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'Star Wars' Opens in Japan, Where Luke & Co. Are Like Old Friends

Koichi Hirakawa saw "Star Wars" 20 years ago, and the Force has pretty much stayed with him: These days his Tokyo shop sells about $43,000 worth of "Star Wars" memorabilia a month. Starting this week, the Force is bound to get even closer.

Twentieth Century Fox released its "Special Edition" of the movie in Japanese theaters on Saturday, and the other two films in George Lucas's famous trilogy will open here in July.

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Mr. Hirakawa mainly deals in "action figures" - mostly Chinese-made, plastic representations of characters in the series. "They go so fast," he says, standing amid boxes of Darth Vaders, Luke Skywalkers, and C-3P0s. An energetic man wearing a T-shirt and baggy black shorts, he can barely find time to eat his lunch as he fields questions, answers his cell phone, and wraps up purchases for customers.

Hype for the release of "Star Wars" hasn't been suffocating, but Twentieth Century Fox has spent at least $6 million on advertising and millions more in promotional tie-ins with other companies.

Critics are predicting that the re-release will do well here. The movies won't have stiff competition from any other sci-fi action movies, and they may well strike the same appreciative chord that the originals did. "New audiences will accept the Special Edition as a completely new film," says film critic Atsuo Minowa. "A big hit is a must."

"Star Wars" was a breakthrough movie in Japan the first time around. Along with "Jaws," it signaled the start of Hollywood's domination of Japan's movie market, says Mark Schil- ling, a film writer and author. Nowadays, there is no contest: In 1995, six American movies outgrossed the top-earning Japanese film. Even "Waterworld," a notorious flop in the United States, did better than the 1995 "Godzilla" movie did on its own turf.

"Star Wars" prospered here for some of the same reasons that viewers in other countries liked it. Japanese fans were awed by the special effects and Mr. Lucas's renditions of spaceships. The morally unambiguous "good guys versus bad guys" simplicity of the story also drew crowds. " 'Star Wars' is very clear and easy to understand, and the story is somehow classic," Hirakawa says.

There is nothing particularly American about the movie - no hard-to-get allusions - and parts of it are downright Japanese. Elements of "Star Wars" are said to have been inspired by "Hidden Fortress," a movie by the Japanese director and film titan Akira Kurosawa. Lucas's R2-D2 and C-3P0, the cowardly but endearing robots, do bear some resemblance to a pair of cowardly but endearing sidekicks in Kurosawa's movie.

Luke Skywalker's light saber is a familiar weapon to any watcher of samurai films, where the steel original is much in evidence. Darth Vader, a villainous character of regal bearing and little emotion, displays traits that would do a samurai proud.

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Hirakawa says that even the name of the sagelike character played by Alec Guinness, Obiwan Kenobi, sounds Japanese, as do some of the other names.

It took a year or so for "Star Wars" to reach Japan, and word of its popularity abroad had created an eager Japanese audience, recalls Donald Richie, a Tokyo-based American critic and writer. "It was presold," he says. "You couldn't get in."

With the sequels - "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Return of the Jedi" - came more fame and glory for the "Star Wars" legend. An exhibition of props used in the movies toured museums and department stores, and George Lucas gradually assumed a sort of cult-figure status in Japan. For years companies hired him to promote their products.

Sci-fi filmmakers in Japan, as elsewhere, were influenced by Lucas's designs and techniques, says critic Minowa. " 'Star Wars' drew a line between movies made before it and those made after," he says. For Japan, it was an introduction to film as "pure entertainment."

Hirakawa says the movies and their characters have a gentleness that broadens their appeal. Parents come in and buy "Star Wars" toys for their children, unlike products associated with more sinister movies like "Alien." "It's just like Mickey Mouse and Disney," he explains. And high school girls are particularly enamored with a watch that features R2-D2. "It's so cute," Hirakawa beams.

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