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Star Wars Visions (2021)

The Star Wars franchise has Japanese culture in its very DNA. Not only was A New Hope influenced by classic Japanese film The Hidden Fortress,  but it's also no secret that the Jedi were modelled on Japanese Samurai. Star Wars loves Japan, and Japan loves it back. Over the years there have been numerous Japanese comic book adaptations or spin-offs of the films, some of which then found themselves imported back to the west as manga's US popularity grew.

From that perspective, Star Wars Visions seems like it's a project that was way overdue. Lucasfilm invited some of Japanese animation's top talent and most respected studios to play in the Star Wars sandpit. The result is an Animatrix style anthology, comprising of nine shorts. Visions arrived on Disney Plus on September 22, 2021.

Lucasfilm apparently gave the writers and directors considerable creative freedom to explore the Star Wars Universe. Freed from the requirement to stick to the cannon, they were allowed to set their shorts in any time in the continuity. They had the choice to include existing characters or create their own- or a combination of the two. The shorts vary in length and in tone, and utilise a number of different visual styles. 

The Duel

The samurai connection is made explicit in the opening short The Duel from Kamikaze Douga and director Takonobu Mizuno. It takes place in a place that bears an unmistakable resemblance to feudal-era Japan. A lightsaber-wielding Ronin and his droid companion defends a village that is being terrorised by dastardly bandits. Artfully shot in moody monochrome with only occasional flashes of colour (most notably for lightsabers and lasers), it skilfully recreates samurai action. The addition of film scratches and imperfection is the perfect finishing touch to hammer home the feeling that you're somehow watching a lost Akira Kurosawa samurai film. You can see why The Duel was chosen as the opener- it's an impressive way for Visions to kick off.

Studio Colorido's Tatooine Rhapsody is an entirely different affair, as you would expect from the studio behind quirky charmer Penguin Highway. Colourful and cartoony, it features character designs that are short and squat (falling just short of 'super-deformed). The story follows a group of friends who form a band on the planet that gives the short its name. This is the only short to bring in existing characters- Bobba Fett and Jabba The Hutt are the antagonists. One of the band members is a Hutt himself, and Jabba hires Bobba to catch him and bring him back to him, but his friends aren't going to let him go without a fight.  Taku Kimura's short is fun and playful, but it doesn't feel quite as true 'Star Wars' as the other shorts- rock music feels distinctly out of place in the galaxy far away.

Hiroyuki Imaishi and Trigger bring us The Twins next. This short immediately distinguishes itself by taking place amongst the ranks of The Empire, set primarily on an Imperial Star Destroyer. It's the most visually dynamic piece yet, showcasing kinetic action and moving at quite the speed, despite being the longest episode yet (at 17 minutes). Animation wise this is closer to Promare than a more traditionally animated Trigger production like Kill La Kill but Imaisishi sure knows how to do an exciting action scene. 

The Elder

In contrast, Trigger's other contribution (episode 7) The Elder is a straightforward 2D animated piece. It's visually impressive but lacks some of the stylisations of much of the studio's output. It has a pretty standard mainstream anime aesthetic and it's unlikely you would be able to pick it out as a Trigger work if you did not know. The actual film though is a thrilling story in which a  Jedi and Padawan investigate a dark and powerful presence on a remote planet. The centre-piece is a highly dramatic lightsaber duel in the pouring rain.

The other well known studio who were invited to contribute two episodes was Science Saru (Devilman Crybaby, Ride Your Wave). Abel Gongora's T0-B1 is a droid-centred tale that is inspired by the idea of what a Star Wars short by the late God Of Manga Osamu Tezuka would look like. There's definitely shades of Astro Boy to the short's titular lead, a childlike robot who dreams of becoming a Jedi Knight. It's the youngest-skewed of all the shorts, but it also boasts one of its best villains, an imposing Imperial Officer who looks like a long-lost relation of Darth Vader.

Lop and Ocho

Coming from Science Saru co-founder and CEO Eunyoung Choi is Akakiri (episode 9). This looks much more like what you would expect a Science Saru Star Wars film to look like. Its character designs are stylised and cartoonish, and it's hard to not think it owes a debt to Saru co-founder and anime auteur Masaaki Yuasa. Its lively visual style is contrasted with a pretty serious plot, featuring a Jedi returning to a village to defend his long-lost love. It climaxes with a stunning red-tinted fight sequence, shown from a fixed angle, long shot- easily one of the best looking sequences in all of the anthology.

The Village Bride

Next up, the Village Bride is apparently the first of the shorts clearly to take place in the prequel era. In concept, this is much in the same vein as The Duel, with a wandering Jedi and her companion defending a peaceful village from a warlord. This time, it's a bad-ass woman Jedi, sporting a distinctive mask and hooded cape. Made In Abyss producers Kinema Citrus manage to tell an impressively complete story with an excellent action climax. Animation wise it's good, but the designs are fairly generic.

The other short coming from a lesser known studio is Geno Studios'  Lop and Ocho (episode 8). It stars a little rabbit-girl alien but it's actually one of the more dramatic stories. Lop (the rabbit-girl) ends up on opposite sides of the conflict to her adopted sister when their village is threatened by the Empire. Capturing the family-angst ever-present in the main Star Wars movies, it's definitely one of the more emotive shorts here. It's also not short on impressive action. It looks fantastic, with distinctive and memorable character designs, and a richly drawn setting, that blends Japanese-style feudal village with technology.

The Ninth Jedi

However, if any one film here could be the marquee short in this anthology, then surely Production IG's The Ninth Jedi (episode 5) is it. Director Kenji Kamiyama, back working in 2D after a couple of dalliances with CG, is responsible for the short which feels most genuinely like a mini Star Wars movie. Thanks to a 22-minute run time, Kamiyama is able to fit in a full satisfying story arc with a beginning, middle and an end. The story concerns a young masterless Jedi who answers a call to journey to a world where a sabersmith has been making lightsabers (now banned) in order to resurrect the Jedi order. At first, this young ronin Jedi appears to be the lead character, but this instead turns to be the story of plucky young girl Kara- daughter of the smith and Jedi in training.

With IG responsible, it all looks fantastic. It manages to pack in everything you could want from a Star Wars short- lightsaber duels,  force powers, speeder chases and a plot with lots of twists and turns. The characters too are standout, with some really memorable designs that feel authentic to the universe- plucky pure-hearted heroes, dastardly villains and wise masters. It's even got its own adorable droid sidekick. and is the only short to be fully scored.

The Twins

Anime and Star Wars turned out to be something of a match made in heaven. Due to the franchise's routes in Japanese culture, it feels like a natural fit. By definition, anthologies can have mixed results and while there are definite stand-outs, there is no weak link here.

Star Wars fans (so.. most people) will get a kick out of hearing all the distinctly familiar sound effects- it's amazing how far the authentic lightsaber hum goes to make it feel authentic- and the easter eggs and references ("I've got a bad feeling about this" crops up more than once). The Star-Warsyness (a word I just made up, but just go with it) even comes down to the editing, with the infamous Star Wars wipe used throughout.

When the only real complaint you have is that you want more, you know you're onto a winner. It would be a shame if this is a one-off, and I would hope that they are planning more shorts at least.  Both the Ninth Jedi and Lop and Ocho have open-endings and it would be nice to think that the stories might be allowed to continue in some form. Whether it's in the form of more shorts, a series or even an animated feature, more from these two, in particular, would be most welcome.


IN A NUTSHELL: Some of Japanese animation's most talented creators bring new life to the Star Wars Universe. The force is VERY strong with this one.