The Pitch: The Star Wars universe has long been indebted to its influences, most notably the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress). The Last Jedi, in particular, was positively brazen about taking major visual cues from Japanese anime. So why not, given the decades-proven elasticity of the universe and its storytelling possibilities, give a wide variety of anime studios carte blanche to tell their own short tales in the Star Wars universe?
That’s where Star Wars: Visions comes in, a series of nine anime shorts produced by six different studios (Kamikaze Douga, Twin Engine, Trigger, Kinema Citrus, Production I.G., and Science SARU), all with an eye for taking the iconography of a galaxy far, far away and spinning their own tales — from adorable robots dreaming of becoming Jedi to a meeting of Force users to save their planet from ruin to an interstellar rock band putting on one last concert to save their friend from Jabba the Hutt.
See You Space Cowboy: The most exciting thing about anthologies, especially ones set within existing IPs with their own set of influences (see: The Animatrix), is that they offer a chance for diehard fans to see their beloved series from new angles. Here, Visions doesn’t disappoint, with some of the best shorts in the anthology radically reinventing or re-interpreting classic iconography in ways that both honor what came before while offering us something new. There’s also a refreshing consistency of quality between the shorts, even as the styles and genres differ substantially: two are so-so, but four more are really solid, and three are downright great.
Among the most compelling: “The Duel,” the first of the series, which immediately throws you in a Jedi-infused mishmash of Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and Lone Wolf and Cub, a story about a village on the Outer Rim fighting back against evil raiders with the help of a surprisingly-sympathetic Sith warrior.
The animation is grainy black-and-white Kurosawa homage all the way, with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure studio Kamikaze Douga offering crisp, enticing eye candy as the red-green blazes of blaster fire and lightsaber battles punctuate the otherwise sharp black-and-white presentation. It’s pure literalization of the Jedi’s origins as an homage to samurai, and it couldn’t be more enticing.
There’s also “T0-B1,” an Osamu Tezuka-styled story about a young droid (looking every bit like Astro Boy) who has aspirations of becoming a Jedi Knight, and what happens when he finally gets his chance. But my favorite from a pure animation standpoint might be “The Twins,” from Promare studio Trigger, about a pair of clone-raised Sith siblings (voiced, in the English dub at any rate, by Neil Patrick Harris and Alison Brie) who do battle over the ownership of a kyber crystal — the gems that power lightsabers.
Like Promare, it’s all hyper-stylized motion and big emotions, cameras whirling and warping around lightsabers and ships and characters to capture over-the-top action that would put Dragon Ball Z to shame.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This: If there’s any tiny issue with Visions, it’s that the premises occasionally blend together after a while. Yes, the Jedi are a nifty way to transplant Star Wars back into the classic samurai stories that inspired it, but I’d have admittedly loved to have seen a few more tales that didn’t require the presence of a lightsaber. As is, the only one that truly qualifies is “Tatooine Rhapsody,” a slight but charming rock musical from Studio Colorido that features blaring J-Rock, musical heists, and a chibi Boba Fett. (So cute!)
Even within those confines, there’s plenty of innovation in storytelling to be found. Take “The Village Bride,” for instance, a short that uses the Jedi as explorers and cultural observers more than laser sword-wielding saviors (though there is an element of that in its small-scale story). Or “Lop & Ocho,” a politically complex tale about two sisters — one biological, one adopted — torn between their allegiances to the village that the Empire occupies, and the father who raised them. That there’s still such versatility to mine from these stories, not just aesthetically but thematically, proves the virtue of Visions as a format.
The Verdict: Perhaps the most enticing thing about Visions is the sheer volume of intriguing stories and styles the format could continue to provide. Picture a droid-centric story styled like Ghost in the Shell, or a Tampopo-like story about a food vendor on Tatooine trying to perfect their recipe. What if there was a podrace styled like Madhouse’s Redline? Give us a Han/Leia-like romance with the emotional heft of Makoto Shinkai (Your Name). The possibilities are endless. And even within the confines of the Jedi-heavy stories in this crop of anime shorts, there’s plenty of visual splendor and imagination to be found here.
As much as The Mandalorian opened up the Star Wars universe to new types of stories, it already feels like it’s surrendering to the weight of almighty lore; recent Star Wars series like The Bad Batch also feel constrained by the need to cater to Wookieepedia nerds who will scour the lore to connect every living being in the universe.
Visions, in its wild swings and vivid reconceptualizing of the universe, is freed from the obligations of canon, and in so doing becomes one of the most exciting pieces of Star Wars media we’ve seen in years. (And if you can, please watch in the original Japanese with the subs; the English dub features big stars, to be sure, but nothing beats the authentic feeling of watching anime as it was meant to be seen.)
Where’s It Playing? Star Wars: Visions comes to Disney+ and gives us a new view of the galaxy far, far away on September 22nd.