When it comes to Star Wars, much of the galaxy far, far away, as general audiences know it, has revolved around the Skywalker Saga. As per Disney and LucasFilms’ recent revision of what “canon” looks like, much of the Expanded Universe was rendered non-canonical, outside of a small pool of feature films. But the wealth of stories that exist outside of the Skywalker Saga shows that Star Wars is often at its best when exploring new plots, diving into characters and planets we’ve never heard of, and experimenting with alternate universes. This is what Star Wars: Visions does best—expands on the themes and histories present within Star Wars while introducing us to fresh faces and concepts in short bursts.
There is no shortage to the beauty that exists within Visions, offering nine unique short films presented by seven different studios, each clocking in between 13 and 22 minutes. Though the studio touts it as a “fresh and diverse cultural perspective,” the episodic anthology is more appropriately described as an opportunity for a variety of incredibly talented Japanese animators to play within a massive sandbox of their own creation.
Take one of Science SARU’s shorts, Abel Góngora’s “T0-B1”, which can more or less be pitched as: what if Astro Boy wanted to be a Jedi? Taking inspiration from Osamu Tezuka’s art style, Góngora creates a playful and compelling journey for a droid who dreams of being a Jedi and what happens when his life is turned upside-down. It’s charming, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at once, and proof that a short film can hold more weight than some of Star Wars’ features themselves (cough The Rise Of Skywalker cough).
Many of the shorts manage to pack a whole lot of story into a small amount of time, giving us only a taste of what each respective universe holds. Some offer a bite-sized story within an established one, like Taku Kimura and Studio Colorido’s “Tattooine Rhapsody.” It takes characters like Boba Fett, Jabba The Hutt, and Bib Fortuna, and adapts them into an almost chibi style, for the sake of placing a delightful rock band in their midst. That the series mostly avoids including familiar faces as fan service is a blessing, with the best ones instead chopping and screwing established lore.
The mere concept of taking Force-sensitive twins like Leia and Luke, and reimagining them as beings born and bred to serve as Sith, is a promising one, and Hiroyuki Imaishi delivers one of the series’ best installments with “The Twins.” From start to finish, the gorgeous animation—one of Imaishi’s best features, as seen in Studio Trigger shows like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Kill La Kill and films like Promare—is what shines here, but the music and the way the episode explores how characters can challenge their fates feels drawn directly from Star Wars. It’s as close to a set piece from the movies as one of these animes gets, full of heart and bombastic battles.
Studio Trigger’s second episode, “The Elder” by Masahiko Otsuka, falls short by comparison. It isn’t just in its clear departure from the aesthetic design that Trigger is known for, but in how soulless it seems overall. Despite some clean and crisp action, and a fascinating villain brought to life by James Hong, the episode as a whole comes across as a pale imitation of any given Obi-Wan and Anakin story from Clone Wars.
Some dubs are better than others in the series, with a talented collection of voice actors paired with the occasional celebrity stunt casting choice. The aforementioned “The Elder,” “Tatooine Rhapsody,” and Production IG’s “The Ninth Jedi” (the latter being one of the series’ most pedestrian episodes, though still chock-full of interesting lore expansion) suffer the most from their English language choices, with actors like David Harbour, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Simu Liu, sometimes coming across as distracting and other times lifeless compared to their Japanese counterparts.
Of the dubs that work surprisingly well, Science SARU’s “Akakiri” (featuring Henry Golding, Jamie Chung, Keone Young, George Takei, Lorraine Tousant, and Paul Nakauchi) and Kamikaze Douga’s “The Duel” (with Lucy Liu and Brian Tee as the leads), are unequivocally the best. It isn’t just that their voice casts bring life to these stories; the narratives themselves are breathtaking to watch. Both shorts are a prime example of how Jedi and Sith stories outside of the staid “good” and “evil” binary are the ones most worth telling.
Eunyoung Choi, the head of Science SARU herself, expertly balances humor and drama in “Akakiri” and brings high stakes to a simple tale that could otherwise have just been a sedate drama. Its weighty dramatic storytelling is a stark contrast to the cartoonish and childlike optimism of “T0-B1,” but no less engrossing and captivating. The unique aesthetic sensibility that made Takashi Okazaki’s Afro Samurai and Jumpei Mizusaki’s Batman Ninja so exciting to watch is what makes “The Duel” pop most. The melding of feudal era Japan and Star Wars’ brand of science fiction and technology is one thing, but its use of black-and-white with only sparse bursts of color and shadow work makes for some of the best animation in the series.
Some episodes take a more low-key approach to existing within the Star Wars universe. Kinema Citrus’ lovely “The Village Bride” is a welcome reprieve from some of the more action-packed shorts. Its focus is on quiet and melancholic storytelling, delivering a contemplative piece that explores how nature and life go hand in hand, and how rituals can provide purpose to those who need it.
Watching Star Wars: Visions sparks a kind of endless wonder that hasn’t been present in the franchise for some time now. By tying itself to the Skywalker Saga or even exploring adjacent stories, the anime series allows its creators to craft some genuinely groundbreaking stories, many of which are deserving of their own extended universes. Geno Studios’ “Lap & Ocho” may be the most deserving of them all, taking all the things that Visions excels at—acknowledging the sociopolitical critiques of the franchise, exploring human nature, inventive lightsaber designs, and stunning action set pieces—and showing them off in under 20 minutes.
That one can imagine dozens, if not hundreds, of stories with Star Wars as the template is a testament to the series’ lasting power. Visions’ exploration of the far reaches of this galaxy rekindles a child-like fascination with Star Wars, pointing to the other works could exist if the anthology continues: Shinichirō Watanabe or Naoko Yamada creating an episode expanding on the famed Cantina Band, or Mamoru Hosoda making another romance between man and beast via Wookie and Corellian. Even without these imaginary future collaborations, the nine episodes of Star Wars Visions that already exist make this one of the best episodic anthologies around.