When the movie Star Wars (just “Star Wars,” before there were any episodes) came out in 1977, it was something new made out of a whole lot of things that were old. Luke Skywalker was tinkering with droids and piloting a starfighter, but he was also an Arthurian hero. Han Solo flew a spaceship and had an alien sidekick, but he was also a gunslinger out of Hollywood’s Wild West. The rebels were fighting the Empire with dogfights right out of post-WWII movies.
The other major influence is one that’s imprinted deeply in everything from the Jedi and their lightsabers to the tale of a rebel princess and her defiance of an evil warlord, even down to the morality that underpins every story: Star Wars was a samurai film.
Despite the depth of Asian influences on Star Wars—from its Zen and Manichaean-like understanding of the mystical Force to the ascetic, robe-wearing Jedi and their sword duels—it often feels the association isn’t given its due. There have been very few Asian actors in starring or spoken roles in the movies: Rogue One has the most in a walk, but they all die. Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose was built up in The Last Jedi and then promptly sidelined in the as-of-now final film, The Rise of Skywalker. George Lucas pushed for the inclusion of Toshiro Mifune in the first film, but couldn’t get him, so the two most samurai characters in the movies, Obi-Wan Kenobi (who amputates ruffians who give him shit with his sword) and Darth Vader (who wears robot samurai armor) were portrayed by non-Asian actors.
As I wrote before, one of the things I had hoped for out of the latest trilogy of films, that I felt wasn’t delivered on, was bringing more Asian actors into a series so deeply indebted to Eastern themes.
Disney+’s Star Wars: Visions feels like it’s a direct answer to that plea, bringing together top Japanese animation talent to tell the kind of stories Star Wars has always had the ability, but not the support, to tell. With J-rock concerts, child robots, rabbit-folk Jedi, and so many lightsaber duels, the nine short episodes reunite Star Wars with itself by finally giving one of its major cultural influences free rein to reimagine the galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: Visions episodes average a little under 20 minutes each, taking just enough time to set up a scenario, introduce characters and conflict, and end in explosive action. Throughout, audiences will get a pretty good sampling of different anime styles that also reflect Star Wars’ forebears and the kind of action that’s sprung up in its wake that really, really should have been incorporated into it by now. If Star Wars films are going to keep edging closer and closer to shonen anime anyway, they may as well let the masters have a turn.
Right out of the gate, the first episode, “The Duel,” by the studio Kamikaze Douge (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Batman: Ninja) makes it clear that we’re going to be treated to parts of the galaxy we haven’t been to before, opening on a dusty town that, besides a few aliens and droids, looks as if it’s right at home in the jidaigeki pieces of Kurosawa, complete with the wandering ronin hero and the bandits he tangles with. His lightsaber is a katana, right down to how it hangs on his hip, how he draws it, and how he wields it—it’s a theme throughout the episodes, that lightsabers are finally allowed to just be samurai swords in style and curvature. (And why not? There’s sound in space.)
If you, like me, believe the latest Star Wars movies and videogames have made the Jedi out to be more and more like supersaiyans and have longed for them to just go all in on ki-powered craziness already, “The Twins” by Studio Trigger (Promare, Gurren Lagann) features a beam-struggle battle between two biologically engineered Sith that takes place in space and violates even more laws of physics than normal. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the studio also produced “The Elder,” a spare, quiet story about two Jedi who encounter a deranged former Sith and engage in a visceral, down-and-dirty fight reminiscent of stuff like Ninja Scroll and any number of martial arts films.
Not everything is a laser sword battle, though (or, not wholly). The unexpected “Tattoine Rhapsody” by Studio Colorido (A Whisker Away) looks like it’s going to be a heist or rescue mission, but ends in a rock concert that sways the heart of a longtime series baddie. “Lop & Ocho” is a family drama about a daimyo and his daughters caught in the shadow of the encroaching Empire—one of the daughters is a bunny-person. “TO-B1” channels the same influences as Astro Boy and Pinocchio to tell the tale of a boy robot with aspirations of becoming a Jedi and spreading healing throughout the galaxy.
Ultimately, a lot of the episodes on offer (even the ones about cute characters) usually end in lightsaber duels. The variety of scenarios, though, and the freedom with which the studios approach their take on Star Wars, should be enough to excite any fan of Star Wars who has also grown up with anime.
The biggest takeaway from these nine short, self-contained stories, much like some of The Mandalorian’s most well-received episodes, is that Star Wars is at its best when it isn’t afraid to ditch its more rote qualities and find new ways of celebrating its strongest influences. Star Wars: Visions is something new that also feels as if Star Wars has been reunited with an older part of itself, finally.
Star Wars: Visions premieres Wednesday, September 22nd on Disney+.
Kenneth Lowe shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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