By George Bate
“It’s like poetry, it rhymes.” George Lucas’ iconic and frequently referenced quote about what makes Star Wars so special resonates now, perhaps more than ever, with the newest series on Disney+ that draws upon the earliest influences on a galaxy far, far away.
Amidst the host of upcoming Star Wars shows on the horizon, Star Wars: Visions always stood out as being the boldest and most stylistically project in development. Yet, it’s unfortunate that many projects tipped to be novel and interesting fail to live up to expectations. Thankfully, this is not the case with the newest Star Wars series hitting Disney+. Star Wars: Visions is a Japanese anime anthology series that marks a collaboration between Lucasfilm Animation and six of Japan’s most acclaimed animation studies. This collaboration culminates in a poetic full circle, an emotional and unexpected journey that beautifully uses the Japanese film and culture that influenced Star Wars in the first place to take the franchise in new and daring directions.
Star Wars: Visions offers a surprising amount of creative liberty to those behind the scenes. The nine short films that compose this series have a nebulous position in canon to say the least, which allows each of the animation studios to take their stories and characters in whichever direction they please. Ultimately, some episodes are stronger than others, but this is the nature of an anthology series like this. Tatooine Rhapsody, for instance, is a frenetic journey of a band rescuing their friend from Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett with the power of their music. Meanwhile, stories like The Duel and The Elder adopt a much slower, more deliberate pace in delivering mature, cinematic Star Wars adventures. The sheer variety, both in style and story, of the nine episodes is commendable. No single episode is like another and you never know what to expect when the next episode kicks into gear.
Speaking of the creative liberties afforded to the studios behind the scenes, it’s surprising how bold Visions really is. Some installments, such as T0-B1, feel so unlike the Star Wars that we’re used to that this show has completely changed our definition of what a Star Wars story can entail. It’s not an exaggeration to say Visions is unlike anything we’ve seen before in Star Wars. Yes, some may say this is because Visions does not adhere to canon in any way. Nonetheless, Visions is refreshing and exciting.
A particular highlight of the series is The Duel. Billed as “an alternate history pulled from Japanese lore,” The Duel is directed by Takanobu Mizuno and animated by Kamikaze Douga and tells the story of a Ronin who takes a stand against a Sith Bandit Leader and her mercenaries. The short film is in black-and-white, with the exception of a few startling bursts of color, including the red hue of lightsabers. The Duel is largely devoid of music, using long stretches of silence to build tension in a manner similar to Gendry Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars series. It feels as if you’re watching an animated Akira Kurosawa film that is tenuously related to the Star Wars universe. In fact, remove the lightsabers and it would be easy to mistake The Duel as a completely unrelated project. And yet, somehow, The Duel feels distinctly Star Wars. The punchy dialogue, the quirky droid companion, the culture on display – this is truly an intersection of modern Star Wars and Japanese cinema. Thankfully, we don’t need to wait much longer for more adventures in this world as Del Rey Books and author Emma Mieka Candon have a new novel titled Ronin: A Visions Novel building upon The Duel’s story.
The Elder, from Studio Trigger and director Masahiko Otsuka, is another standout installment of the series. The short film follows Jedi Master Tajin (voiced in David Harbour in the English-speaking version) and his apprentice Dan (voiced by Jordan Fisher) in a story set sometime before The Phantom Menace. The Master and apprentice are trekking through the galaxy when they feel a dark presence on a nearby planet and investigate, only to have a run-in with a Sith. Tajin, Dan, and the titular Elder are some of the most exciting characters introduced in Star Wars: Visions and we’re desperate to see more of them in the future. Tajin evokes the composure and comfort of Alec Guinness’ Ben Kenobi or Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon, while Dan represents the confident and buoyant apprentice who has to confront his hubris in the face of an unnatural evil. The Elder, brilliantly voiced by legend James Hong, could easily be a character from a Star Wars-themed horror film. The character is threatening, ominous, and brings a level of menace not seen in other episodes of Visions. Fans of darker Star Wars stories will love this episode.
The breadth of Star Wars: Visions’ stories means different episodes are likely to appeal to different viewers. And, honestly, there is nothing wrong with this. One of the hallmarks of Star Wars is that, amidst this vast universe, fans are drawn to a variety of different themes, tones, characters, and plots. Some may find The Ninth Jedi and it’s exploration of Jedi Knights after The Rise of Skywalker to be particularly fascinating, while others may find the relationships of Lop and Ochō in their story set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope to be compelling and emotionally resonant.
Star Wars: Visions is unlike anything we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe to date. Given Japanese film and cinema’s immeasurable influence on the franchise, Visions feels like things come full circle in a manner that would make George Lucas proud. Some episodes, such as The Duel and The Elder, are stronger than others, but each is aesthetically and narratively different and bolstered by jaw-dropping animation and voice-acting – so much so that many episodes will leave you begging to see these characters again. All in all, Visions feels like Star Wars at its most experimental and unregulated, something we think fans will embrace.
Images courtesy of Disney+ and Lucasfilm