Star Wars: Visions review — Anime anthology breathes new life into saga
Star Wars lends itself quite easily to a magical mystery tour of anime, a medium which affords a lot of freedom to experiment with form, style, and tone.
Language: Japanese, English
A mysterious ronin helps a village fend off bandits sporting Stormtrooper gear. A pilot droid, whose spirit animal is possibly Gudetama, sips oil from a tea cup. Astro Boy wants to be a Jedi knight. The worlds of anime and space westerns come together in Star Wars: Visions. If it sounds like a dream project, it is. The keys to George Lucas’s universe have been handed over to seven different Japanese anime studios. The result is a lush playground sure to awaken the senses.
Veterans like Production IG (Psycho-Pass, Ghost in the Shell series) to up-and-comers like Science SARU (Devilman Crybaby) provide their own spin on the galaxy far, far away. Lucas has frequently acknowledged the debt his saga owes to the films of Akira Kurosawa and the traditions of Jidaigeki. Consider Visions a partial payment of that debt. From the Jedi’s Bushido-like chivalric code to their flowing robes to what are essentially laser swords, Star Wars’ Japanese influences have always been plainly evident. These roots are retraced in nine animated shorts.
After the unfulfilling conclusion to the Skywalker saga, Visions is a refreshing pick-me-up. The show thankfully offers more than just fan service. Not being obligated to canon and continuity allows for a great showcase of the possibilities that the Star Wars mythology still affords its storytellers. We’re outside the radius of the Skywalkers’ scope. Don’t expect to see a cameo from Baby Yoda or Luke. Though a familiar Tatooine mobster does show his vile, slug-ish face. We meet new characters and new planets inter-woven into the fabric of the universe.
The Force yin-yang-ing in expansive vistas remains. So does a lot of the iconography: the lightsabers, the beep-boop-bopping droids, and the X-wing Starfighters. What has changed is the lens.
Thankfully, Star Wars lends itself quite easily to a magical mystery tour of anime, a medium which affords a lot of freedom to experiment with form, style, and tone.
And each studio renders them with their own recognisable markers.
The series premiere makes for the perfect statement of intent. Wearing its Kurosawa influences on its sleeves, 'The Duel' evokes Yojimbo and other typical samurai lore set in feudal Japan. But with Siths. Takanobu Mizuno’s visuals makes a striking impression in the way it contrasts shadows with colours, which only highlight the blades of the lightsabers and the indicators on a droid. The standard the episode sets with its black-and-white visuals and pencil-sketched textures is amply met by many of the episodes that follow.
There’s an Astro Boy-meets-Kaiba vibe to Science SARU’s 'T0-B1,' in which a scientist is dismayed by his droid’s Jedi aspirations. The Jedi master and keen Padawan dynamic is also explored in 'The Elder,' which pits a duo against an enemy who is one with the Force himself. 'Tatooine Rhapsody' is Star Wars at its most gleefully operatic. Mid-performance, an intergalactic rock band is forced to protect their bassist from Boba Fett and the other bounty hunters sent by Jabba.
The standalone stories are set in different times in relation to the events of the films. Most take place in a world where the Jedi and Sith orders have vanished. Yet, there continue to be those serving both the light and dark sides of the Force. Sith-engineered siblings clash over a kyber crystal in 'The Twins.' The episode ends with a directed hyperdrive akin to Vice Admiral Holdo’s valiant attempt to save the Resistance in The Last Jedi.
With the mixing of Eastern and Western traditions, there’s inevitable clashes. Idealist rebels vs imperial tyrants. Continuing the family’s legacy vs charting one’s own destiny. The tensions between tradition and progress, parents and children, and nature and technology have been recurring motifs in Japanese culture, from the films of Ozu and Miyazaki to contemporary anime. They are recalibrated in 'Lop & Ocho,' where a father and two daughters are divided over siding with the Empire which has taken over their planet and stripped it of natural resources. Topknots are cut off to dramatic effect to sever connections. By and large, the thematic gamut is not as rewarding, because Visions is treading well-covered ground with nothing new to add.
The centrepiece, as always, are the lightsaber duels. The crux of these stories about family and friends turned foes are resolved in these head-to-head clashes with a clear emotional undercurrent. Some combat sequences are illustrated in blurs of choreographed movements. Some in a swirl of colour. Some play out in eye-catching depth. There is a nice contrast of warm and cold hues throughout. One can’t duel without weapons of course. The Sith bandit leader in 'The Duel' wields a lighstaber built into an umbrella, like something out of Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood. In 'The Ninth Jedi,' we meet a saber-smith who has mined kyber crystals and crafted lightsabers that change in colour and length based on the wielder. The way the faces are lit in their glow. That distinctive buzz. Animation sure adds more sensory depth to the environment. Between the clashes come lumps of laboured dialogue which fills us in on the context. Though a lot of well-known names (Lucy Liu, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Neil Patrick Harris, Simu Liu, Kyle Chandler, and George Takei) are behind the voice cast, subs over dubs remains the right option. Always.
Visions works as a great showreel for the animators, but not always the storytellers. There are perhaps three episodes which have the potential to become series of their own: 'The Duel,' 'The Elder,' and 'The Ninth Jedi.' The rest have one too many rough edges, often suffering from the episode length. Establishing the premise, the protagonist, the foil, the structure, the stakes, and some payoff proves to be too much to do in 13-15 minutes (the longest episode being around 22 minutes long). That’s the other side of the coin when you are telling stories that aren’t canon.
Though Disney+ has released Visions in its entirety, it would be advisable to watch them one at a time as opposed to binge the whole season in one sitting. To truly take in all the elements in the background, not just what is foregrounded, you would want to keep the pause button handy. For at its best, in mixing disparate elements, Visions achieves that rare alchemy, capturing the magic of both Star Wars and anime.
Star Wars: Visions is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
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