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What immediately stands out about Disney+’s new “Star Wars: Visions” are the stories it chooses not to tell.
Released Sept. 22, “Star Wars: Visions” is an animated miniseries set in the “Star Wars” universe. The new series consists of nine shorts from seven different anime studios, with each episode featuring different art styles, characters, and settings. The result is a unique, exciting new take on “Star Wars,” one that blends the classic iconography of the franchise with various iterations of Japanese culture and anime storytelling, and, perhaps most strikingly, one without a single mention of a Skywalker, Kenobi, Palpatine, Solo, or Organa. The series instead concerns itself with those on the margins of the galaxy, whose stories didn’t change the history of their universe but which matter all the same. “Star Wars: Visions” proves what many “Star Wars” fans have known all along — that the strength of the franchise lies not in leaning on recognizable bloodlines but in the breadth and depth of the “Star Wars” universe.
As each creator wrestles with the project itself, this diversity of storylines within the universe emerges. At its most basic level, “Star Wars: Visions” is just ‘anime Star Wars. The variety, then, comes from the ways in which each creator interprets what that means.
“The Ninth Jedi” serves as both one of the standouts of the series and as an example of one interpretation that emphasized the Star Wars canonical story. Produced by vaunted anime studio Production I.G, the episode tells the story of Kara, the daughter of a lightsaber smith who must deliver her father’s lightsabers to a new group of aspiring jedi warriors in the hope of restoring the long-dead Jedi Order. At just under 22 minutes long, the episode gets the closest to a traditional “Star Wars” cinematic experience, featuring incredible lightsaber duels, a rousing speeder chase, and a strong, plucky protagonist. “The Ninth Jedi” is a fantastic Star Wars story that happens to be an anime.
“Tatooine Rhapsody” is a lower-key hidden gem which takes the opposite approach. Produced by the much newer Studio Colorido, the story centers around a small rock band who is targeted by Boba Fett because their bass guitarist is the son of Jabba the Hutt. Whereas “The Ninth Jedi” showcases how well anime can be used to tell a Star Wars story, “Tatooine Rhapsody” takes the iconography and style of Star Wars to tell a story far more in line with a traditional TV anime. Its rock music, desert-punk aesthetic, and the earnest coming-of-age story at its heart evokes mid 2000s anime classics like “Eureka Seven” and “Gurren Lagann.” The climax is particularly effective: A rousing performance that inspires the youth of Tatooine and saves the band from execution, the ending exemplifies the classic anime theme that the passionate feelings of youth can be more powerful than any force in the universe. “Tatooine Rhapsody” is a great anime set in the Star Wars universe.
There is also a third option, demonstrated by Studio Trigger’s "THE TWINS." Directed by iconic director Hiroyuki Imaishi, who is known best for directing “Gurren Lagann”, "THE TWINS" sees ‘anime “Star Wars”’ and takes that to mean ANIME STAR WARS. The ‘anime-ness’ is cranked up to 11 in a dramatic story of twins, one brother and one sister created by the Sith, passionately dueling over their clashing ideals. The episode is filled with insanely over-the-top battles, crazy powers, dramatic on-the-nose speeches, and the main hero using a hyperdrive booster lightsaber to cut a Star Destroyer in half. The action is stellar in every episode of the series, but "THE TWINS" takes the cake for its sheer bombast, energy, and creativity. "THE TWINS" breathes anime storytelling conventions, with the power of youth and love literally breaking the laws of reality. But it also breathes “Star Wars.” The episode opens with an ominous shot of a Star Destroyer, panning to reveal itself to be two Star Destroyers combined, a nod to the iconic opening of “A New Hope.” Soon after, we see the Sith sister standing on the bridge of the ship, arms back. The ending sees the brother sitting atop his destroyed starship looking out at a binary sunset, the music swelling. In the hands of a lesser creator, these obvious visual references would read as cheesy, hackneyed, and silly. But by embracing an over-the-top simplicity filled with burning passion and an overflow of emotion, "THE TWINS" succeeds with aplomb.
Not all of the episodes succeed quite as much as these three. “The Elder,” the other Studio Trigger episode, is an entertaining enough narrative, but weaker animation, too much similarity to other episodes, and a story that lacks scope make it a low point in the series. Too many episodes, including “The Elder,” “The Duel,” “Akakiri,” and “The Village Bride,” had the structure of an outsider Jedi arriving at some small town and solving their problem, although “Akakiri” differs pretty substantially from the other examples elsewhere. The main characters’ status as visitors on foreign soil distances the audience from them and flattens their characterization, as their background information and motivation gets lost. Then again, this may come down to personal preference, as these stories come from another way of imagining ‘anime Star Wars’ — that is, as classic Japan-inspired “Star Wars,” borrowing heavily from traditional wandering samurai stories. “Lop and Echo” has a surprisingly unique problem given the nature of the series. With an ambitious, dramatic story and challenging themes of colonialism and tradition, the story needed more time for the excellent ending to have the impact it should have, even if it still was a personal favorite. Finally, “TO-B1” is another excellently crafted episode that takes a similar approach to “Tatooine Rhapsody.” The episode peeks in on another small, strange slice of the Star Wars galaxy through a distinctly anime-esque story and aesthetic, this one clearly inspired by older super robot shows, particularly “Astro Boy.”
Ultimately, “Star Wars: Visions” celebrates diversity, both the diversity of anime and the diversity of the “Star Wars” canon. That commitment to and celebration of diversity means that any “Star Wars” fan, anime fan, or fan of good storytelling will find something that fits their tastes, especially since each episode is exceptionally well made from a technical level and looks gorgeous. “Star Wars: Visions” is “Star Wars” at its best: bold, ambitious, creative, and, most importantly, innovative. Hopefully, this signals a positive change in the franchise for years to come.
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