Star Wars: Visions, the first original anime series on Disney Plus, brings the Star Wars franchise full circle through the medium of Japanese animation. For a series whose origins were so heavily informed by George Lucas’ love of Akira Kurosawa and jidaigeki (“period drama”) films, the idea of a Star Wars anime anthology feels about as natural as the Force itself.
“We always thought that the anime vernacular would work well with Star Wars [...] but if you think of Star Wars five or six years ago, we were in a very different place,” Visions executive producer James Waugh tells Polygon. “We were relaunching a franchise in a really big way, it was feature-driven.” It wasn’t until Disney’s library had a streaming home that a potential Star Wars anime project finally found its footing. “I don’t think a series of shorts was something that really had a destination prior to Disney Plus,” he says.
Star Wars: Visions makes a tantalizing promise: Round up some of the most exciting talent working in modern anime — including Hiroyuki Imaishi (Promare), Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), Eunyoung Choi (Kaiba, Ping Pong The Animation), and Masahiko Otsuka (FLCL, Gurren Lagann) — and allow them free rein to tell their own stories in the Star Wars universe, canon be damned. On top of delivering thrilling action, the resulting nine shorts stand as the most clear interrogation of the soul of Star Wars since 2017’s The Last Jedi.
In its 44-year history, Star Wars has spawned more offshoots and spinoffs than clone troopers on Kamino. But since acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney and the new Lucasfilm regime have struggled to pin down, let alone expand on, the definition of Star Wars. The struggle is most evident in the troubled productions and scattershot reception of Rogue One and Solo. Audiences want more Star Wars stories, but what “more Star Wars” means has never been as clear as, say, the Marvel Studios equation. As a whole, the series is defined as much by its iconography as it is by its unifying themes of hope, perseverance, familial love, and bravery in the face of temptation and self-doubt.
While those core tenets are more or less uncontested by the fanbase, the specifics of the stories in which those themes manifest creates contention. There is a vocal base of fans who simply want new stories featuring Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, and if not that, then stories that intersect or hew close to the established lore of the Skywalker Saga stories. Even Jon Favreau’s space western TV series The Mandolorian, which began as an episodic story focused on wholly new characters to the franchise, inevitably circled back to incorporate Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett in its second season.
There are others who believe that the Star Wars universe’s future lies at the fringes of the unknown and unfamiliar, stories that feature all-new characters whose arcs elaborate on and dissect the foundational elements of the series. Many of those people are involved with Star Wars today; the impetus of Lucasfilm’s High Republic publishing initiative was to carve out space on the galactic timeline that could be wholly original and free of the burden to connect back to a core story. With how prolonged and embattled the debate between these two camps of thought has been in the wake of the aforementioned sequel trilogy, the only thing that anyone can seem to agree on anymore is that lightsabers are cool.
Each installment of Star Wars: Visions splits the difference between these polar interpretations of the franchise, telling stories that feel deeply rooted in both the conventions of anime storytelling and the animating principles of Star Wars itself. Takanobu Mizuno’s “The Duel” feels like a classic Star Wars standoff by way of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, featuring a taciturn protagonist with questionable loyalties to the Light or Dark side, but a resolute moral code in protecting a small village from a band of Sith-affiliated marauders. Everything you could want out of a Star Wars fight is here, from the dazzling choreography and scene transitions to a fantastic “oh shit” moment à la Darth Maul’s double-lightsaber reveal in the form of the Sith bandit leader’s lightsaber parasol. While the short hits the beats of a Star Wars lightsaber duel, the exception is that neither protagonist nor his adversary fits the description of what one would typically define as a Star Wars “hero.” The protagonist, simply credited as “Ronin,” isn’t a Jedi, but implicitly a former Sith knight wielding a red lightsaber. Questions of why they’re hunting Sith Bandits and collecting red kyber crystals are never answered in the short itself, instead provoking the audience to consider alternative motivations of Force users beyond the archetypal dichotomy of what we’ve come to identify as “good” or “evil.”
Hiroyuki Imaishi’s “The Twins” centers on Karre and Am, two siblings genetically engineered by the Empire whose relationship mirrors that of Luke and Leia, but whose disagreement and resulting clash feel reminiscent of Rey and Kylo Ren. Their climactic confrontation is the sort of explosive, anything-goes maximalism you’d expect from the director of Gurren Lagann and Promare, just rendered through the visual language of Star Wars. Truly, only Imaishi could find a way to revive the Holdo maneuver, one of the most dazzling (and controversial) moments of The Last Jedi. The armor designs of both characters evoke comparisons to Darth Vader, inarguably the most iconic character in the entire franchise, with Karre later adopting an outfit that bears an uncanny resemblance to Han Solo’s in A New Hope.
But for all the invocations to the classic “light vs. dark” struggle, “The Twins” is ultimately an inversion, focusing on a conflict of conscience within the dark side and rendered in a visual style that makes this interpretation feel bold and exciting. The ending suggests that destiny is as much as matter of choice as it is a matter of circumstance, and that one does not necessarily need to be aligned with the light side of the Force in order to do the right thing.
For every familiar story beat echoed across the nine shorts, there’s an unprecedented and exciting twist thrown into the mix. Where else in Star Wars media are you going to find a bunny girl who wields a lightsaber to save her adoptive family, invoking the sequel trilogy’s notion that you don’t have to be the “chosen one” in order to defend and save your loved ones? Or a former padawan who ends up hiding out as the vocalist of an intergalactic rock band, one that iterates on the series’ recurring trope of found family that feels distilled from early scenes of Luke, Leia, and Han meeting for the first time?
In “T0-B1,” a boy robot fights a Sith inquisitor to avenge his creator. Anime fans will likely read it as a riff on Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. But it’s still drawing from a piece of Star Wars, the idea that the Force is a power that exists in all living things, whether organic or inorganic. Each short is distinct in its respective visual style and storyline, and each of them share an intimate knowledge and understanding of the core principles of what make the franchise what it is beyond Luke Skywalker and his circle of cohorts.
On a broader level, the Visions shorts sync with the way George Lucas’ films and the Disney sequel trilogy wrap up, in that nothing is ever over. Like Luke at the end of A New Hope or Rey at the end of The Force Awakens, each anime director’s story effectively feels like the first chapter in what could potentially be their own respective sagas. While the iconography of lightsabers and Force powers and Star Destroyers blasting off into hyperdrive are essential touchstones of Star Wars’ visual language, what’s more fundamental to its universe — and in particular, the stories told within it — is the notion that no matter the result of any one battle between the Jedi and Sith, between the light and dark sides of the Force, the past is deeply felt, the universe endures, and the future is constant. This is why The Rise of Skywalker, a film that attempted to create a crowd pleasing, nostalgia-baiting conclusion, felt like a creative dead end for the trilogy’s own characters. Star Wars is bigger than the legacies of either Luke or Anakin Skywalker; bigger than Leia or Han Solo; bigger than Rey or Kylo Ren. Star Wars: Visions champions the notion that there are heroes scattered all over the galaxy.
In allowing Japanese anime directors to imagine new corners of the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: Visions gives the open-ended franchise a clearer path forward: one that moves beyond the staid, and literalist evocations to the the series’ beginnings and presses on into strange, new, and bold stories. The strengths of the series are bigger than the lineage of any one family.