Cyrus R. K. Patell

February 1, 2022

Today we are celebrating the start of the Lunar New Year. It's the “Year of the Tiger”—more specifically, the ”Water Tiger." Jamie Uy remembers a 2014 video of Darth Vader celebrating the Lunar New Year, while Amrita Anand thinks about the exploration of Mandalorian and Tusken warrior cultures in recent Star Wars television series. But first, let's think about rancors …

The Chinese Zodiac is based on a system of “heavenly” stems and “earthly” branches. The stems are the five elements wood, fire, earth, metal, or water, each of which can be expressed as yin or yang. The branches are the animals rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each year is a combination of a stem and a branch in a rotating cycle of 60 years. So 2022 is the year of the “Water Tiger"; the last one was in 1962.
I'm told that the tiger is regarded as the king of all beasts in China; as a zodiac sign, it symbolizes strength, bravery, and warding off evil. The water tiger is a kinder, gentler, more rational and open-minded version of the tiger.
That got me thinking about the rancor in Star Wars, because the version we have in 2022 is a kinder, gentler, and—yes—more rational and open-minded version of the monster who was introduced in the first act of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. You'll remember that the slimy (literally) gangster Jabba the Hutt tries to kill Luke Skywalker by dropping him into the dungeon where the ravenous beast lives. Luke kills the beast, which has just eaten one of Jabba's Gamorrean guards, by using his quick-thinking and a carefully aimed rock. Etymologically, the name ”rancor” evokes ”bitterness or resentment.”
In one of those jokey, comic-relief moments that abound in the original trilogy, the burly, bare-chested rancor-keeper begins to sob when he sees that his charge is dead. As Star Wars storytelling developed, the rancor-keeper was a given a name—Malakili—and, yes, an action figure. 
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It's been a hallmark of recent Star Wars storytelling to revisit moments like these from the original trilogy and embroider them. So in the “Rampage” episode of The Bad Batch, our heroes are hired to rescue a child from the clutches of Zygerrian slavers … and the child turns out to be a young female rancor named Muchi, who turns out to be quite endearing by the episode's end. (And is not the rancor who menaced Luke.)
More recently, in the second episode of The Book of Boba Fett, we learn that Jabba's dungeon is now empty, although the unfortunate assassin whom Boba and Fennec Shand drop into it doesn't know that. In the next episode, after another foiled assassination attempt, this one involving the fierce bounty hunter “Black Krrsantan,” a Wookiee and former gladiator, Boba receives a rancor calf as a gift from two Hutts who claim to be leaving Tatooine to avoid further violence. The rancor's trainer, played by the wonderful character actor Danny Trejo (a favorite of director Robert Rodriguez), explains to Fett that “rancor are emotionally complex creatures. … It imprints on the first human that it sees.” Which turns out to be Fett. “They're quite peaceful unless threatened," the trainer says. "They can be quite loving. … They form strong bonds with their owners.” And he adds," It is said that the Witches of Dathomir even rode them through the forest and fen"—a nod to Dave Wolverton's novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994), now a part of the non-canonical Star Wars Legends books. In the novel, rancor turn out to be semi-sentient beings who belong to matriarchal clans.
Fett tells the trainer, “I want to learn to ride it … Teach me.” And then he removes the rancor's blinders so that he is the first human it sees. (At least presumably: can't trust those Hutts after all.) Will we get to see Fett riding the rancor in one of the last two episodes of the season? I sure hope so! 

In 2014, the official Star Wars YouTube channel released “May the Horse Be With You: Darth Vader Celebrates the Chinese New Year,” a holiday short in which the Dark Lord of the Sith channels the Force to put up chunlian (decorative couplets with auspicious sayings) and sits down for a traditional family meal flanked by stormtroopers.
I remember watching the clever video advertisement as a teenager and getting a kick out of seeing Darth Vader use chopsticks to eat dumplings (side-note: my Star Wars-obsessed Asian family uses these Darth Vader light-up chopsticks at home). The video ends with a nice bilingual pun: instead of xīn nián kuài lè (新年快乐), a typical Chinese greeting meaning "Happy New Year," the Star Wars team writes "xīng" nián kuài lè ("星"年快乐), changing the character for "new" to "star." In Singapore, where I grew up, Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the year—think lion dance performances, ancestor worship, spring cleaning, lucky red clothes, and sweet rice balls. 
As a kid, I always looked forward to mouth-watering meals during Chinese New Year's Eve and receiving angbao (red packets with cash gifts) from my relatives. Every year, companies distribute unique designs of Chinese New Year wares themed for the upcoming zodiac animal, and this year Disney+ in Singapore issued limited edition Boba Fett angbaos with a four-character Chinese blessing, "鸿虎齐天" roughly translating to "grand fortune fills the heavens like an outstretched tiger," a fitting saying for the bounty hunter. At the same time, a local bakery released The Mandalorian-themed black gold pineapple tarts
While a space western series may seem to have little in common with the ancient Chinese spring festival, both Star Wars and Chinese New Year are about family, cycles of renewal, and the cultural legends that hold communities together.

The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett have brought together two distinct warrior cultures from within the Star Wars universe. The two television series have given rise to interesting parallels between these two communities, which have been extensively explored during the last three years of Star Wars world-building. From their messy beginnings in Star Wars lore to the recent interest in developing these fictional cultures in spin-off shows, the Tusken Raiders and the Mandalorians provide a significant backdrop to the titular characters of the series in which they are featured.
The introduction of Tuskens to the Star Wars canon was unsympathetic: they were first shown as the “Sand People” who attack Luke Skywalker in the Jundland Wastes during his search for R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). 
When they appear in the second film of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones (2002), the Tuskens are responsible for an attack on the Lars farm; the abduction of Anakin Skywalker's mother, Shmi; and her subsequent death following intensive torture. Any sympathy shown towards them is purely from the viewer's recognition of Anakin Skywalker’s wrongful slaughter of the innocents of the tribe.
The Mandalorians, meanwhile, have appeared as both warriors and pacifists between in the television series The Clone Wars (2008–2020) and Rebels (2014–2018), with allusions to the end of a civil war ushering in a few decades of peace before the planet’s subsequent downfall, first at the hands of Darth Maul, then at the hands of the Empire. The Mandalorian portrays the culture as a warrior/mercenary class specifically seeking to return to the old way of Mandalore, identified as a creed rather than a geographical relation to a homeworld.
It is only in the last two months, however, that the Tuskens have received a similar focus on their culture (an opportunity first suggested in “The Marshall,”  the first episode of the second season of The Mandalorian, in which Boba Fett's distinctive armor makes its reappearance). Their recognition as an indigenous people owes much to the efforts of actor Temuera Morrison, who plays Boba Fett in the new series (having played Boba's father, Jango, in Attack of the Clones). Morrison stated that he drew upon his own Māori experiences to enrich this exposition, specifically highlighting “the family … and the land” along with the warrior aspects of Tusken culture.
A significant parallel can be drawn between Boba’s quest to craft his own Tusken gaderffii (called a “gaffi stick” in the 1977 film) and the forging of a Mandalorian’s armor (although episode 5 of The Book of Boba Fett makes interesting comments about the use of the Mandalorian metal beskar as weaponry). The ritualistic nature of such creation is evident through these respective scenes, as well as perhaps the construction of younglings’ first lightsabers (as explored in season 5 of The Clone Wars).
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[Boba crafts his gaderffii. Source: Disney+.] 
This new fascination of warrior cultures might lead to an interesting specialization of within the Star Wars canon, especially when contrasted with the militaristic and resistance-centric expansions of The Clone Wars, Rebels, and more recentlyThe Bad Batch series, which debuted in 2021. We can also hope that it will lead to a promising intersection of new and familiar details of the galaxy far, far away in future projects such as the forthcoming series Ahsoka.
[A compilation of scenes featuring the armorer in The Mandalorian.]

For further discussion of Star Wars and my book Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe (Bloomsbury), check out the following:
The Way Podcast, hosted by Bill Troveski; Galina Limorenko's interview with me for the New Books Network; and my session with Skeptics in the Pub Online.

Next Issue: Valentine's Day

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