Star Wars: Visions Blends Star Wars With Anime, and It Mostly Works
Star Wars television has been on a hot streak lately. From the groundbreaking live-action smash The Mandalorian to the critically acclaimed final season of The Clone Wars and its sequel series The Bad Batch, and with at least a half-dozen additional series in the works, the series has found a veritable goldmine while the theatrical releases remain on a hiatus. The unveiling of Disney+, and the near-limitless cash reserves Disney is willing to throw at it to ensure its success, hasn’t just been limited to safe bets. As Marvel has shown with higher-concept series like WandaVision and Loki, Disney is willing to allow experimentation. And no Disney+ series is perhaps more experimental than Star Wars: Visions, an anime anthology series that marks the first official foray of the Star Wars franchise into Japanese animation. But is this a gimmick to appeal to a novelty, or something more? As someone who isn’t an anime fan by any means, I set out to watch the series and find out.
Star Wars’ Japanese Roots
While “… but an anime” is often seen as a trope, Star Wars as a property is a uniquely good fit. It’s well-known that the original 1977 film drew heavily from Japanese samurai films; lightsabers were originally envisioned as the two-handed sword of the samurai, and the plot itself borrows concepts from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. The concept of the Force clearly lifts real-world concepts from eastern religions, and perhaps most tellingly, George Lucas had wanted well-known actor Toshiro Mifune to be cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, a role he declined out of skepticism for how the series might cheapen the idea of samurai. While that seems silly today, at the time, science fiction films tended to be of low quality and looked quite cheap. Ultimately, the film and series as a whole proved to be wildly popular in Japan; today, Star Wars is the second-highest grossing foreign film series there, behind only Harry Potter. And to this day, Japanese influence can be seen in the series, from the samurai-inspired wide-angle action sequences in The Last Jedi to the “wandering samurai” concept of The Mandalorian.
Interestingly, Star Wars: Visions isn’t the first time the franchise has flirted with Japanese animation; the 2003 mini-series Star Wars: Clone Wars was helmed by Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky, while the cell-shaded style of the fairly short-lived Star Wars: Resistance series was inspired by anime. That being said, Visions does mark the first time actual Japanese studios have been given the reins over Star Wars stories. It’s also somewhat of an oddity in the Disney era in that it falls into a canonical “grey area”; while the episodes aren’t wholly canon, they haven’t been dismissed as non-canon like the old Star Wars Expanded Universe (now known as Star Wars Legends). Lucasfilm has gone to great pains to ensure that virtually all new Star Wars material falls within the canon, but for Visions it opted to give the studios creative license to make the Star Wars stories they wanted. At the very least, there’s nothing stopping them from continuing the stories, or from accepting particular ones into the full Star Wars canon.
My Anime Experience, or Lack Thereof
On paper, one might assume I would be the type to like anime. I’ve played video games almost my entire life, mostly from Japanese companies like Nintendo. I really like JRPGs in particular, and have gotten heavily into Final Fantasy XIV lately. My film interests mostly fall along typical “nerd” lines: action, fantasy, and superheroes. I greatly enjoy and appreciate the traditional hand-drawn style of animation. In other words: I like Japan, I like Japanese cultural exports, I like nerdy stuff, and I like good animation. So why haven’t I watched anime?
Well, while I like to tell myself that I don’t care what other people think about me, the reality is I actually do, and there’s only so many nerdy things a socially awkward white guy in his 20s can do before verging on stereotype. Anime is one of the few nerd things I’ve drawn the line on. This is a line, however, that I will break for Star Wars, and that offers me a chance to view these shorts from a fresh perspective.
A disclaimer: I decided to watch the series in English and am reviewing them from that perspective. I prefer to watch things in English in general, mainly because I really dislike reading text while watching a program. That being said, the English voice cast for Visions has a lot of big names attached. If you aren’t willing to watch the series with an English dub, Disney+ does support the ability to listen in its original Japanese. Unfortunately, Disney+ only offers closed captioning, meaning the English text will come alongside sound effects and music cues. Whether that’s a tradeoff you’re willing to make is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
This short uses a fairly striking, realistic 2D art style with an almost black-and-white appearance, save the bright colors of blaster fire and lightsaber blades. In tone, this is clearly inspired by samurai, down to the name of the protagonist – the Ronin – a wandering traveler with a samurai-like lightsaber blade. The action here is crisp and exciting, although I’m not exactly sold on the lightsaber used by the short’s antagonist to start out with – it’s a bit much for my tastes, and contrasts a bit poorly with the short’s more grounded style and approach. That being said, this is still an enjoyable watch with a compelling twist, and definitely a solid introduction to the anthology.
This short uses a mix of 2D and 3D animation. It uses a cartoony, chibi style, which fits the fairly light and kid-friendly theming: what if a Jedi padawan survived the purge and joined a punk band? Your mileage may vary on whether or not this one is good or not, but it’s definitely not my favorite of the bunch. That’s not to say it’s necessarily bad – it’s just not my cup of tea. It definitely has a “Saturday morning cartoon” vibe to it, and the premise is at least fairly original. But it definitely feels a bit lacking in scope compared with some of the other shorts.
This short is a very stylized 2D animation, and is absolutely not canon in any way whatsoever. This is without a doubt one of the most ridiculous pieces of Star Wars media to ever exist; it’s basically one very long action sequence, and a visually interesting one at that, but one that also makes very little sense overall. That being said the background of the main characters is pretty interesting and helps somewhat justify the sheer amount of damage they cause. The voice acting here is also pretty solid, especially from Alison Brie, whose vocal cords are probably still recovering from the sheer amount of yelling here. Overall, this short is fast-paced, fun, and well-animated – provided you just turn your brain off before you watch.
The Village Bride
This 2D-animated short takes a very different approach from the fast-paced tone and structure of the first three shorts. The focus of this subdued story is the stunning art direction, ambient music, and world-building to set up what follows. Rather than a Jedi vs. Sith conflict, like most of the shorts before have offered, this instead seems to be set sometime after the Clone Wars. This self-contained story builds up slowly and very well, culminating in a dramatic and exciting conclusion that has just the right amount of action. Overall, I think this short really gets what Star Wars is all about – I highly recommend it. In fact, it might just be my favorite of the bunch.
The Ninth Jedi
This 2D-animated short is the longest of the bunch, and it tells what might be the most complete story. While it’s hard to envision this fitting anywhere in canon, it has the strongest premise of the bunch and a very, very cool take on lightsabers – along with a very strong twist that I won’t spoil here. I think this is the short that might just be the fan favorite of the bunch, as pretty much everything about it is a winner, from the stunning animation to solid pacing and exciting action. Like “The Village Bride”, this story really gets what Star Wars is about. It would be hard for me to place this as my favorite without seeing the inevitable sequel, but this was still a really excellent Star Wars story.
This 2D-animated short seems to incorporate some 3D elements as well. Like “Tatooine Rhapsody”, its aesthetic and themes seem more targeted at kids, and its character designs seem oddly reminiscent of Mega Man. This is a gentle and pleasant story for the most part, but the short length really hampers this one; the idea of a robot Jedi is somewhat interesting, but the amount of time that the short has isn’t really long enough to carry the story. An extra 5-10 minutes could have really given more room to explore the concepts it presents. That being said, this isn’t a bad short by any means; it’s passable, but not essential viewing.
This 2D-animated short is perhaps the most well-paced of the bunch. Despite being made by the same studio as “The Twins”, it couldn’t be any more different, adopting a more realistic character design and art design. Seemingly set some time in the High Republic era, this one features a rarity: a healthy Padawan-Master relationship. While the twist can be seen coming a mile away, it’s still handled very well, as are the utterly impeccable action sequences. It also features an interesting message that really fits well within the broader Star Wars universe. The only real downside for me on this one is the voice acting; the Jedi Master’s voice acting isn’t bad by any means, but it’s fairly monotone and flat. I’m not sure if this also translates into the original Japanese recording, but it’s pretty noticeable in the English dub. But even with that lone qualm, this is still one of my favorites.
Lop & Ochō
This 2D-animated short has perhaps the best animation of the series. To my very untrained eye, it comes off as very 80s in feel, which is really a perfect fit for Star Wars. There’s a great fusion of Japanese-inspired art and the gritty, urban, “used future” that Star Wars is known for; it creates a world that seems real and lived in. The Japanese influence goes beyond just art direction, directly impacting the story itself, which focuses on a clan, or family, similar to those in Japan’s history. Even the narrative itself is tied heavily with one of the major conflicts throughout the history of Japan: whether to embrace progress and the empires of the world, or whether to retain its traditions and longstanding way of life. The result is a very strong narrative with some genuinely excellent character development – it certainly benefits from having one of the longer runtimes of the shorts. Like with “The Elder”, my only real complaint here comes from the English dub – the voices for the clan leader and Lop are generally fine, but the voice acting for Ochō is way over-the-top in terms of intensity. Some over-the-top dialogue can be fine, but when that’s the entire performance with little shift or change even when circumstances demand it, it makes the entire performance feel wooden. It’s a shame that’s the case, because it really contrasts poorly with the somber and tragic story being told here.
This 2D-animated short has the most “ancient” feel out of the bunch; if this were on the timeline, I’d expect this to be very early on. I’m not sure I’m sold on the animation itself; the character proportions were either very thin or very wide, but the backgrounds themselves worked well, I think. The soundtrack is also interesting here, eschewing an orchestra in favor of tribal-sounding drums. What really works here is the gut punch of an ending – I won’t spoil it, but it’s very strong. I’m kind of hit-or-miss on the entire thing though, because it doesn’t really offer anything that interesting until the last third or so.
I came away from Star Wars: Visions fairly impressed. The best episodes were ones that used the medium to tell a great Star Wars story (“The Village Bride”, “The Ninth Jedi”, “The Elder”) or ones that tied in Star Wars themes with the themes of Japanese history (“Lop & Ochō”), while the weakest ones felt like the droid episodes from The Clone Wars – not terrible, but definitely disposable. I’m all for good animation and more Star Wars animation in general – it’s been home to some of the best Star Wars content in the last 20 years – and Visions delivers on that front.
Given the clear sequel bait several of the episodes showed here, I wouldn’t be surprised if Star Wars: Visions were to receive a second season with a mix of new shorts and sequels – or maybe even limited series based on some of the most popular ones. In particular, I’d love to see “The Ninth Jedi” and “Lop & Ochō” have sequels. In addition to having the best animation and art style in the series, they both have clear cliffhanger endings that are begging for a follow-up. Some of the stories here are just too good to have as one-offs, and the reception from critics and fans has been far too positive to not follow up on. If a second season were to come, I’d also prefer to see the shorts be slightly longer – maybe 20 minutes at minimum for the more story-oriented ones.