|Kamikaze Douga, Studio Colorido, Geno, Studio Trigger, Kinema Citrus, Production I.G, Science SARU
|Brian Tee, Lucy Liu, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Temuera Morrison, Neil Patrick Harris, Alison Brie, Jonathan Lipow, Patrick Seitz, Simu Liu, Kyle Chandler, David Harbour, James Hong, George Takei, etc.
|September 22nd, 2021
Disney+ has been churning out A LOT of content this year! Their Star Wars and Marvel content is rolling out on an almost weekly basis without more than a few weeks between big shows premiering every Friday. Thankfully, the means there is always something to talk about!
Their newest efforts are more playful entries. On the Marvel side, we got the What If…? series which explored alternate timelines in the MCU where different characters replaced one another or where certain evils won certain battles. In a similar vein, Star Wars Visions is an anime anthology series comprised of nine shorts by seven of the most popular anime studios in existence.
Violence/Scary Images: Action and combat with lightsabers, laser guns, and death; not inappropriate for young children, necessarily
Language/Crude Humor: Minimal to None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: Some casual implied drinking
Spiritual Content: Themes of spirituality, darkness, violence, and what it means to follow the light
Other Negative Themes: Themes of violence, combat, and confrontation
Positive Content: Themes of family, fighting for justice, and hope
Far be it from me to pander to a massive rogue evil corporation like Disney, but I can’t help but feel like they’re finally starting to get a handle on how to shape Star Wars into a franchise capable of producing yearly content. The magic of classical Star Wars embodied by the original trilogy feels long since dead, and I doubt we’ll ever have as much excitement for the franchise as we got in December 2015 when The Force Awakens premiered. Absent that, the best I can hope for is for Disney to take some chances and start finding new ways to be creative without CONSTANTLY drawing from the well of the original films.
Star Wars: Visions feels like a good sign in that regard. While the larger shows like The Mandalorian, The Bad Batch, The Book of Boba Fett, and such are still in production, Visions serves as a nice pallet cleanser and a neat experiment to tide fans over for a bit while experimenting with new art styles and stories. The series is an anthology show comprised of nine 15 minute anime shorts by different studios in Japan. Each is rather experimental and original in its own right, showing off a wide variety of animation styles, tones, characters, and levels of fanservice from some of the leading anime creators currently working in the business.
It’s very similar to 2010’s Halo: Legends, which also allowed different teams of anime creators to fashion their own stories using the Halo universe as a playground for their original non-canon stories. Stylistically, of course, its most obvious comparison is Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent 2003 animated series Clone Wars, which reimagined the Prequel Trilogy in the style of Samurai Jack. That was really the last time the franchise was allowed to radically experiment with different animation styles and over-the-top action.
Star Wars: Visions brings a lot of that same sense of experimentation and bravado, but with the benefit of seven different anime studios with radically different visions, art styles, and themes to explore. Naturally, the end result is mixed. Each story feels radically different from one another, but each also feels lacking in cohesion. The lack of consistency makes it hard to watch them all in a row without feeling incredible whiplash or boredom at times as the level of energy and investment changes from scene to scene. As such, it’s best to approach each one of the shorts separately to give them their fair shake.
The Duel by Kamikaze Douga
Starting out, we have what is likely the most fully formed and excellent entry on the list. The Duel is more or less what you’d expect it to be if you’ve seen any of the advertising. It’s a classical Kurosawa-esque samurai story but redone with Star Wars highlights. Katanas are replaced with lightsabers. Ronen are replaced with Sith. What makes it special is just how excellent the animation and visual storytelling is from start to finish. The classic story of a rogue wandering into a town to clear bandits is clearly lifted from films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, but the story carries the ethics of those stories with them. What it ends up creating is fascinating. We get the first instance in recent years of an anti-hero dark side user who uses his rage and evil for good. I won’t say too much, but there’s not too much to spoil beyond one or two reveals. What we do get is fascinating and the effort put into the animation is on full display.
Tatooine Rhapsody by Studio Colorido
Immediately, we transition to the goofiest story in the lot. The short begins with a Jedi escaping Order 66 only to fall into the hands of a renegade Hutt and form a rock band that tours the galaxy for gigs. It’s certainly not a story to take seriously in any way given it’s a ridiculous story that feels very out of place in the otherwise grizzled universe of Star Wars. That said, it can’t help but feel charming. It’s K-On! inspired story isn’t the kind of thing I ever expect to see again in a franchise like this, but I’m glad we saw it this once.
The Twins by Studio Trigger
Naturally, the most over-the-top entry in the series belongs to the animation studio behind Kill la Kill and Pro-Mare. This entry probably does the hardest to make its aesthetics LOOK like classic Star Wars. At the start, we’re introduced to two genetically dark-side twins who were engineered to serve the empire and oversee a doomsday weapons test. Much to everyone’s surprise, one of them decides to join the rebellion, rip off his empire attire, and duel his twin sister in an epic lightsaber battle with some of the most improbable combat logistics ever shown in a duel. The fight scenes are insane and the final lightsaber clash makes for one of the craziest visuals in the franchise since the light-speed collision in The Last Jedi. It might be a bit too dumb to be considered the best film in the lot, but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable.
The Village Bride by Kinema Citrus
I didn’t get this one. Again, it doesn’t help that watching these shorts in succession makes them hard to judge individually, but this one felt repetitive after watching The Duel. Once again, a group of Jedi enters a city being held up by bandits. Unfortunately, this story felt far less holistic and fully conceived than its predecessor did. I’ve listened to some commentators who regard this as one of the stronger shorts in the lot, but I couldn’t really get into it upon first viewing.
The Ninth Jedi by Production I.G.
Many of the shorts play around in strange parts of the Star Wars timeline apart from the Galactic Civil War. This short in particular was interesting because it’s technically supposed to take place after the events of Rise of Skywalker. This longer episode is set in the years after that movie as the Jedi Order is starting to come together again. A group of Jedi who has been wandering the galaxy for years is lured to an ancient temple with the promise that someone has discovered the lost art of forging lightsabers. The short explores some interesting ideas such as the concept that lightsaber colors could be a kind of Force-sensitive mood ring that changes color depending on your allegiance. It’s got a great twist and manages to feel somewhat diegetic to the events of the Sequel Trilogy, much in the way it explores the idea of what it’s like to wander around a universe where great stories and lost secrets are around every corner. Plus the lightsaber duel here is the strongest in this entire anthology.
T0-B1 by Science Saru
Here is where the stylization arguably takes one or two steps into the excessive. T0-B1 (pronounced Toby) tells the story of Toby. He’s a droid being trained by an elderly Jedi to help raise life on a lifeless desert world but secretly dreams of learning to become a Jedi Knight himself. The story is expressly inspired by anime like Astro-Boy and takes its style to the edge of credulity by barely taking place within something that could even look like the Star Wars universe. That’s not really a slight, of course. T0-B1 works totally fine as a stand-alone story and even excels at being different and stylistic. This is the maximum point of impact where the animation overtakes the worldbuilding. Several of the Visions stories are anime shorts decked out in Star Wars toys and not Star Wars stories told with anime. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I imagine some fans would appreciate the more naturalistic approach that feels closer to canon (even though these stories are explicitly non-canon).
The Elder by Studio Trigger
Speaking of which, The Elder is easily the most toned-down story in the bunch insofar as it clearly feels like it could actually take place within the official canon. It’s kind of fascinating that this is Studio Trigger’s second short when the earlier one was so stylized in comparison. This almost feels like a deliberate act to show they have enough range to tell quiet, dramatic stories in addition to their huge insane ones. As far as the more serious and quiet stories in the anthology go, this is one of the better ones. The story is set during the Prequel Era as a Jedi Master and his Padawan explore the Outer Rim territories. While on a mission, they discover an elderly dark-side user who challenges them to combat and tries to kill them, despite his claim he’s not a sith. Again, this is one of the most muted stories in the collection, but it is a solid work of action storytelling.
Lop and Ocho by Geno Studio
Here is another story where the anime style almost overpowers the worldbuilding. As the prologue of the story introduces us, we’re treated to a small planet that has willingly traded Imperial occupation for technological benefits. The downside is the population is falling deeper and deeper under the oppression of the Empire. The lead character is Lop, a rabbit-like slave who has escaped the Empire’s labor camps and managed to survive as the adopted daughter of a local family. When the father’s other daughter Ocho abandons them to join the Empire, Lop tries to step in and save her family using their family heirloom, a lightsaber handed down to the child in the family from every generation. Once again, the story explores many of the same themes the Sequel Trilogy explored: surrogate family, adoptive identities, entitlement, etc. It’s a good showcase for the themes of Disney Star Wars, although Lop’s appearance as a chibi rabbit version of Chewbacca might be a bit too indulgent conceptually…
Akakiri by Science Saru
Finally, that leaves us with the last of the shorts, and possibly the least. Here was another short that just didn’t engage me very much. Once again, I was left quite bored by this entry. The animation style was unique and some of the voice acting was quite excellent, but this felt like such a whimper of a short to end the collection with. It’s another Jedi-Samurai fighting evil Sith-Samurai story. The only thing I found interesting in this short was the ending, where it turns out the dark side user actually does manage to win and tempt his opponent successfully to the dark side. This and The Village Bride were my least favorite entries.
My bias in this collection was definitely to the more stylistic entries. I didn’t mind the more quiet and lore-accurate episodes like The Ninth Jedi or The Elder, but I somewhat appreciated the novelty of The Twins, T0-B1, and Tattooine Rhapsody more even though I’d probably say they’re not as good. I certainly remain convinced that The Duel is the best in show insofar as it matches style and substance evenly, but there is certainly a lot of subjective taste to be dealt with in an anthology like this. In any case, Star Wars Visions feels like a wonderful work of experiments. That’s probably why I like the novelty more. The more experimental shorts were taking bigger creative risks and stand out from the pack. The less interesting ones to me were the ones that didn’t push themselves.
As I’m aware, Disney+ seems to be considering a second season of these shorts, and I’m very much hoping they consider it. I don’t know if there is enough material in any of these shorts to do a full series order, but the energy these shorts managed to drudge up by throwing everything they could at the wall managed to find some fascinating specimen that actually stuck. I’d be curious to see what other huge anime studios would do with the same opportunities.
The Bottom Line
Star Wars Visions is an uneven but fun work of experimental animation that manages to create several moments of creative visual storytelling.