It is tempting to view Star Wars: Visions, a nine-episode anthology show debuting on Disney+ tomorrow, as a kind of “subtext becomes text” variation. It’s no secret that George Lucas was heavily inspired by the works of Akira Kurosawa (especially The Hidden Fortress) and that the overall Star Wars mythology owes more than a little to Asian cultures and Asian art. That made the cruel fate of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose especially ironic. She went from a significant supporting character in The Last Jedi to a cameo player in The Rise of Skywalker in what felt like filmmakers kowtowing to seeming bigoted online disapproval. But I digress. Star Wars Visions is, on the surface, “Star Wars does anime,” and in that sense, it works.
It’s also a glance at a future where Star Wars films and shows aren’t rigidly tied down to the continuity of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The hook is letting many talented Japanese animators from seven different studios (Production I.G., Geno Studio, Kamikaze Douga, Studio Colorido, TRIGGER, Kinema Citrus and Science Saru) get to play in the Star Wars sandbox, with little in the way of obvious editorial dictates. There are few “original trilogy” characters offered up and even fewer connections to the Skywalker Saga in these standalone episodes. They run 13 to 22 minutes, with continuity being at best a vague concern. The priority is visual beauty and a chance to tell new and/or different stories within the established universe.
Even more so than The Clone Wars (which enriched the Star Wars prequel trilogy and offered up fan-favorite newbies like Ahsoka Tano and Rex) and Rebels (which introduced more new marquee characters for Star Wars fans), Visions follows its path and crafts its own respective destinies. I somewhat wish that I hadn’t watch these all in a row, as yes, some of the “samurai duels, but with Jedi and Sith” stories blend. That includes the first visual knock-out, “The Duel,” which features a terrific lightsaber duel but plays out so expectedly in terms of the elevator pitch for this show that I was worried that it’d all be redundant. There is some redundancy along the way as multiple conflicts come down to a lightsaber battle.
But that makes the real offshoots, like the delightful “Tatooine Rhapsody,” all the more valuable and inspired. The second episode, animated in arguable chibi style, plays exactly like the kind of weird, small-scale digression you wouldn’t find in a grandiose Star Wars movie or even long-form episodic. A later episode, “The Twins,” plays like a kind of “What If?” variation telling a tale of Force-powered twins raised as Sith instead of Jedi, and it’s another visual knock-out. These shorts look fantastic, even if some “name” actors are better at voice-over than others. Although even that issue is mitigated by Disney offering the “original” Japanese audio. If I ever have time to watch these again (my daughter likes anime but dislikes Star Wars), I’ll opt for the Japanese vocals.
Star Wars Visions plays like a series of “Why the hell not?” digressions that allow new voices to dig into untapped crevices in the occasionally narratively claustrophobic Star Wars universe. I can’t speak to the retconned-out-of-continuity “Expanded Universe” (or related video game narratives). Still, Visions feels like a starting shot in a slow test run for Disney’s Star Wars future, in terms of films, shows and animated shorts such as these that don’t rely on explicit nostalgia for and implicit connections to the nine-film “Skywalker Saga.” I can’t say whether A) future seasons won’t fall into the Mandalorian trap of using established characters as a crutch or B) any characters introduced in Visions will become fan-favorites akin to Rebels’ Ezra or Sabine. But so far, Visions is using Star Wars as a license to dream rather than an excuse to pander.
Patty Jenkins’ Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (due December 2023 in theaters) was always going to be a roll of the dice, and there were always going to have to be a tempering of commercial expectations once we weren’t talking about outright sequels to Return of the Jedi or direct prequels to A New Hope. Just as I’d argue Rebels got audiences used to the idea of Star Wars stories being produced and released by Disney that featured at least as much grit and nuance as the original trilogy, Visions may slowly be getting audiences used to the idea and the appeal of a Star Wars franchise not revolving around Luke, Han, Leia, Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda. I hope the second season features even more offhand digressions and peaks into the smaller corners of a larger universe.