Is there a person in the Western world — or even globally, given Hollywood’s cultural reach — who is unaware of “Star Wars”? In a society increasingly described as amnesiac, in which pop culture seems to come with an expiry date, George Lucas’ movie trilogy (now with two — soon to be three — “prequels”) has held moviegoers attention for a quarter century. “Star Wars” has become a classic.

Now the series is being feted with an extensive exhibition that draws together hundreds of items from the five movies. “The Art of Star Wars” has already attracted huge audiences in Britain and the United States, and last week it began the first stage of a Japanwide tour. Until Aug. 31, the exhibition is showing at the Kyoto National Museum before moving on to Tokyo, Fukushima, and a fourth, as yet undecided, location.

The exhibition focuses on Episodes IV, V and VI of the series — i.e. the original trilogy of “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983) — and will be followed by another exhibition that focuses on Episodes I (“The Phantom Menace,” 1999) and II (“Attack of the Clones,” 2002) in January 2004.

Everything you would expect is here. Mannequins of beloved heroes and villains abound, with C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, the Emperor, stormtroopers, Yoda, Chewbacca and a large model of Jabba the Hutt. There are also costumes on display worn by Luke, Leia, Han Solo and more.

More than just a nostalgia trip, these pieces give an insight into the production values of the earlier trilogy. One of the first exhibits the visitor sees is an Imperial Star Destroyer, which appears to have been made from glued-together toy model parts. All the exhibits in this display — those from the original trilogy, including the Rebel X and Y Wing Fighters, Imperial TIE Fighters and the Death Star — have a worn and weathered look.

Alongside them is a teaser exhibit of Anakin’s pod-racer from “The Phantom Menace” (which will feature in the followup exhibition). A quick look at the catalog, itself lavish and glossy, reveals the detail and expense that went into producing the pod-race scene alone. The contrast is striking — evidence that the original “Star Wars” operated under budget constraints quite different from those of the new trilogy.

But it wasn’t the financial outlay that drew millions into the world of “Star Wars” — it was the breadth of the creators’ and designers’ imaginations. Among the highlights here are Joe Johnston’s concept drawings and Ralph McQuarrie’s production paintings, which detail the “Star Wars” universe and offer glimpses into the movies’ graphic beginnings.

The emphasis of the exhibition is concept evolution, and the displays lead the viewer through each stage of development, from the initial ideas to the prototypes and then the final models. (What’s missing, though, is insight into the technical wizardry that turned these scale models into those soaring onscreen images.)

Exemplifying the importance of design evolution are the development of the Millennium Falcon, which morphed from an elongated tubular design to its famous disklike shape, and C-3PO, who began life sleek and streamlined before assuming his clunky, wires-n’-all familiar form.

There is also a wealth of stills, storyboards, poster mock-ups and video clips that provide a few surprises. (“Revenge of the Jedi,” as it appears on one poster, became “Return of the Jedi” just a few months before release, while during shooting the film went under the name “Blue Harvest” — tag line: “Horror Beyond Imagination” — so as not to attract attention when on location.)

The proliferation of models, though, makes touring this exhibition much like going to a large toy store — only you are not allowed to touch anything. This is frustrating when confronted with one centerpiece exhibit: Labeled as “George Mather’s ‘Star Wars’ Bible,” this seeming treasure trove of “Star Wars” arcana is set behind Perspex and spread open at its middle, such that you can only imagine its secrets.

Going round this “toy shop,” though, are surprisingly few children. Rather, an aging fan base that obviously fell for the original movies is in evidence. Perhaps the “Star Wars” phenomenon is gradually being eclipsed by the current spate of serial films hitting theaters — “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix” and “Harry Potter” all spring to mind. At any rate, “Star Wars” is no longer alone in exercising a grip on the popular imagination — and the producers of these other movies are likewise mythologizing their worlds. A “Lord of the Rings” exhibition has already taken place in New Zealand and “The Art of the Two Towers” (by Gary Russell) can already be found in bookshops. Doubtless similar books and shows centered on “The Matrix” are not far behind.

The odd thing, though, is that one is left wondering where exactly is the art in “The Art of Star Wars”? In fact, the show isn’t about art at all — it’s merely a collection, albeit an insightful one, of film memorabilia, designed to cater to fans’ seemingly insatiable demand for background information and trivia. (Or, to be a little unkind, it’s just another part of the massive marketing machinery that surrounds modern moviemaking.) The real “art” of “Star Wars” isn’t to be found in any museum or book. It’s where it always has been — up there on the screen. The movies themselves are the finished works of art.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.