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Star Wars Visions review: Making me content to be a fan again

Star Wars Visions


Star Wars Visions review: Making me content to be a fan again

I love Star Wars. I have since I was a kid. But I don’t really like talking about it. It’s a headache that I’m tired of more so than a lot of fandoms. I’m not fond of the fanbase. They complain about everything and when a problem gets fixed, a vocal contingent is quick to proclaim that the solution was something stupid like eliminating diversity, instead of simply making better stories.

The most everyone can agree on is that there isn’t a lot to be excited about with Star Wars outside of The Mandalorian. That might very well have changed though. An anime project I’ve covered previously called Star Wars Visions went under the radar after its announcement only to blow up and get everyone hyped.

9 short films from seven renowned studios. Were they all winners? Were there more hits than misses? Is it even canon? And does that even matter?

I’ll answer the last two first. No, it isn’t and no, it doesn’t. These shorts are the full exploration of these studios’ visions of what Star Wars can be, fueled by passions that should be recognizable to anyone who grew up loving this series.

[I watched Visions in both Japanese and English. I would recommend the English dub, personally. The cast, featuring both professional voice actors and celebrity voiceovers, is well directed and matches each respective story. Going forward, performances will only be discussed if there are specific critiques I have.]

The Duel by Kamikaze Douga

Directed by Takanobu Mizuno

The Duel started very strong and fittingly embraced the tropes of the Japanese film that inspired George Lucas. Using CGI can be divisive amongst anime fans, but I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t enthralled by this short from the get-go.

The story almost takes a Seven Samurai approach, chronicling a rebellion against a band of ex-imperial troopers who’ve become bandits. But the protagonist is the more typical wandering hero, accompanied by a droid. From the artificial film grain to the black and white, the entire short is practically dripping with style.

Star Wars already has a style inspired by East Asian culture. Dressing that world in that aesthetic might seem redundant at first, but instead, it paints a portrait as to how strong the look works in the first place. The action is varied and plays around with as many styles as the creators could think of.

Originality is the strength of all of these shorts, even when the similarities can drag them down, and that does unfortunately happen. It takes a creative team that truly understands the material to be able to bend it and create intrigue through the smallest changes in the formula.

A lightsaber doing something it’s never done before or A Jedi or Sith adopting a role in the story that we rarely see executed. A common theme among all these shorts is how these inventive ideas are executed, breathing life into a universe that sometimes feels tapped out.

In the case of the anthology’s first episode, the result is cool as hell. Intense, creative action, an impeccable command of pacing, and an ending that lights a fire in the imagination. The wandering hero popularized by Kurosawa films and America’s westerns is a trope that thrives on mystique. The protagonist of The Duel is the spitting image of Toshiro Mifune in look and spirit. Absolutely incredible.

Tatooine Rhapsody by Studio Colorido

Directed by Taku Kimura

The second film was far more divisive among my friends, which was a shame since the studio producing it is one I love. My favorite film of 2019, Penguin Highway, was made by them. Tattoine Rhapsody had the perfect premise. “A rock opera” as the director described it.

I think it’s probably more enjoyable in English for fans if only for Temuera Morrison voicing Boba Fett. It’s a nice addition that tethers you to the wackier premise that much easier. Rhapsody has a cute art style that I adored, but a story that would have been served better by a longer runtime and more creative liberties taken with the music.

Being a “rock opera,” you would think that music would take center stage. Honestly, the music was a big letdown. English Dubs have a lot of barriers in their productions already by nature of the ADR process and proper direction. Add in music and oh boy, you’ve got another thing coming.

You have to not only match the beat but write lyrics that can convey the meaning while sounding appealing in English. It ain’t easy. It takes especially talented directors to make it work. Looks like Brina Palencia wasn’t around to lend a hand because the big musical moment of the short sounded… off.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a weird actor. He still does stuff but none if is anything I’m watching. Then he’ll show up in a Netflix film or this and then I remember how much I like him. That said, I don’t think his singing was on point here.

The story follows a band trying to save their friend from being executed by Jaba the Hutt with the power of rock music. Silly, sure, but kinda fun. It’s the kind of silly premise that can only work if the execution takes full advantage. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here.

It wasn’t all bad. The art style is super cute and the character designs were great. I simply wish it took larger leaps.

The Twins by Studio Trigger

Directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi

Okay… full disclosure, a little bit of bias on this one for a number of reasons.

The Twins could not be a more perfect use of Hiroyuki Imaishi’s talent as a director. Having directed Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and Promare, Imaishi has proven that he is a man of extremes, but always with a central theme at the core of everything.

His stories often involve duality or contrasting ideologies centered around a visual motif present in every facet of the story’s construction. What’s great is that Star Wars was built around a clear light versus dark motif, lending itself perfectly to Imaishi’s talents.

In the “behind the scenes” video diary, Imaishi describes the short as an exaggerated reinterpretation of the very first Star Wars film. Two twins who were raised by the dark side are preparing to use a powerful weapon. The brother decides to rebel. His reasons are unknown at first, but he’ll stop at nothing to prevent the weapon from being used.

The shading, coloring, and use of CGI are reminiscent of Promare, the studio’s biggest success. Imaishi’s iconic posing and accentuation of movement create some of the most striking combat ever imagined in Star Wars.

It feels like the imagination of a child watching Star Wars brought to life. Imaishi’s crazy ideas push the boundaries of what the force is capable of. It’s as if Imaishi and co. watched The Last Jedi and took inspiration from every iconic, breathtaking moment that people remember and channeled it into an homage to the series’ origins.

By the end, it feels like an Elseworlds “what if?” kind of story about if Luke and Leia were raised by the Empire instead of brought up in isolation. It’s a cool idea and if you can get behind the inspired chaos, it will leave you smiling.

The Village Bride by Kinema Citrus

Directed by Hitoshi Haga

No joke, at the beginning of this short, before the credits even faded, my friend Alex said “this is gonna be the best one.” Apropos of NOTHING. And miraculously, he was absolutely right. The Village Bride is slower at the beginning, but it doesn’t feel slow.

The director stated their intent to translate Japan’s mountain culture into the animation and they couldn’t have done it any better. The life breathed into the world by the animation and sound design draws you in as the spiritual nature of the setting is explored.

One of the best things the Star Wars sequel trilogy began to touch on before creative identity was thrown out the window was a broadening of what the force means. It isn’t just something for the Jedi. It can be present anywhere with a strong sense of spirituality.

This story is about a bride being given up to appease oppressors and the Jedi caught in the middle. Its charter includes quite a bit of reflection on the nature of the force. The hero of the story, a Jedi on the run, finds inspiration in the faith of the villagers.

A lot of the story is world-building and dramatic build-up, but none of it feels like a slog. On the contrary, my friends and I were craving a full series based on this story even before the halfway point. In the end, the short elicited emotions from me that I haven’t felt while watching Star Wars since the night I saw The Last Jedi in theaters.

Pure unadulterated bliss and audible excitement.

Credit has to go to the music and god bless Kevin Penkin as always for their work on the soundtrack. Both he and Kinema Citrus worked on Shield Hero back in 2019 and so it’s only natural he’d be the choice for a soundtrack that needs to carry emotional weight without much action.

And when there is action, it’s some of the simplest, yet most effective I’ve ever seen.

The Ninth Jedi by Production I.G.

Directed by Kenji Kamiyama

I’m overjoyed to hear that people have almost universally loved this short. As one who adores Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which Kenji Kamiyama also directed, it is gratifying to see more people realize his prowess. I might not have squealed in excitement as much as during The Village Bride, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one of the best-told stories.

Kamiyama knows how to expense exposition without making the proceedings feel like a slog. For reference, the story is technically set the furthest ahead in the Star Wars timeline. A new war but the same old threat of Jedi versus Sith.

Nine Jedi are summoned to a temple in space where they will be bestowed upon with new lightsabers. The lightsabers follow the oldest lightsaber rules in the Star Wars lore book. They change color depending on the wielder. This seemingly small element plays an essential role in the story.

Knowing Production I.G.’s resume, seeing their approach to art design in Star Wars was like a dream come true. Expressive character animation that consistently impresses and rarely errs. The performances – like with other shorts mentioned thus far – are thoroughly entertaining. This episode features guest voice Simu Liu, star of Marvel’s Shang Chi.

A big conversation between my friends and me after watching Visions was about which shorts we wanted to be expanded on in film or TV. This one topped my list. Kamiyama’s track record with TV dramas is too good to overlook. The story was simple but the execution of its twists was peak Star Wars.

It may not have Trigger’s exaggeration or The Village Bride‘s music, but it succeeds in technical perfection by a team that knows how to enthrall an audience. And I can’t forget to mention that the fight choreography is great and the scenery brings to mind the final fight from Episode 1.

Good nostalgia, better originality. That’s The Ninth Jedi in a nutshell.

T0-B1 by Science Saru

Directed by Abel Gongora

This is just Astro Boy but in the Star Wars universe.

I’m not trying to be reductive. The references to Astro Boy are cool, even down to the naming of the titular droid, a reference to Astro Boy‘s name given by the creator. It’s adorable and bright and will surely give you a cuteness overload. My only problem is that it moves too quickly.

Especially at the end. The story takes a turn for the more graphic and the escalation is rather sudden and can be a bit jarring. And that’s coming from a guy who is a fan of Hiroyuki Imaishi. Granted, I think Trigger wears its heart on its sleeve which makes the escalation in their stories a bit easier to swallow.

It is cute, yes, but by the time T0-B1 started, it became clear that every single story in this anthology is either about Jedi or becoming a Jedi. I know that’s what most people care about in Star Wars stories, but the universe is so much bigger than space samurai.

When divorced from the other shorts, I still think T0-B1 succeeds at being heartwarming, but it rushes its conclusion. I think the joy I felt at the beginning would have been paid off better if the story pulled at my heartstrings more. There’s drama, but it isn’t dwelled on.

This is likely a result of the story being so short and I suppose that is the trouble with an anthology like this. In the end, I felt no disappointment, but just a null void. I was anxious to see the next short, as I hadn’t really gained much from this one.

The Elder by Studio Trigger

Directed by Masahiko Otsuka

This short has the honor of being the very last work by Masahiko Otsuka in the anime industry. The man has labored in it for a very long time and he’s contributed an awful lot. I’m happy to say that this short felt like a fitting farewell, though not without some flaw.

The beginning is this short’s worst enemy. It starts rather slowly. There isn’t much to entice the viewer beside the banter between master and apprentice, traveling the galaxy together. Whether in English or Japanese, the opening scenes can be boring and the exposition building up the premise is not that much more exciting.

The main event, however, is worth it. The titular Elder is a former sith looking to hunt. Now that powerful Jedi have appeared, they’re delighted to have much more interesting prey. The action happens in quick bursts. It’s methodical, like action in old samurai films. The movements are carefully considered you can tell a lot based on body language.

A lot of anime relies on dialogue or internal monologue to explain the significance of certain things. The action here, however, is all visual. It keeps you on your toes and tells a wonderful story within the fight. The end of the story is what impresses me the most.

When the winner comes out on top, there is a lesson to be learned about age and technique that I think viewers can take away from. It’s a wonderful approach to such a simple plot concept. When the entire premise revolves around a fight, turning that fight into a larger story unto itself demands reflection from the audience.

The beginning may have been a slog, but when The Elder accomplishes what it sets out to, it does so with a substance that I wasn’t expecting. It is a cautionary tale within the Star Wars universe.

Lop & Ocho by Geno Studio

Directed by Yuki Igarashi

Geno Studio first caught my eye for Genocidal Organ, a project carried over from the bankrupt studio Manglobe, so I haven’t had much to form an idea of their capabilities. The closest I’ve come was their adaptation of Golden Kamuy, of which I’ve heard much praise and which I’ve watched the first few episodes.

This is certainly the most impressive animation I’ve seen out of this studio yet. The final fight in particular is gorgeous. The character animations carry a lot of weight and the scenery – especially the cherry blossoms – created a stunning backdrop.

Where it slightly fumbles is in the voice acting. For the most part, it’s good which is essential for a story about a fractured family with much bickering. It’s just that Hiromi Dames’ line deliveries towards the end could come off a bit forced. It didn’t have the same passion as in early scenes.

Lop & Ocho is centered around a bunny girl named Lop who is taken in by the Yasaburo clan’s head and their daughter Ocho. This is a story about family, which makes it an inherently “Star Wars” tale. The setup for the conflict that arises is explained well enough and lines are drawn that divide the family.

From there, Lop has to decide where her allegiances lie, learn of her adoptive family’s past, and harness a power to try and stop her family from tearing itself apart. It’s another story that suffers from feeling a tad too short to flesh out its conflict. If it was a full 24-minute episode with tighter pacing, maybe it could have really wowed me.

As it is, it is an incomplete story with an open ending that feels a bit more wanting than other open-ended shorts because those at least mostly concluded their self-contained plots. It might not age well on repeat viewings, but its animation and action inspire nonetheless.

Akakiri by Science Saru

Directed by Eunyoung Choi

Eunyoung Choi is a powerhouse of a director. She is the kind of director that will direct an entire episode and make sure you know it from every single frame. Nothing about their style is conventional. Not one thing. Their command of pacing is exactly what I was asking from the other shorts that felt too short.

The story follows a Jedi named Tsubaki – voiced by Henry Golding – returning to the planet of his forbidden love to help her defeat a sith that killed her father, the king. In a very short amount of time, we are introduced to the cast, the objective, and set off on the quest.

The character designs and the way they move are hypnotic. Not a single character movement feels stiff or standard. They emote in ways that most anime designs simply aren’t modeled to accommodate. It does move fast, arguably too fast. But compared to a story that feels rushed and unfinished, this short knows exactly what story it wants to tell.

Tsubaki is assailed by dark images of death. He is irritated by everyone telling him about destiny and things he can’t avoid. He wants to prove the world wrong and his conflict is felt in the way his pain animates on screen.

Every little thing about the conclusion amps up the drama without even half of the flashy choreography of the other shorts needed. The music constantly grounds you in the culture of the world and evolves to match the scene, no matter the tone.

Akakiri is strange because I can’t quite say that it’s a ceremonious end to the anthology, but with every short being a standalone story, how could you force it to be? What I can say is that the direction makes it one of the coolest and transcendent Star Wars experiences you’ll have. I think that’s worth capping it off there.

The Verdict

Star Wars Visions is exactly what anyone skeptical of the franchise should have been demanding. At its heart are creativity, artistic freedom, and undeniable passion put into motion. It being canon doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is undeniably Star Wars.

My ranking:

  1. The Village Bride
  2. The Twins
  3. The Ninth Jedi
  4. Akakiri
  5. The Duel
  6. The Elder
  7. Lop & Ocho
  8. Tatooine Rhapsody
  9. T0-B1

If Disney is committed to letting directors do what they want with the source material, this could be the start of great things. If the creators stop overthinking what makes a “proper” Star Wars story, we might not get as many canon stories, but we’ll get better ones. I think that’s worth it in the long run.

Star Wars Visions is available for legal streaming through Disney+.

Check out my recent review of The Case Study of Vanitas here!

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