clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Visions’ Is a Fresh Look Into the ‘Star Wars’ Galaxy

The results may be mixed, but Disney’s new animated ‘Star Wars’ series tells new stories in a way we haven’t seen before by enlisting Japanese animation studios and giving them greater control over the end product

Disney+/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A Hutt with hair, who plays bass in a rock band. A Sith warrior who wears high heels to a lightsaber battle. An astromech droid that dons a straw hat, and a creaky pilot droid that takes a break from work, boils oil as if it were tea, and lets out a sigh as it sips the scalding liquid through a circular hole in its head.

These are a few of the fresh sights that grace Star Wars: Visions, the anime anthology series that appeared in its entirety on Disney+ on Wednesday. Visions, a Lucasfilm-produced set of shorts written and directed by Japanese animation studios, represents a kind of cultural exchange: It’s an Eastern take on a Western work, just as Star Wars was (and is) a Western spin on Eastern concepts. Visions invites an illustrious slate of Japanese animators to play in Disney’s Star Wars sandbox, which was inspired by Japanese storytelling and art, from Akira Kurosawa to Lone Wolf and Cub. By design, it differs from a standard Star Wars release, and the less one expects it to scratch the same itch as the movies or Mando, the more rewarding it is.

Visions gets off to a striking start with “The Duel,” the lone contribution by Kamikaze Douga, a studio that specializes in blending a hand-drawn, old-school style with computer-generated imagery. “The Duel” employs a largely black-and-white look complete with the artifacts and flickers of projected film, an aesthetic that situates it within the chanbara and jidaigeki traditions. (Jidaigeki, the Japanese term for period dramas, likely gave the Jedi their name.) The setup is traditional too: A group of ex-Imperial bandits are menacing a small town. The town, it seems, has hired guards for protection, giving “The Duel” the ingredients of a Seven Samurai homage along the lines of existing episodes of The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian. This time, though, the bandits are accompanied by a stiletto-wearing Sith, who wields whirling red blades in a blurry umbrella that allows her to float from the rooftops like a Mary Poppins of pain. Her weapon, like the episode’s other signs of intruding technology, is rendered in discordant, eye-catching color.

The guards can’t repel firepower of that magnitude, but the village lucks out: A second Force user has just wandered into town. This mysterious man of few words dresses like a Jedi, but he’s not a normal hero. “Ronin,” as he’s known, has a ruby blade and a cloak lined with kyber crystals liberated from the blades of his previous Sith adversaries (and, perhaps, Sith allies). With an assist from his astromech sidekick, he dispatches the latest dark lord, and the lone wolf and droid wander away.

When the duel (and “The Duel”) ends, Visions switches to something completely different: Studio Colorido’s “Tatooine Rhapsody,” a chibi-style story starring a former Padawan who’s taken in by a band that’s fronted by Gee, the hirsute Hutt (OK, it could be a toupee). The Padawan has pipes, so he converts his sputtering saber into the base of a microphone. The group goes on tour, though the bounty hunters who have their sights set on Gee make it difficult for them to finish a set. When Gee gets abducted, he and his bandmates play their biggest gig ever in the hope that his captor will spare the prisoner’s life. So yeah, not your usual Star Wars.

Instead of enlisting seven samurai, Lucasfilm relied on seven studios to craft Visions’ nine installments, which range from 13 minutes to 22 minutes, including credits. (Two studios, Science SARU and Trigger, got to go twice.) In the abstract, Visions sounds a lot like The Animatrix, the 2003 collection of nine animated short films that were set in the Matrix universe and directed by some of the Japanese artists who had helped inspire the movies. Because the Wachowskis conceived, oversaw, and in some cases cowrote its chapters, which fleshed out the trilogy’s backstory and tied into the films, The Animatrix was widely considered canon. By contrast, Visions occupies a slice of Star Wars real estate that’s somewhat separate from the rest of the franchise’s recent output, and much more loosely defined.

Perhaps wary of a sequel to CEO Bob Chapek’s comments about the company’s Shang-Chi “experiment,” Disney seems hesitant to classify Visions in relation to other Star Wars series or films. However, a Lucasfilm rep confirms via email that “the shorts didn’t need to fit into the Star Wars timeline,” echoing statements made this summer by executive producer James Waugh. That’s pretty important, because Visions could seriously screw with that timeline if it weren’t respectfully but strictly cordoned off from the rest of the saga.

For instance: The eponymous protagonist of Science SARU’s Episode 6, T0-B1 (or Tobi), is an Astro Boy/Mega Man–esque droid that becomes a Jedi, lack of midi-chlorians be damned. That episode and others introduce several Jedi who seemingly survived the Purge, which would be big news in Star Wars proper. Episode 5, “The Ninth Jedi”—the longest episode, compressed from a planned two-parter—sees venerable Ghost in the Shell studio Production I.G extending the saga into uncharted temporal terrain beyond The Rise of Skywalker, and also suggesting that some sabers can change colors depending on who’s holding them. In Trigger’s “The Twins,” two dark-side siblings duel on the decks of conjoined Star Destroyers, seemingly unbothered by the vacuum.

All of these quirks would require some serious retconning if Disney hadn’t sidestepped complications by giving Visions its own “instance” of Star Wars to mold. That Visions is divorced from the Star Wars timeline while Marvel’s messy and mischievous What If…? counts as canon underscores the relative rigidity of storytelling in Star Wars, which for better or worse tends to steer clear of comic-book conventions like time travel and the multiverse. Even so, it’s nice to see Disney dipping its toes into irreverent, off-topic territory like the Legends timeline (and its own Jedi droids) once did. It’s also a relief not to nitpick continuity or speculate about cameos or ramifications for the franchise. Visions is an invitation to keep your concentration here and now.

To get the most out of Visions, viewers must unlearn what they have learned about watching high-profile IP in the era of interlinked movie and TV universes. At first, I caught myself slipping into Mandalorian mode and jotting down names of people and planets for future reference or research on Wookieepedia. Gradually, I learned to let go and stop looking for connections or sweeping story implications. Unlike previous Star Wars animated micro-series—including Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars and the more recent, canonical Forces of DestinyVisions doesn’t depend on heroes with household names. Just in case it slipped fans’ minds that The Book of Boba Fett is due out in December, Boba (voiced in English by Temuera Morrison) and Jabba make mildly amusing appearances in “Tatooine Rhapsody,” bobbing their heads or thumping their tails to the pop-punk sound of Star Waver. Other than that, though, Visions is short on familiar faces or established settings.

In some respects, that absence of signposts is a virtue of Visions, jarring as it is to meet Force users who sport such non–Star Wars names as “Ethan” and “Dan.” I’ve lamented a lack of originality in Star Wars often enough to value it highly here, although this format isn’t friendly to starting stories from scratch. The 15 minutes or so at these studios’ disposal isn’t always enough to establish when and where we are, introduce and develop new characters, and tie everything up, which occasionally leads to a disorienting sense of being unmoored within the itinerant, unconnected narrative.

During the Disney era, Lucasfilm hasn’t had a hands-off reputation. In addition to the creative turmoil that marked movies such as Solo, Rogue One, and Episode IX—and that culminated in directors being dismissed for, reportedly, improvising or protesting too much—Lucasfilm initially balked at letting Respawn Entertainment, the game developer behind Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, use the word “Jedi.”

By entrusting its flagship franchise to creators who weren’t within its walls—and who, thanks to COVID-19, worked even more remotely than they otherwise would have—Lucasfilm played against type, at least in theory. According to the PR rep, Lucasfilm “encouraged the studios to send through their own pitches and story details, character concepts, themes, etc. The Lucasfilm team was there as thought partners along the way to help facilitate the studio’s stories and make sure they were authentic Star Wars stories and that they had the emotional quality we have all come to expect from Star Wars.”

“Thought partners” could describe varying degrees of handholding and arm-twisting, though it’s clear that Lucasfilm budged a bit. The pitch for “Tatooine Rhapsody,” Waugh recalled in July, “initially caused some trepidation” before Lucasfilm decided “‘We’re gonna tell stories that we couldn’t tell anywhere else.’” Then again, it’s tough to believe that every one of these studios independently opted to stay away from Luke, Leia, and Han or substitute alternative armor-clad Big Bads for Darth Vader. That certain Star Wars touchstones are so much scarcer here than they are on the whole, from films to short stories, hints that Lucasfilm may have been reluctant to surrender some control.

Although Lucasfilm has historically been a bit uptight, Visions might have benefited from more intervention or coordination. Disney definitely didn’t ban any of the studios from using the word “Jedi,” but maybe Visions would have been better if it had. Every episode features lightsabers and Force users, which creates the conditions for an almost mind-numbing number of duels and some similar themes, cinematography, and dialogue. Displaced Jedi, Imperial-occupied planets stripped of natural resources, and kyber crystals abound. The majority of Visions episodes feature opening shots reminiscent of the pans down from star fields or Star Destroyers that lead off the films, and most of the chapters also feature someone saying “I have a bad feeling about this”—the kind of callback that can cause a smile once in a movie but wears out its welcome after five references in a series that’s roughly the length of a movie (147 minutes, including credits). That repetition gets extra tiresome over a single sitting, so Visions viewers would be better off taking breaks between episodes than they would be bingeing.

Although most Star Wars stories don’t deprive themselves of Jedi like The Bad Batch or, to some degree, Rogue One, there’s something slightly stifling in the fact that almost all of these seven studios, given (somewhat) free rein to tell stories about Star Wars, chose to tell a story of Jedi vs. Sith and/or Empire vs. Republic. Is that all there is to Star Wars? “The Galactic Empire or the Republic, I couldn’t care less about either of them!” shouts Karre, one of Trigger’s twisted twins, though even he has an X-wing and a Star Destroyer.

Then again, if someone offered me a chance to tell a single Star Wars story, I’d have a hard time keeping it Force-free, especially with so little screen time to work with. (Battles between old foes don’t demand much exposition, saving precious seconds.) Plus, the essence of Star Wars isn’t those signifiers as much as it is the series’ aspirational patterns: finding one’s family, fulfilling one’s destiny, resisting temptation and tyranny. Still, if Visions gets a second season, it could stand to mix in some smugglers, starfighter pilots, or figures who don’t fit into a well-worn Star Wars character class.

Most episodes of Visions end without much explanation or resolution, leaving us to wonder who these strangers were and where they were headed. “Well, so much for trying to find a clue in what’s left of that,” one Jedi muses while studying the remains of a Sith spacecraft toward the end of “The Elder,” a Trigger episode that takes place prior to the prequels and seems less like a self-contained tale than an intro to a larger one. Some Visions characters may resurface elsewhere in the vast Star Wars multimedia galaxy; Ronin, the protagonist of “The Duel,” will have his story expanded in a novel next month. More than one of these episodes could be a backdoor pilot to a spinoff series, and it would be something to see at least one of these studios unleashed, like Dave Filoni, in a less insular and restrictive sandbox.

No knowledge of anime or these studios’ previous work is needed to dive into Visions, and the episodes can be screened in any order. Although the series’ English cast is seriously star-studded and generally does a decent job of conveying emotion and meaning, the Japanese recordings lend an air of immersive authenticity that the dubs don’t. Similarly, the snippets of John Williams–ish score are enhanced when they’re supplemented by departures from Star Wars’ sonic norm, mostly notably the vocals of Emi Evans and the sho performance by Mayumi Miyata in Kinema Citrus’s exquisite-looking/sounding “The Village Bride.”

Like the other animated Star Wars and Marvel releases on Disney’s streaming service, Visions will likely have trouble breaking through the cultural clutter on the level of the live-action series. But it does deserve a lingering look—even from fans who aren’t that into anime—before The Book of Boba Fett seizes the Star Wars spotlight. Visions visual variety and inventiveness, its continent- and culture-crossing affection for Star Wars, and its range of tones, from lighthearted to tragic (especially in the last two episodes, Geno Studio’s “Lop and Ochō” and Science SARU’s “Akakiri”), compensate for its flaws. Yes, it has a lot of lightsabers, but few of the lightsabers look alike. There are lightsabers in scabbards, katana-looking lightsabers, lightsabers with adjustable lengths and hues. In Star Wars canon, a lightsaber is a personalized weapon that reflects the traits and labor of its builder. The same goes for Visions and the artists who answered Lucasfilm’s call to create an elegant series that salutes a more civilized age.