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‘Visions’ Brings ‘Star Wars’ Full Circle

With the new streaming series ‘Visions,’ ‘Star Wars’ takes its first step into a larger animated world—and links the franchise’s future with the Eastern influences that shaped its past

Disney/Ringer illustration

In 1977, audiences across the world watched Star Wars in theaters for the first time. George Lucas’s iconic sci-fi film quickly became a phenomenon, and over 40 years later, Star Wars is a genre (and an industry) unto itself, extending across movies, books, video games, comics, TV shows, and beyond. Ever since John Williams’s score first ushered us all into a galaxy far, far away, the Star Wars universe has been deeply rooted in Japanese culture and filmmaking. Now, with the release of the anime anthology Star Wars: Visions, the storytelling of Star Wars has come full circle, as seven Japanese anime studios have seized the opportunity to tell brand-new Star Wars stories with a distinct Japanese sensibility.

Visions features nine short films, all of which were released on Disney+ last Wednesday. The creation and content of the series, which can be heard with Japanese voicework or with English dubs, mark a significant departure from the typical Lucasfilm-produced Star Wars affair. The animation medium isn’t uncharted territory for the franchise: From Genndy Tartakovsky’s underrated Clone Wars micro-series to the recent Clone Wars spin-off The Bad Batch, animated series have been a consistent storytelling avenue for Lucasfilm for years. But it’s rare for the production company to relinquish creative control in the way that it has by collaborating with prominent Japanese anime studios to make Visions, which is not bound by (and often deviates from) the greater Star Wars canon.

By teaming up with these anime studios, including Production I.G and Trigger, Lucasfilm has compiled an anthology series that provides a unique Japanese perspective on the Star Wars universe that feels both fresh and familiar. Each of the nine episodes follows new, original characters—with the exception of a few familiar faces in Studio Colorido’s “Tatooine Rhapsody”—whose journeys play out in 14-to-23-minute installments that often allude to archetypal Star Wars themes and character dynamics, all while integrating Japanese culture more directly than ever before. Fittingly, Visions is bookended by two shorts that pay homage to the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose films served as one of the greatest sources of inspiration for Lucas in Star Wars.

Kurosawa, perhaps the most celebrated Japanese filmmaker of all time, influenced a generation of acclaimed American filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) famously inspired The Magnificent Seven (1960), the American Western that helped turn Steve McQueen into a superstar, while Yojimbo (1961) did the same for Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). For Lucas, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) provided the template for A New Hope. “The one thing that really struck me about Hidden Fortress and I was really intrigued by, was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters,” Lucas said in a 2001 interview for The Criterion Collection. “I decided that that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which is to take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in Star Wars’s case was the two droids.”

Lucas credited this narrative perspective as the strongest influence that The Hidden Fortress exerted on the creation of A New Hope, but the parallels between the two films run much deeper. Both stories are set in the midst of civil wars and feature former generals tasked with the crucial missions of escorting strong-willed princesses across enemy lines, as those lowly characters that Lucas referenced—Tahei and Matashichi in Hidden Fortress, C-3PO and R2-D2 in A New Hope—stumble along for the ride. Lucas even approached Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s leading man, for the roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, both of which Mifune turned down due to concerns over Star Wars potentially cheapening the image of samurai, according to his daughter.

The plot points of The Hidden Fortress are, of course, not the only impact that Kurosawa’s works had on Lucas when he started building his Star Wars universe. From aesthetic stylings like wipe transitions to the Skywalker Saga’s central focus on samurai-like Jedi warriors, Kurosawa’s jidaigeki—the Japanese term for period dramas—and other movies are at the core of Lucas’s Star Wars stories. Dersu Uzala (1975) features two men who get lost on a snowy expedition in Siberia when caught in a sudden blizzard—later echoed in Han Solo’s rescue of Luke Skywalker on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back—and introduces a Yoda-like character in Dersu, along with visuals of a binary sunset reminiscent of Tatooine.

Even in the Disney era, Kurosawa’s influence is as present as ever. In The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson channeled Rashomon (1950)—a story framed by subjective and contradictory accounts of a rape and murder from the perspectives of several witnesses—in the conflicting retellings of the incident between Luke and Ben Solo that ultimately turned the padawan into Kylo Ren. And in both style and substance, Kurosawa’s lasting impression can be found in the Mandalorian’s weekly adventures, most noticeably in his Seven Samurai–style defense of a remote village in The Mandalorian’s first season.

“I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to be influenced so much by Star Wars,’” Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau says in an episode of Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, recalling how he pitched the series. “‘We definitely want to be consistent with Star Wars, but I want to be influenced by the stuff that influenced George, so let’s really look at the samurai movies, let’s really look at Kurosawa films.’ And that kind of led to the whole Lone Wolf and Cub thing that also felt like it applied in certain ways.”

Kurosawa aside, Japanese manga and anime have also put their stamp on Star Wars outside of the original trilogy. As Favreau acknowledged, the father-son vibe between Mando and Grogu that drives The Mandalorian can be traced back to Lone Wolf and Cub. The iconic manga series, which originally ran in the 1970s, chronicles the adventures of a disgraced executioner for the Tokugawa shogunate, Ogami Itto, and his young child, Daigoro, after Ogami is forced to take on the life of a rogue assassin. The setup may be different for the unlikely union between the bounty hunter and his beloved baby companion, but the connection is similar. Other popular manga series like Akira, along with the 1988 animated film of the same name, helped inspire visuals and plot points seen in Attack of the Clones and Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars, as well as the fateful duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, which borrows elements from Tetsuo and Kaneda’s climactic battle.

The East-West cultural exchange of Star Wars hasn’t worked only one way: Anime has also incorporated elements of Star Wars, as exemplified by the beam sabers featured in the Gundam franchise, space westerns like Cowboy Bebop, or even the Akira film, whose director Katsuhiro Otomo cited Star Wars as one of his prime influences. Given Star Wars’ connections to manga and anime, it feels natural, if not predestined, that a series like Visions would eventually come to fruition—especially in light of the growing popularity of anime in the United States in recent years. It also helps that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy is all in on the genre. “[Kennedy is] also a huge animation fan and a huge anime fan, and was very instrumental in bringing a lot of [Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao] Miyazaki’s work to the West,” Visions executive producer James Waugh recently explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “And so at a certain point, there was definitely a conversation of ‘Everybody keeps talking about how much they like this. Let’s go meet with these people. Let’s figure out how we could do this.’ So it was definitely her impetus.”

As Visions finally unites the long-connected worlds of Star Wars and anime in a Lucasfilm project in earnest, it also provides a window through which to explore elements of Japanese culture and jidaigeki that were woven into the Star Wars universe’s core concepts at its inception. (Even the term “Jedi” is generally assumed to derive from “jidaigeki.”) The Force, the all-important energy field that connects all living things, is largely inspired by Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, while Jedi are essentially space samurai—sword-wielding warriors who dutifully live by a Bushido-like moral code built on a sense of justice, honor, courage, and sacrifice.

The master-apprentice relationship that undergirds the Jedi Order and the Sith’s Rule of Two pulls from the senpai-kohai dynamic in Japanese culture that bonds a senior-ranking member of society with their junior counterpart. Standard Jedi clothing is reminiscent of robes commonly worn by samurai, while some of the most iconic headgear in Star Wars—from Darth Vader’s black mask to Boba Fett’s original mandalorian armor—are akin to the types of helmets samurai would wear on the battlefield to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. And lightsaber combat closely resembles the swordplay practices of the katana. Various Visions episodes redesign how lightsabers look and function, but in one instance, the blade returns to its roots as the katana and the lightsaber are merged into one:

Screenshot via Disney+

Two of the strongest installments of Visions are episodes that pull from Kurosawa’s works most directly: “The Duel” and “Akakiri.” “The Duel,” created by Kamikaze Douga—the anime studio that recently helped reimagine the Dark Knight as Batman Ninja—utilizes the black-and-white aesthetic found in the vast majority of Kurosawa’s films and centers on a Yojimbo-style ronin who saves a village from ex-Imperial raiders and a Sith lord. (Next month, a novel by Emma Mieko Candon will continue his tale.) “Akakiri,” from Science SARU, is another analogue to The Hidden Fortress, with the Jedi Tsubaki escorting Princess Misa through enemy territory with the aid of two avaricious commoners—though this tale ends with a darker fate for the heroic warrior and the princess.

Elsewhere in the series, creators employ the kawaii aesthetic of cuteness often found in anime, which informs the Astro Boy homage in “T0-B1” from Science SARU and the chibi-style rock opera of “Tatooine Rhapsody.” (“Tatooine Rhapsody” also features a punk-rock bop called “Galactic Dreamer” that even catches the attention of Mos Eisley’s most famous Cantina band.) Other episodes like “Lop & Ocho” (Geno Studio) touch on family dynamics steeped in the realm of classic yakuza films, while “The Village Bride” (Kinema Citrus) highlights the traditional Japanese cultural connection to mountains. Both of these shorts share a thread of reflecting on the psychological and physical scars of war, from the environment to the survivors left behind, themes that became especially prevalent in Japanese cinema after the horrors of World War II and nuclear warfare.

Across nine brief narratives from seven anime studios, Visions showcases a wonderful variety of animation and musical styles while offering a refreshing tonal take on the Star Wars universe—and after 11 major movies and countless supporting properties, that’s no easy feat. Lucasfilm has had its fair share of “creative differences” in recent years with filmmakers who have strayed too far from its own agenda, and it recycled many of the story elements from the original Star Wars trilogy in the most recent Disney trilogy. But by outsourcing and entrusting its beloved universe to Japanese anime studios, Lucasfilm has been rewarded with exciting new takes on Star Wars that aren’t beholden to a restrictive and sometimes limiting continuity.

Decades after the likes of Kurosawa inspired Lucas and Lucas subsequently inspired Japanese animators, Lucasfilm has continued this cultural give-and-take between the East and the West, allowing for the accomplished creators and true Star Wars fans who shaped the worlds of Visions to pay tribute to the franchise’s Japanese roots. Like any anthology series crafted by various filmmakers working independently of each other, Visions isn’t seamless, and some episodes work better than others. But any Star Wars or anime fans who have so far held off on starting Visions—perhaps out of franchise fatigue in an age of Disney-spurred saturation—should proceed with this series at light speed.