I approached Star Wars: Visions with trepidation but hopeful aspirations. The multi-studio animated anthology approach, specifically with work out of Japan and based on an American IP, was popularized by The Animatrix in 2003. That collection of stories expanded the Wachowskis' setting by featuring lives both mundane and fantastical and highlighting some of the most prominent anime creators of the time, like Koji Morimoto (Memories' Magnetic Rose), Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust). However, the next nearest follow-up, Batman: Gotham Knight, was decidedly less memorable. Further complicating matters, Star Wars is a Disney IP vehicle, yet another cinematic universe carefully curated for the largest fandom demographic possible. Can any originality be found in what has become another highly homogenized Disney property?
In the case of Star Wars: Visions, not often enough. It seems that when given the opportunity to create a Star Wars story, many of the studios took it as a chance to once again smash Jedi and Sith against each other with varying degrees of success, but by the end I was begging to see anything willing to deviate from this formula. Show me the life of a bartender in the Cantina, show me an underground pod racing circuit, immerse me in Twi'lek culture, anything beyond varying shades of lightsaber smashing.
In early PR materials, Lucasfilm emphasized that the anime staff for each short were intentionally selected and that Star Wars itself is a natural fit for the anime treatment, due to both the medium's sci-fi roots and the original live-action trilogy's homages to Japanese cinema. However, I was ultimately disappointed in how often "Jedi but as a ronin in a rural village" was invoked in Visions, constituting the premise of at least three of the nine shorts. This parallel is most strongly represented in the opening segment, "The Duel" by Kamikaze Douga and directed by Takanobu Mizuno (Animator Expo episode "Tsukikage no Tokio"). This is admittedly a rough opener that I would sum up as an ambitious experiment: It attempts to capture the style and direction of a chanbara film with some inspired designs (lightsaber parasol, anyone?), but is hampered by a muddy tone that can make it difficult to tell who's a villager and who is an attacking Empire lackey. The titular duel itself takes place on a floating log that looks more like it's caught in a lazy river than approaching rapids.
While Kamikaze Douga's entry wasn't a strong starter, subsequent episodes were able to bring more energy. Studio Colorido and Taku Kimura's (assistant director, A Place Further Than the Universe) "Tatooine Rhapsody" is a short snippet of colorfully expressive characters attempting to form a rock band. All the characters are super-deformed, but in a way that may be closer to American young children's cartoons than "chibi," including a rather adorable Boba Fett. The song in the short is earnest but not particularly noteworthy besides the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt sings it. "Twins" is likely to be one of the most anticipated shorts for fans as Trigger juggernauts Hiroyuki Imaishi (Gurren Lagann, Promare), Shigeto Koyama, and Sushio's entry. It delivers the visual spectacle their fans have come to expect, down to their iconic color palette. It feels like a spiritual successor to Luke and Leia's relationship with the explosions turned way, way up and is certainly among the entries that are having the most fun with the IP.
The first short to really impress is "Village Bride" by Kinema Citrus and Hitoshi Haga (assistant director, Made in Abyss) with an immersive score by Kevin Penkin. Of all the nine shorts, this is the one that best develops its sense of place with a complete, thematic story. One renounced Jedi, F, is joined by a somewhat whimsical sniper to witness a wedding ceremony between Haru and Asu. The ceremony sees the couple connect to their planet's memory via the Force, although it's referred to as "Magina" on this planet. The celebration is short-lived; Haru has agreed to offer herself as collateral to raiders who intend to strip her village and planet of its resources in order to prevent a physical conflict. Though our time with these characters is scant, a tight script and thoughtful direction will lead audiences to quickly develop a rapport with the characters.
On the review copy I was able to view for these episodes, several lacked English subtitles even though on the episodes where they were present, it was evident that they were dubtitles. Those subtitles didn't always match the dub script, with some lines being omitted altogether even though something was being said at the time regardless of the audio language. The dub performances were excellent for most of the run time, although there were a few characters I felt were miscast. Neil Patrick Harris' performance as the brother Karre in "Twins" generally felt too bright for what is an active, potentially fatal battle with his sibling. Kimiko Glenn, who animation fans will likely know as Peni Parker from Into the Spiderverse (but I am unable to separate from her turn as naïve activist Brook Soso from Orange in the New Black), appears to be pigeonholed into voicing young girls. Her performance is nasally in the way you expect from an adult woman attempting to sound like a child and proved distracting in an otherwise decent action-focused "The Ninth Jedi." Kenji Kamiyama directed that one and the (thankfully minimal) CG is about what you'd expect from the Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 director. Likewise, Hiromi Dames gives an emotional performance in Geno Studio's cinematically gorgeous "Lop & Ochō," but her voice lacks the deepness her character's story requires.
Star Wars: Visions may not have fully met my expectations, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy some of my time with it. Science SARU's contributions were both stellar and represented the studio's versatility. The heartwarming "T0-B1," a sort of Pinocchio meets Astro Boy, seeks to highlight the importance of fostering life. Now, whether it's bending in-universe lore by casting a robot as Jedi, I'll leave to the franchise diehards to decide, but I enjoyed the child-like wonder it brought to the anthology. Finally, it was Eunyoung Choi's "Akinari" that let me end the collection on a high note. Much can be credited to the segment's unique look and score thanks to character designer Naoyuki Asano (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) and composer U-zhaan. It's particularly daring (for what amounts as risky to a Disney production, anyway) as a closer, ending Visions on an unequivocally dark note. This is immediately following "Lop & Ochō," another particular sad tale with shades of commentary on racism. "Akinari" is another story that culminates into evil versus good lightsaber showdown, but subverts audience expectations, plays with perspective, and manages to establish a well-rounded cast in 13 minutes.
Not every short in Star Wars: Visions is a winner, and for its somewhat lofty promise in its title, the majority of the stories fall in line with Disney's toothless approach to media. The stories can begin to feel repetitive, especially if you watch them all in a single sitting, However, there's certainly enough here to entertain and enough referential callbacks to Star Wars of yesteryear to appease long-time fans.