Star Wars: Visions (Review)

Though Star Wars: Visions—a series of animated shorts from about the franchise’s universe created by anime studios (including some of Japan’s most high profiles ones) and now available to stream on Disney+—was initially announced at last year’s Investor’s Day event, the idea of a Star Wars anime has lived in fans’ imaginations from a long, long time ago. The combination of anime and Star Wars feels like a (cybernetic) hand in (black) glove, but for it to come to fruition still feels unreal.

My first love, when it comes to geekdom, fantasy, and media in general, was Star Wars. It captivated my imagination as a child, and with the prequels arriving as I came of age. I had dabbled in anime when I was younger, but that medium didn’t take ahold of me until I was in college, and thus grew simultaneously with this new explosion of Star Wars media that came with the prequels, living and growing side by side (in a symbiotic relationship, if you will).

With that context, I want to present a review of Star Wars: Visions—short reviews of each episode, followed by a fuller evaluation of the entire series—from the perspective of one with a twin passion for Star Wars and anime. I trust you’ll fine many reviews from those who admire the franchise and who love animation, but perhaps a uniqueness here on this post coming through my expertise and passion.

You can jump to any of the reviews through the links below, or just read through by scrolling down:

“The Duel” (Episode 1)

Directed by Takanobu Mizuno (Kamikaze Douga), 14 min.

A remarkable start to the collection, it’s obvious why “The Duel” is featured first: It is an obvious and direct meeting of Star Wars with Japan, taking the form of an old samurai film and featuring a storyline familiar in the country, of a ronin protecting a village from bandits. The Star Wars influences come through in choice of weapon (only the lightsabers and energy blasts are in color) and the presence of droids and other familiar forms. Brian Tee and Lucy Liu perfectly capture the leads in a tale that brings a necessary suspense the titular event, while being animated in what looks like a rotoscope style. A kicking introduction to the new show, and one tied to other media also.

Score: 9/10

“Tatooine Rhapsody” (Episode 2)

Directed by Taku Kimura (Studio Colorido), 13 min.

Studio Colorido has quietly become a steady creator of strong anime films in recent years. While they haven’t quite made a classic yet, with movies like Penguin Highway and Netflix’s A Whisker Away, the company does present stories with strong narratives and beautiful animation. The latter is especially on display in “Tatooine Rhapsody,” which has some authentically lovely moments in its simple tale of friendship within a rock band, as the anime company gets the honor of featuring Jabba, Tatooine, and Boba Fett in what might (?) be considered the only canon part of this series. It’s a bit anticlimactic, but well worth the short run time. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices the lead, so I do believe that’s him singing. I don’t know much about the actor aside from his movie and TV roles, so at least for me, that was a surprising and fun addition to the short, too.

Score: 6.5/10

“The Twins” (Episode 3)

Directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi (Studio Trigger), 17 min.

Gurren Lagann. Kill la Kill. Promare. Star Wars. This was the short that most seemed to look forward to, on our Instagram bringing countless comments saying, “Looks like Gurren Lagann.” Indeed, it was created by Studio Trigger the director of that colorful series. But for the uninitiated, “The Twins” might bring the most dissatisfaction; it does, after all, kind of feel like a bunch of Star Wars pieces thrown together with cheesy dialogue and people breathing and yelling in space. But the fantastical elements and the style of it is what it’s all about. Imaishi’s colorful and outlandish animation is on full display here in the story of two dark-side force conceived twins duking it out over yet another Death Star-like weapon. The dialogue, again, is corny and the visuals matter more than anything, but for those who enjoy the studio (or can see the episode for was it is), this episode is a feast. I’m personally not particularly a fan of Studio Trigger, but I do like their work in short bursts, and so “The Twins” works especially well for me, while being the first of many episodes in Star Wars: Visions that is clearly setting up for a possible series.

Score: 7.5/10

“The Village Bride” (Episode 4)

Hitoshi Haga (Kinema Citrus), 18 min.

My fear from the time these series had been announced was that the studios would simply ship it in, which worried me further when I saw some of the names associated with Star Wars: Visions—both the overworked studios and directors that seemed to be experimental. But Kinema Citrus, which has quietly animated some of the best (Made in Abyss, Barakamon) and most popular (The Rising of the Shield Hero) series of the past decade, did nothing of the sort with their episode. They created a beautiful short (one of the longest, too), with amazing landscapes and a storyline celebrating Japan’s concern for nature, complete with original, haunting music and a tale both mythical and sci-fi that echoes “The Duel” in being about a ronin-type Jedi saving a village. And while I see “The Twins” as possibly become a series due to its commercial value, I would be far more interested both in seeing the character of K (Seto in Japanese) getting a fuller show and Kinema Citrus animating it.

Score: 9/10

“The Ninth Jedi” (Episode 5)

Kenji Kamiyama (Production I.G.), 22 min.

The presence of Kenji Kamiyama, who if you don’t recognize his name now, you will soon when Netflix’s The Lord of the Rings anime comes to fruition with him at the helm, and Production I.G. added big, legitimate names to Star Wars: Visions, but The Ninth Jedi is far more than that: Right in the middle of the nine episodes, and titled as ninth, it is the high point of the episodes, capturing the feel of Star Wars better than any of the other shorts without losing a bit of its anime feel, including the inclusion of heroes and a heroine that would fit perfectly well in either anime or another sci-fi medium. There is time set aside in this tale to develop characters and to bask in the Star Wars universe, master strokes by a genius director. And although I’ve mentioned it with other shorts, this one, too, and more heavily than most of the rest, feels like a test case for a series; I would not be surprised if this short about the recovery of the Jedi taking place in a time far past the events of the films, is meant to be a fuller show, and would be absolutely thrilled if that were the case.

Score: 9.5/10

“T0-B1” (Episode 6)

Abel Góngora (Science SARU), 14 min.

Whenever Science SARU creates an anime, there’s a lot of buzz in the anime community, an excitement to see what creativity they’ll bring to a series or movie. Góngora has been an important part of the team that develops the studio’s unique and often outstanding work, so it’s no surprise that “T0-B1” (pronounced “Toby”) is an utterly beautiful series to watch. Much like “The Twins,” this short is all about the style, and it is impeccable, both imaginative and exciting. The storyline exists to honor Osamu Tezuka, “The Father of Manga,” by serving as an homage to Astro Boy, whose anime adaptation is a turning point in the form’s history; as such, it’s to be taken very much in light of being a self-contained and purposeful piece rather than as a simple addition to the Star Wars universe.

Score: 8/10

“The Elder” (Episode 7)

Masahiko Otsuka (Studio Trigger), 15 min.

Among the aspects that the prequels introduced to the Star Wars universe was the Sith, and with them an increasing brutality to the franchise. Tonally, this is on display in the seventh episode of the series, and the second from Studio Trigger. As a standalone, it’s awkward and stilted during its first half (and wastes David Harbour as the voice of its lead), though it steadily leads toward what we assume will be a duel and at least one tragedy. That duel itself is effective and worth the long build-up, while the episode also presents some new information (canonical?), at least to this Star Wars fan, to chew on. It allows us to listen to the glorious voice talents of James Hong, as well, while additionally basking in another episode that brings a Japanese-looking environment to the world of Star Wars.

Score: 7/10

“Lop and Ochō” (Episode 8)

Yuki Igarashi (Geno Studio), 20 min.

At twenty minutes, “Lop and Ochō” is the longest of the films, though not long enough. Focusing on how the Empire has twisted a family (and introducing a furry Jedi into the Star Wars universe), the plot feels familiar, with it’s story seemingly plucking plot points out of all three original films but set against the backdrop of a classical Japanese world. But as I inferred, it reaches its climax without the emotional impetus is should; there needed to be more family and world-building here. Still, it’s a lovely piece, with lots of ambition, heart, and incredible animation from the talented artist at Geno Studio. Here’s another full series I would adore if it were greenlit.

Score: 7.5 / 10

“Akakiri” (Episode 9)

Eunyoung Choi (Science SARU), 13 min.

The final episode of the series is the one I was also most curious about. Once again, it’s an offering from the always-imaginative studio, Science SARU, but this time directed by co-founder Eunyoung Choi, who has spent most of her time in recent years in productions and management. How would she handle this piece? I was rooting for her, both as an “underdog”—a woman in the business and creative side of anime and a Korean in the Japanese industry—and simply as a head of a favorite anime studio. And she delivers in her return to directing. Episode nine, with its tale of a Jedi returning to help a friend but also tempted by the dark side, is by storyline the closest to pre-existing Star Wars work, borrowing liberally from the stories of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and thus, with its connection to the latter, is also the most disturbing. Wondrously animated, it additionally takes a native peoples aesthetic and weaves it in with Japanese and sci-fi ones exceedingly well. Funny, fearsome, and tightly tied together, “Akakiri” is one of the best episodes of this franchise.

Score: 9/10

Comprehensive Review

As mentioned earlier, my fear for Star Wars: Visions was that the short films would be treated by the Japanese studios as after-thoughts, big money projects that would give them a further foothold in American markets and tie them to Disney, while they put less-experience animators to work on them. The Animatrix, in all its inconsistency, also loomed large in the back of my mind, though I would gladly take ups and downs and be happy with it for this beloved series with the thought that we finally have an official Star Wars anime! But a show of all or mostly call-ins would be extremely disappointing.

Thankfully, the limited series if far more than that. Star Wars: Visions is a triumph, a creative, engaging, and enjoyable reimagining of Star Wars by taking the series’ themes, history, and aesthetics and combining those aspect with the same from Japan and the anime medium specifically, leading to the some of the most exciting and best parts of this franchise in its long history. The consistency of the shorts—not in style and story, for part of the appeal, of course, is in the diversity of studios and directors, but in quality—is astounding: The worst of the stories, “Tatooine Rhapsody,” is still a fun entry, and the best (a trio or quartet of the shorts would apply here) had me on my feet and eager for more.

Which leads me to this question: What was the ultimate purpose of Star Wars: Visions? It seems that it exists to open the possibility of future series, for more than half of the episodes felt like one-shots, attempts at gauging the possibilities of fuller entries, either shows or movies, in these new worlds. I’m on board with virtually all the stories being extended further, though I would be most interested in seeing “The Village Bride,” “The Ninth Jedi,” “Lap and Ocho,” or “Akakiri” receiving such treatment.

Still, the focal point here must still be how lovingly Japanese artist expressed a pride for their homeland’s tradition, both thematically and through the history of their films and animation, while combining them (often lavishly) with the same from Star Wars. These series could never be and weren’t meant to be canon, an argument point among fans leading into the show. It’s best to think of them as reimaginings of the universe, and are best enjoyed that way.

Even those who aren’t fans of anime will find the richness of the art direction appealing, while Simu Liu, David Harbour, Lucy Liu, Neil Patrick Harris and others form a prominent English dub (I haven’t yet watched it in original language), guided in part, some will notice, by veteran Stephanie Sheh. The fanservice is also strong with this one, largely in the form of so very many droids, by a famous piece of dialogue repeated over and over, and most of all, through duels, a number of which will rank among the franchise’s best. Often short (by necessity), they’re nonetheless exciting and well-choreographed—and include Japanese sword-style lightsabers, to boot!

With a number of recent franchise entries that received mixed reception, Star Wars: Visions is what was needed: something original, fantastic, and forward-looking. It goes beyond quenching a near life-long thirst for me to see the world of anime come together with Star Wars—it gives a pleasurable taste and has me thirsting even more. I think that was why these shorts were created, and you know what? I’m okay with being manipulated toward that end, as it gives me hope for the future of my favorite franchise. After all—fandoms are built on hope.

Score: 9/10

Star Wars: Visions can be streamed on Disney+. All images courtesy of Disney.


2 thoughts on “Star Wars: Visions (Review)

  1. I am almost done watching them all but so far I agree with what you wrote for the ones I saw. I stopped at “T0-B1” (Episode 6) which reminds me a lot of Astroboy (or Mega Man!). It’s a wild ride and yes, it definitely gives the feel that these are one-shots to see if they can be a series or movie one day. I do hope they go that route, and breath some fresh air into the franchise with this.

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