Many wouldn’t think it on the face of them, but the Star Wars franchise is built up with Japanese culture at its very core. Lucas’ first effort Star Wars: A New Hope is influenced by classic Japanese film The Hidden Fortress, with the Jedi culture evidently modelled on that of Japanese Samurai. It’s a mutual relationship that was oblivious even to me as a child, especially given Japanese culture was hardly widely available 30/40 years ago. Since George Lucas’ franchise has exploded in popularity and expanded its reach across the planet, Japanese creations have made its way to the west, such as comic books and produced spin-offs. And now more than ever, with the franchise in the ownership of Disney, its reach has hit further heights as Japanese creators and studios weave their magic on A series of short, animated features known as Star Wars Visions. It’s a series I’m personally late to the party with, given it was released last September, and so on this Star Wars Day (May the 4th and all that), I binged the lot.
Right off the bat, the series evokes memories of previous multi-studio mini-series compilations The Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knight. Lucasfilm’s invitation for some of Japanese animation’s top talent and studios to dabble with a galaxy far, far away produces a bag of shorts – nine in total – enriched with variety, each of them providing hugely entertaining and unique moments. What unfolds is an anthology of excellence, extravagance with unique tones, length, even visual styles that may well be over-reliant on lightsabre action, but come on, who cares?
First up is The Duel, both the series’ breakout episode and one of the absolute standouts of the series. Coming from director Takonobu Mizuno, the samurai vibe is realised immediately with a monochrome palette dosed with key spots of colour that intelligently aid the narrative. Taking place in a village straight out of Japan during its feudal era, A ronin that screams Jubei Yagyu in the best possible way, armed with just a lightsaber and a R2-type unit, compliments the feudal-era setting to perfection. As robbers terrorise the Ronin’s latest rest stop, there is a tension mounting that is palpable. The action that ensues is true to samurai traditions and ruthlessness, all the while interlaced with ambience straight from Kenji Kawai’s Ghost in the Shell orchestral playbook. As a series opener it hits every note perfectly, and although The Duel only has a fifteen-minute run time, I could watch a whole series of it.
Things are of course very different from there; such is the beauty of variety. The second episode comes from Studio Colorido entitled Tatooine Rhapsody, a quirky number about a rock band of whom one member is a Hutt like Jabba of which the latter has sent Boba Fett to bring back the former yet ends in a rock band competition of sorts. An interesting use of key Star Wars characters but rock music fells totally out of place in the Star Wars universe. Studio Trigger is up next, with Kill La Kill’s Hiroyuki Imaishi bringing a story within the ranks of the Empire itself. The Twins is vibrant, energetic and full of action as the destinies of two high-ranking empire warriors must be settled. Exciting and spectacular stuff. The Village Bride takes place in the prequel era, with wandering-Jedi-and-companion-saves-village trope in play again, although this time it’s a woman, complete with bad-ass caped outfit and ability to match. It’s not as distinctive as The Duel but boasts some fantastic action.
Another standout episode, The Ninth Jedi, comes from Production IG. Director Kenji Kamiyama, who has worked on some of the most well-known anime in existence (Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East) is at the helm, in a 22-minute short that is perfectly paced and produced to feel like a mini movie. Set in an era where lightsabers are now banned, a master-less Jedi answers a call from Margrave Juro to his temple to receive his lightsaber, along with several others. On a nearby planet, someone who still manufactures the Jedi weapons nears completion for the temple group. His daughter, Kara, quietly training in the ways of the Jedi weapon herself, quickly becomes embroiled in a fight for survival and the future of the Jedi order. As you can imagine from this premier studio the proceedings look fantastic, and absolutely ticks all the Star Wars boxes – powers of the force, twists, lightsaber battles, a speeder chase and even amusing droids. It’s all here in the series’ most complete episode.
Science SARU are next up, with the studio responsible for Devilman Crybaby not only appealing to Star Wars fans, but also of the late-great Osamu Tezuka creation, Astro Boy. Here Astro is T0-B1, as is the name of the episode, created by his own Dr Tenma in Professor Mitika, along with other robots seeking to restore life to the planet they inhabit. This more childlike episode commands an excellent lightsaber battle sequence with what can only be described as a black knight dark Jedi. Don’t expect this one to be called a draw. Studio Trigger’s next effort The Elder is a Jedi/Padawan-driven tail, complete with investigation into a powerful, dark presence and straight-up dramatic lightsaber duel to conclude. More of a generic tale but well animated, with David Harbour taking the Jedi role and the brilliant James Hong at his antagonising best.
Lop and Ocho comes from Geno Studios, a relatively new studio, who have put together a wonderfully animated and dramatic story about adaption, family values and honour, and of course the influence the Empire can have. Lop, a rabbit-human-girl, taken in by an adoptive father and sister, but the happy family is broken up when the Empire come after their village with promises Lop’s sister buys into, but the father does not. An emotive and powerful tale, Lop and Ocho reminds us that family ties are a powerful trope of the Star Wars franchise. Most of all I absolutely adore the hand-drawn animation style that looks like a living, breathing manga. The final episode, and Science Saru’s second effort, is Akakiri, another distinctly cartoonish effort. With the Sith still in existence, Jedi Tsubaki returns to defend the love of his life in a village overtaken by her aunt who practices on the dark side of the force. It’s an intensely dramatic tale, climaxing with a beautifully shot fight sequence that’s a true series highlight.
If Star Wars: Visions is just a glimpse of what an injection of anime can bring to the franchise then I’m ready for a second dose, stat. The fact that these stories go beyond straight adaptions of popular places and characters of the franchise (no surprise the weakest effort has the latter) shows willingness to expand and try out further possibilities. And on the strength of this series, most of them could possibly become something more.