TOKYO (AP) _ Kabuki-style makeup. Samurai-style swordplay. A director who confesses a love for the work of Akira Kurosawa.

The ``Star Wars'' space fantasy series holds a special appeal for the Japanese, who see it as an updated version of classic samurai films.

The first ``Star Wars'' movie was inspired in part by ``The Hidden Fortress,'' a 1958 film about a warrior's journey by Kurosawa, Japan's most renowned director.

Fans in Japan were quick to find elements of Japan's feudal warlord culture in the 1977 movie, citing everything from the design of villainous Darth Vader's costume to the samurai-style swordplay, albeit with lightsabers.

Director George Lucas, in Tokyo on Wednesday to plug the new film, acknowledged his debt to Kurosawa.

``He's just a master that you work toward (hoping) that someday you can reach that level,'' Lucas said.

Even so, audiences here won't get a look at the film until opening day, July 10.

Although ``Star Wars: Episode I _ The Phantom Menace'' opened in the United States and Canada on May 19, it won't be released in many Asian and European nations until mid- to late summer.

For many Japanese fans, that's just too much to ask.

Hiroshi Kobayashi, a 27-year-old graduate student whose business card reads ``Star Wars Evangelist,'' was one of 30 Japanese fans who flew to Los Angeles last month to see the new film.

The lack of Japanese subtitles made the dialogue hard to follow, but he still gave it a thumbs up.

``It had a great visual impact,'' he said.

After its release in the United States, ``The Phantom Menace'' earned more than $205 million in a record 13 days.

Industry experts here are optimistic. Most expect it to go over well with the Japanese audience.

Toshio Furusawa, 20th Century Fox's marketing director in Japan, said pre-release ticket sales have been strong and that demand for 4,000 passes to a ``Star Wars'' fan event held last month exceeded availability by 30 times.

``The movie looks like it was made for audiences in Japan,'' said Japanese film critic Yuichi Tanuma, who attended a special showing for the media last month in Tokyo.

He said ``The Phantom Menace'' has touches of Japanese influence in the Kabuki-style facial makeup sported by the evil Darth Maul and Zen-like meditation practiced by the heroic Jedi knights.