Maul. This is how the definitive strike plays out in Seven Samurai; Kyūzō and his opponent are on either side of the shot’s center, the camera even moving a bit to place them a touch more equally in frame. The duel in Sanjuro has the closest composition to “Twin Suns,” with the aggressor taking the foreground as the final strike lands. This however is used to display that Sanjuro was quicker on the draw; we immediately get to see the blood erupt from the other samurai, and Sanjuro himself is in center frame.
“Twin Suns” doesn’t use any of those visual cues. Ben’s killing blow lands when Maul is still in the center of the frame, crowding Ben into the corner in a way that doesn’t give us a view of the strike.
This fits with Ben’s mastery of a defensive form of lightsaber combat, but it also places us, the viewers in the same shoes as Maul.
As I said before, we’re expecting Obi-Wan to win, but the camera language makes the “how” and “when” of his victory as much a surprise to us as it was to Maul.
I ONLY HAD ONE THOUGHT BEFORE THE SLAUGHTER: THIS MAN WILL NOT MAKE AN ORPHAN OF SKYWALKER
In Part 1, I quoted Sam Witwer’s break down of the duel, how Maul’s taunts initially trigger the reaction of General Kenobi, bringing Ben back to that person he used to be when he faced Maul all those times before:
[W]hen Maul sparks up his lightsaber, Obi-Wan does the same thing, but he goes into the Ewan McGregor pose. It’s almost like a reflex. Like, “Oh, I remember how this feels … this guy … it’s like that dude that I hate from high school and he’s still being a bully, he’s still being a jerk.” And it makes you react like when you were a young person, so Obi-Wan sparks up the Ewan McGregor pose. (Witwer, ComicBook.com)
This is something that the team behind Obi-Wan has been doing since Maul’s return in The Clone Wars, having Maul trigger that reaction from him. James Arnold Taylor, Obi-Wan’s voice actor in The Clone Wars, spoke many times on how he would deliberately play his voice between the range of Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor, depending on the context of the scene. In “Revenge,” he vocally provided the same reaction we see in “Twin Suns,” but going even farther back:
“I did try to… revert a little to the younger, The Phantom Menace Ewan McGregor voice. Y’know, the lighter, younger… it’s not [as] confident. (James Arnold Taylor, The Clone Wars Season 4 Featurette – Darth Maul Returns.)
Ben’s reaction is also incredibly similar to Luke Skywalker’s reaction in Return of the Jedi during his duel with Vader. Luke does not want to fight, but Vader starts digging and threatens someone he cares closely about. This prompts Luke to surge ahead in anger, momentarily forgetting his Jedi training and the love he has for his father. This happens again in The Last Jedi where his vision of Ben Solo’s heart triggers the same reaction. Luke, having grown since Return of the Jedi, quenches that reaction to Ben Solo far more quickly than he did with Vader, but he’s still left with consequences. Ben Kenobi, on the other hand, had more practice and more time to undo his mistakes.
The reaction Maul sparks in Ben Kenobi by threatening Luke is fear and anger. That’s what makes Ben strike the pose of General Kenobi. This move by Maul is deliberate. This is something he has been doing since The Clone Wars.
In “Revenge,” he taunts Obi-Wan over Qui-Gon’s death, besting him because: “your rage has unbalanced you. That is not the Jedi way, is it?”
In “The Lawless,” Maul tries to provoke this reaction again, and we visibly see Obi-Wan fight down his anger and hatred as Maul strangles Satine in front of him, vocalizing his beliefs to keep himself steady: “It takes strength to resist the Dark Side; only the weak embrace it.”
In “Twin Suns,” we see a conclusion to this arc. He doesn’t fight to remain calm. He simply is calm. And when Maul at last gets the reaction he wanted, Ben slides back into that calm without words or a struggle.
But then [Ben] gets in the moment, he goes, “No, no, no, that would be a mistake. That was always the mistake I was making with this guy. I’m not that guy any more. I’m not that kid. I’m Alec Guinness,” and then so then he goes into the Alec Guinness pose. And then, realizing that Maul sort of provoked him into becoming Ewan McGregor for just a moment, he goes, “Let’s see if I can do the same thing for him, and let’s also see if I can honor my master,” and he goes into the Qui-Gon Jinn pose. (Witwer, ComicBook.com)
Novelizations always seem to live in a sort of grey area with canon, but according to Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover, this isn’t the first time Kenobi has used the Ataro-ready stance as a feint. In the final duel against Dooku, Obi-Wan and Anakin take on ready stances of forms they have not mastered to play into Dooku’s overconfidence. Dooku falls for this completely. He plans his attacks to directly target Ataro’ weaknesses. Weaknesses that Dooku had learned from sparring with Yoda.
And Qui-Gon Jinn.
According to Filoni, in “Twin Suns,” this is not only the moment of Ben honoring his former master, but also growing beyond him: “The Apprentice learned from the Master’s mistake” (“Apprentices to Outcasts”). He is not fooled by the same trick Maul used before, countering it instead. But it’s not just in the avoidance of death that Ben becomes a greater Jedi Master than Qui-Gon; it’s also in the moment he embraces it.
As Lucas once pointed out, Star Wars is meant to rhyme with itself. Qui-Gon’s death is supposed to be the precursor to Obi-Wan’s, which in-turn is echoed by Han Solo’s and Luke Skywalker’s.
This is the death of the father figure of our young hero, removing the foundation of their world, forcing them to face the next foe or challenge on their own. The critical difference between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is that Old Ben Kenobi sets the precedent of sacrifice.
Qui-Gon’s death is a shock to him, an event he was trying to avoid. There was no element of sacrifice to his death, just a cost. Ben, however, deliberately invites death when it comes to save Luke and the others. His death is a choice, solidifying the foundation for all others who follow: Han, Luke, even Vader, all of whom witnessed his sacrifice. Ben Kenobi becomes The Master from whom all the other father figures learn.
There is a third element in this demonstration of Ben’s growth, and that is again to emphasize Maul’s lack thereof.
“Master” is a title Maul has been fighting to claim since his return in The Clone Wars. As a Sith apprentice, that title is something he would have expected eventually to claim, following the Rule of Two, regardless if Sidious ever intended to allow him to do so. Therefore, Maul could easily seen that as something else Obi-Wan had taken from him on Naboo.
In “Revenge,” during Maul’s torture of Obi-Wan, he flings a number of taunts at the Jedi, including one that EW’s recap describes as “simmering resentment” (Blauvelt, EW.com):
“And they call you ‘Master.’”
Not only has Obi-Wan prevented Maul from rising to the rank of Master, but he had the audacity to become a Master himself.
It’s after this encounter that Maul decides to claim the title for himself. He enforces the Master-Apprentice dynamic between himself and Savage and introduces himself and Savage to potential allies as “lords” and even the “true lords of the Sith.” In Rebels, even after he had his power stripped from him entirely, he still introduces himself to Ezra as “Old Master.”
Maul has loudly declaring that the title of “Master” belongs to him. Ben has simply been living it out. And like Kyūzō’s opponent in Seven Samurai, failure to recognize true Masterhood comes with devastating consequences.
YOU HAD ONE JOB
Having both adored “Twin Suns” from the beginning and now having torn open almost every possible angle of it, I genuinely forget that some people were not a fan of how this episode ended. That some people still aren’t. That’s not to say I was expecting the fight to be as short as it was; I was caught off-guard as much as everyone else. Neither is that to say that I don’t understand it either, to a certain extent.
In his lengthy breakdown of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bob Chipman discusses the need to have the titular fight to be the best part of the movie:
One scene cannot save a bad movie. It can make a bad movie less bad, it can make an otherwise bad movie worth watching, but it can’t save it.
That having been said, if the movie exists in order to set-up and execute one scene of sequence or plot point, and you get that scene right, sometimes, yes, that can override the existence of the rest of the film in the collective cultural memory to such a degree that might as well have saved it.
I think many of us – myself included – were going into “Twin Suns,” expecting it to be this massive Batman v Superman event instead of the intense character-study it turned out to be.
Some have blamed it on the marketing, on the trailers focusing more on Obi-Wan and Maul’s confrontation than Ezra, that ultimately led to the disappointment in the fight. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, because between these two characters, a showdown is always going to be expected when they occupy the same episode, especially now, with all the history behind them.
The last time Maul and Obi-Wan were together in The Clone Wars, Maul won. Satine died. Mandalore fell. The last time they saw each other in Son of Dathomir, Maul promised that they would meet again. According to Dave Filoni’s plans for the Siege of Mandalore, Ahsoka took the fight with Maul personally because it was personal to Obi-Wan.
There’s no escaping that expectation of a grand showdown.
Additionally, this is what Rebels itself had promised. Not necessarily an extensive lightsaber battle, but it had promised that showdown. Maul’s disbelieving, off-kilter laugh of “He lives!” in “Holocrons of Fate,” his blood-soaked shrine and his desperate “Where is he?” in “Visions and Voices.” This all lead to one single conclusion:
Maul is looking for Obi-Wan, and he’s looking for a fight.
So no, we can’t blame the marketing for people’s disappointment. The expectation of a fight was built in from every conceivable point.
But the thing is, we Star Wars fans already got this. We got it in “Revenge” with a team-up with Ventress where Obi-Wan wields a red lightsaber. We got it in “Revival” where Obi-Wan takes on Maul and Savage alone while dual-wielding his and another Master’s lightsaber. And of course, we got it in The Phantom Menace:
I’m honestly quite bewildered by the disappointment some people have expressed that they didn’t just do another Duel of the Fates, as if anything of value could’ve been gained from trying to one-up another such landmark moment in Star Wars – a fight scene that even the most ardent prequel haters will tell newcomers to watch. (Star Wars: Rebels, Twin Suns – A Narrative Appraisal, Haruspis)
We already had our big, flashy clash between these two titans, and we had it on the big screen in a scene that would create and define their rivalry. In a scene that many call one of the saving graces in a movie some consider to be the worst Star Wars ever*. We had our Batman v Superman fight, or what the Batman v Superman fight should have been. It’s time for the characters and us, the audience, to grow beyond that, much like Ben Kenobi has.
Instead, “Twin Suns” gave us the fight we (and Maul) needed. This was our farewell to a fan-favorite, well-developed, multi-faceted, even sympathetic villain. This was our farewell to a long-standing rivalry that helped define the core of one of the very first Star Wars character ever. In the audio commentary, Filoni said that a lengthy lightsaber fight would not be helpful to Rebel characters (this is the Rebels show after all, not The Clone Wars), but a lengthy fight wouldn’t do anything helpful for Maul or Ben either.
What we needed was the intense character study that led up to the fight and then the quiet fallout that came after. In fact, I’d argue that had we gotten that flashy lightsaber clash at the expense of the denouement of the fight, “Twin Suns” would be leagues behind the masterpiece it is now.
(Hey look at that. I made it under 4,000 words!)
*For the record, that is not the opinion I hold. The Phantom Menace is my favorite of the Prequels and in the top four of my favorite Star Wars movies.