[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be taking a look at a piece of Star Wars media with Star Wars: Visions Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands: is Star Wars: Visions worth analyzing, or is it a waste of your time?]
One of the first articles I ever published here on Flixist was a feature about how Star Wars needed to slow down. This was right after the release of The Last Jedi and despite my positive feelings towards the film, I was exhausted by what Disney was putting out. That opinion has only been made stronger as the years have gone by. I admit I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan compared to those that have grown up with the series as kids, but looking back on everything the franchise has done over the past several years, I’m just frankly sick of it.
My overall disdain for the series comes from multiple different angles. On one hand, we’re all aware of just how toxic and gatekeeping Star Wars fans can be, right? From public outcry over the history of fictional characters to the harassment of real-world people, when I think of downright awful fandoms, Star Wars is usually the first one that springs to mind. Then you have just how staunch and unwilling Disney seems to be to experiment with the series. For the love of God, that was pretty much confirmed when The Rise of Skywalker actively went out of its way to make itself the safest and most pathetic installment of a franchise that seemed to sacrifice all creativity in favor of keeping fans happy. I know fans will be polarized about the sequel trilogy for years to come, but the jettisoning of all elements introduced in The Last Jedi just to deliver what “the fans” wanted in The Rise of Skywalker is peak cowardice and an awful precedent for a company to set.
This rigidity to adhere to established characters and storylines is truly preventing the franchise to grow. Then again, fans don’t want it to grow. If anything, from the way that Star Wars have behaved over the past few years, they seem to almost actively fight against any substantial change that alters preconceptions about the characters and stories they grew up with. Disney wants to recycle the same stories again and again and get the same cheap thrills when fans see Mark Hamill strut out as Luke Skywalker for the umpteenth time. That’s why ideas like Star Wars: Visions excite me so much. This isn’t the same old Star Wars that you know. This is fresh. This is different. This is something that I can actually get behind. And yes, it’s also VERY anime.
Star Wars: Visions is a nine-episode anthology series on Disney+ wherein each of the shorts was written and produced by a variety of well-known anime directors and studios. We’ll get into exactly which luminaries were tapped here, but the important thing to note with all of these shorts is that none of them have anything to do with established lore. There are concepts that should be familiar to long-time fans, some visual iconography, a famous line or two here and there, and that’s about it. Only one short directly links itself to a group of pre-established characters, but that’s about it. This anthology series is a playground for animators to simply do whatever they want with the franchise.
Anime and Star Wars haven’t really crossed paths all too often before the release of Visions. There were some manga adaptations of earlier films in the series that were released decades ago, but there are only two noteworthy examples of the franchise going full anime, and even then, one of them is quite a stretch. You have the DAICON IV opening by Gainax that was most certainly not legal by any stretch of the word as it was just a group of 12 animators animating whatever the hell they wanted to animate for the love of art. Then you have the Genndy Tartakofsky Clone Wars series which definitely was inspired by anime but technically isn’t an anime. This is the first real major effort to connect the two together in a meaningful way, which is shocking given the deep Japanese influences the franchise drew inspiration from in the 70s.
And connect they did since Disney went all out on getting the best talent they could to create the nine shorts. To read off a list of the talent involved would be to list off the best directors and studios in the business right now. You have Science Saru, the studio behind Devilman Crybaby and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!!! contributing two shorts, as does Studio Trigger, with one of them being directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, the director of Kill la Kill and Promare. You have a short written by Takashi Okazaki, the creator of Afro Samurai, a short created by Geno Studio, who made Golden Kamuy, another one done by Kinema Studio who have been knocking it out of the park with the Made in Abyss adaptations, and the list goes on and on. Everyone attached to this project is A-tier talent. Disney did not hold back with this.
Which is odd when you think about it. Put bluntly, Disney isn’t one to rock the boat. They take as few risks as possible and regurgitate the same ideas time and time again, but in Star Wars: Visions, it seems like the mandate was that there were no rules. Each studio could direct whatever they wanted without consequence. The timeline didn’t matter and the storytellers can do exactly that: tell stories. According to James Waugh, the executive producer of the series during a panel at Anime Expo Lite, there were virtually no restrictions on what could be made. To quote him directly:
“We really wanted to give these creators a wide creative berth to explore all the imaginative potential of the Star Wars galaxy through the unique lens of anime. We realized we wanted these to be as authentic as possible to the studios and creators who are making them, made through their unique process, in a medium they’re such experts at. So the idea was, this is their vision riffing off all the elements of the Star Wars galaxy that inspired them.”
That sense of freedom alone was enough to get me interested in what Star Wars: Visions had to offer. Disney and Lucasfilm realized that to cram these creative forces into a pre-established canon would have sucked out most of the life they were trying to make. Star Wars: Visions is basically the equivalent of writing a blank check and letting people buy whatever they wanted. It is important to note that in the case of Science Saru specifically, allowing them to do two shorts contributed to an environment of overwork and crunch culture that has almost certainly added onto to the overwhelming mistreatment of animators within the industry. I really had no other opportunity to talk about that anywhere, so… there’s that to keep in mind.
How do the shorts actually stack up? In theory, I’m totally behind on this little experiment, but only if the payoff is worth it. Well, when you get the best in the industry, throw Disney money at them, and tell them to come up with something fresh and new that Star Wars fans have never seen before, do you think it’s going to be good?
The answer is yes. It’s very good. Actually way better than I thought it would be.
I guess it’s just because I’ve grown so sour to the franchise that even something that seems like a certain slamdunk as this could have been ripe with failure. I used to be a fan of The Mandalorian and how it actively tried to distance itself from the main series, but season two changed all of that. Instead of a series about a lone bounty hunter discovering his humanity in the form of a paternal bond he created with his target, we then get Luke Skywalker saving the day while everyone watches like an idiot and two spin-off series to focus on pre-established characters that detract from what worked in season 1 just to appease fans who miss their precious Luke and Boba. God that second season finale sucked and I feel like I’m the only one who thinks that? I mean what a way to just ruin the agency of your characters Jon Favreau!
Wait what were we talking about again? Oh right, how Star Wars: Visions rocks.
It goes without saying that all of these shorts are gorgeous in their own unique ways. They all don’t share a similar visual style but instead vary themselves across the entire spectrum of what is considered anime. We have Trigger doing what Trigger does best in explosive over-the-top action, complete with recycling characters from Promare, to Kamikaze Douga channeling Kurosawa films with its black and white feudalist aesthetic, to Science Saru giving us a complete homage to the godfather of anime, Osamu Tezuka. From a visual standpoint, Star Wars: Visions is probably the perfect distillation of all of the various definitions of what anime can look like.
That’s a smart decision since for many American viewers, this may very well be their first genuine experience with anime. There are anime-inspired visuals that American animation has certainly adopted over recent years, but this is the real, genuine article. The language of anime can be fully conveyed here and show audiences that anime isn’t just one single look. Plus when you put it into a series that’s as large and omnipresent as Star Wars, that exposure goes a long way.
As for the nine shorts, while I could go into agonizing detail taking a look at each of the shorts and the elements that are at play that make them work or don’t work, realistically, even by my overwrought standards we’d be here all day. Generally speaking, all of the shorts tend to focus on the conflict between the Jedi, or at the very least Force-sensitive civilians, and the Sith. Basically every short, with the exception of one, boils down to a lightsaber fight. The circumstances are always different, but it is a bit tiring at times to see each episode end with some grand battle, which puts a sharp divide between the studios who consistently produce action series versus ones that don’t.
Sometimes it works really well, like in “The Twins,” where we get to see a pair of twins just go all out with chaotic destruction, featuring a woman utilizing eight lightsabers and a lightsaber that slices a Star Destroyer in half. Screw logic, that’s just awesome to watch. Other times the conflict seems almost forced, like in “T0-B1,” where a lightsaber fight just occurs not because it’s in line with the theme of the story or motivations of the characters, but because without it the short wouldn’t end.
The series also puts into sharp focus the individual strengths of each studio to the point where you can honestly learn a lot about their unique creative processes by the shorts they produced. Take Kinema Citrus’ “The Village Bride,” which has a huge focus on atmosphere and the ethereal music of the always amazing Kevin Penkin. It’s a down-to-earth look at the spirituality that the force presents and its impact on worlds outside of the galactic conflict. It’s a comforting piece where the world speaks more than the characters, one that I can attest is reminiscent of the studio’s work with Made in Abyss and Revue Starlight.
Each short, for the most part, feels complete and tells a complete story. In fact, I would argue that sometimes each short does too good of a job and makes me want to see more of it. If you were to tell me that Production I.G’s “The Ninth Jedi” was a pilot for a multi-cour series I would easily believe you. But without any confirmation that there ever will be a full show order, we’re only just left with potential that’s just screaming to be utilized. Some shorts do need that extra utilization though, most notably in the case of Geno Studio’s “Lop & Ocho.” The short isn’t bad, not by a longshot, but it ends in such an unsatisfying place that without further exploration it leaves behind an excellent premise that never fully reached maturation.
Then again, that’s always the risk with anthology series now, isn’t it? When an episode is so good you want it to be its own series, then the limited time you have with it can almost seem cruel. I would take a full series order out of any of these shorts than whatever Disney currently has in the pipeline for expanding the world of Star Wars. Even the lesser shorts are at least interesting enough to justify at least a straight to Disney+ movie.
But fine, if you really want to know what my thoughts on each of the shorts are, here’s my general takeaway from each short in a sentence or two, followed by a quick little score.
The Duel – Classic samurai fare with some lovely artistic decisions that makes certain shots look like a gorgeous painting. Already has a book on the way and for good reason. 7/10
Tatooine Rhapsody – Cute enough, but ruined by focusing on a musical number that just plain sucks and barely any interesting characters. The least developed of the nine in my opinion. 4/10
The Twins – The most action-packed episode and it had me floored from beginning to end. The most Shonen of them all and I love it. I’m a Trigger fanboy, sue me. 8.5/10
The Village Bride – Poignant and beautiful, this was the one short that made me marvel and go wow at just what they accomplished. I don’t even want a full series of this, it was just perfect the way it was. 8/10
The Ninth Jedi – I WANT A FULL SERIES OF THIS. Fully realized characters, a group of Jedi, intrigue, and mystery. Yes please! 9/10
T0-B1 – Cute in concept and I love the Tezuka-inspired imagery but it feels a bit too slow and mundane for my liking. Also felt like it forced in Star Wars elements whereas the other shorts implemented them naturally. 5/10
The Elder – Excellent concept, but let down by being over with far too quick. Spent too much of its time establishing the tone instead of getting to the real meat of its premise that, admittingly, tackles well-worn series tropes. 6/10
Lop & Ocho – Another solid premise with some good emotional stakes, but one that never gets fully developed. Works as a solid pilot, but doesn’t end in a strong place. 6.5/10
Akakiri – Dark and poignant, this is the one short that’s probably going to stick with me the most in just how unnerving it can be at times. By far the darkest and I wish that more mainline elements could be as dark as this one was. 7.5/10
I think it’s safe to say that critically, Star Wars: Visions is a hit. It breathes new life into a franchise that desperately needed it, in my humble opinion, but went above and beyond at just how much effort was put into it. Disney didn’t have to go and get these studios and creators to work on this project. They could have settled for C-tier studios and forced scripts upon them, but that wasn’t the case. Disney trusted the creators of these shorts to do what they know best, and they gave their best effort. For the most part, they succeeded.
I hope that Star Wars: Visions goes on to get a second season sometime in the future. Can you imagine what a MAPPA or Kyoto Animation-produced Star Wars short would look like? Just imagine if there was a short that was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, or Shingo Natsume, or Masaki Yuasa, or a whole litany of other all-star creators can make. The sky’s the limit on what’s capable here. It’s this excitement, this desire to see a second season that has me more excited about anything Star Wars than has been produced in years.
Most importantly, I hope that Star Wars: Visions can serve as a mainstream gateway for fans of Star Wars to dip into anime a bit more. I’ve been vomiting recommendation after recommendation here for almost the entirety of this feature, so if you’re like what you saw in these specific shorts, I highly encourage you to dive into each studio’s backlog and see if anything catches your interest. If you can be transported to a galaxy far, far away thanks to the wonders of anime, then just imagine what pure, undistilled anime is capable of. It’s way better than anything a Death Stick may do to you.
January 2021: Anime of the Year Awards 2020
February 2021: Akudama Drive
March 2021: On-Gaku: Our Sound
April 2021: The Promised Neverland
May 2021: SK8 the Infinity
June 2021: Odd Taxi
July 2021: Beastars
August 2021: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
September 2021: The Idaten Deities Know Only Peace