‘Star Wars: Visions’ was forged with a willingness to break the rules
To cannibalize the words of a great fallen Jedi, Star Wars: Visions feels like a first step into a larger world.
The new Disney+ gem delivers nine tenet-shattering shorts created by well-known Japanese animation — anime — studios. Together, they represent a fresh and original swerve for a beloved franchise. Individually, they are unique imaginings of a galaxy far, far away, and these shorts speak to the various threads that have made Star Wars such a force in pop culture for more than 40 years.
Just look at “The Twins,” Visions‘ third episode. For all the things that feel deeply faithful to the franchise — the twins themselves, their seat-edging duel, the mysticism-meets-tech fantasy of it all— there’s a vivid and gratuitously chaotic vibe that permeates. This is heightened Star Wars, where a person wielding a lightsaber can ride on the nose of a soaring X-Wing Fighter and use the boost of kinetic energy it provides to drive his energy sword through the heart of an immensely powerful Kyber crystal.
It almost feels like the off-the-wall imaginings of a giant Star Wars geek — and that’s because it is. It’s easy to describe Visions as “Star Wars-meets-anime,” but have you really thought about what that means? Anime is no monolith. Any fan of the form will tell you there’s a diversity of storytelling techniques and genres within the realm of Japanese animation.
Visions, then, is as much a promise as it is a title. What does Star Wars look like when an outside creator is given free reign to tell a story in its universe? There are masters and apprentices, family struggles, people finding their inner selves — all the trappings that have made for great Star Wars stories before — but the formal and stylistic signatures feel decidedly different. It’s not fanfic-with-a-budget, but it isn’t entirely not that, either.
“All the creators who participated in the project are huge Star Wars fans.” That’s Kanako Shirasaki, head of production at Qubic Pictures and a producer on Visions. Qubic was instrumental in making this project happen, managing the relationship between Disney and the seven studios that built the nine shorts.
“The Elder” introduces a dark and mysterious threat as the setup for a gripping, windswept duel.
Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.
In an interview with Mashable, Shirasaki stressed how each studio’s unique approach amounts to their own individually informed expression of love for Star Wars. Anime is their sandbox, the subset of cinematic language that they use to communicate ideas through their art; so it’s also the fuel that propels Visions.
“The passion [these] creators have is huge,” Shirasaki explained. “Every single director and writer — all the creators — understood the core of the Star Wars story and the values [communicated] in the oldest movies.” That’s why, she added, the shorts feel like such a “perfect marriage” between the core tenets of the franchise and the refreshingly different crop of ideas applied to them.
For “The Twins,” the big, sweeping duel between a brother and sister who were both born of the Dark Side has obvious roots in everything from Luke and Leia’s relationship to Rey’s very existence. It’s about family and relationships, and how something that’s meant to be pure can be corrupted by the allure of power. But everything around that is heightened, from the distinctively stylized look of the short’s Imperial forces to the over-the-top throw down that feels like a page pulled from Dragon Ball Z.
There’s a balance here, of course. The shorts may be independent creations, but they’re also still specifically Star Wars. While several of the shorts seem to bend and even break established “rules” of the series, there’s still a foundation that needs to be faithful to the source for all of this to work. That’s where Lucasfilm gets involved.
“I would say it all starts with mythic human fable stories,” James Waugh, VP of franchise content & strategy at Lucasfilm and an executive producer on Visions, said during the same interview. Strip away the science fantasy element, he said, and Rey’s journey in The Force Awakens could’ve easily been about a woman making a new friend, and that friend then leading her off on “a bigger adventure in a bigger and bigger life.”
“Every single director and writer — all the creators — understood the core of the Star Wars story.”
“We try to boil things down to those simple bones to understand the human aspects of it, and really, it makes it more of a fable…or myth. So that’s where we start. I think at the end of the day [Star Wars speaks in] a super cinematic language. We try to think in images over explanations as much as possible.”
There are specific brand guidelines about some things, like the way Jedi are depicted. But Waugh also noted that these are the kinds of rules where Visions creators were able to play within the canon. That playfulness is the key to Visions‘ success, and it’s the product of an ongoing back-and-forth between Lucasfilm and the team working on each short.
“Ultimately, it comes from a great dialogue with creators to try to extract what they want to say emotionally, and then we help them find the Star Wars,” Waugh said. Take “The Ninth Jedi,” a short from Production I.G. that frames the story around the existence of a weaponsmith, who crafts lightsabers in secret for a nascent Jedi Order.
The lightsabers are unique to Star Wars stories because, unlike every other lightsaber that fans have known over the years, these energy blades are initially colorless. Their color is determined only after a Force-sensitive wielder picks one up and starts to use it. The hue the blade settles on is direct a reflection of its wielder’s connection to the Force. In the short, that narrative construct is used for dramatic effect, serving as a visual signifier of different characters’ true intentions.
“That is fundamentally not something we would ever do with [Star Wars] canon or something that’s ever been expressed. But it was the perfect cinematic solve for the moment to reveal characters’ intentions,” Waugh explained. But, he added, the idea is also a perfect fit for the fiction. “It felt thematically right for Star Wars even though it breaks the way we typically interpret the Jedi.”
That’s the mindset Waugh and the Lucasfilm team embraced as they worked with the Visions creators. It goes back to the initial genesis of this idea, and the way the arrival of Disney+ opened up a new creative play space for a studio and a brand caretaker that has historically been a movies-first operation
“We wanted to find something to do with anime, but we didn’t really know how to do it in a world where we’re feature-focused,” Waugh said. “The weight of anything we put out that was Star Wars had so much gravitas, and it had so much expectation that finding a way to experiment was…more challenging.”
Dramatic showdowns are a staple of any Star Wars story, and “Visions” turns them all up to 11.
Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, executive creative director Dave Filoni, and Waugh himself are all fans of anime. But they all knew that the project Visions would become couldn’t half-ass it. Anime is a large umbrella, but it’s still a uniquely Japanese export. That’s where Qubic entered the picture, making the connections and managing the relationships that Lucasfilm needed to pull off the idea.
Bringing the series to Disney+ was a no-brainer from there, and not just because Visions was green lit at pretty much the same time the COVID-19 pandemic touched down in the U.S. in 2020. The streaming platform was also still brand new at that point, and subscribers were hungry for more of everything Disney had to offer.
There again is an example of the “perfect marriage” Shirasaki referenced: Talented outside creators playing in a sandbox that was and still is ripe for experimentation and creative flights of fancy. That’s the intersection where Visions was born.
“In order to do this right, and for it to be authentic, we really needed to create a framework to let studios explore and use the medium to try different things,” Waugh said. “I think it was just lightning in a bottle of ‘This feels cool, I think we can do it, this is a whole new frontier with D+. Let’s explore.”
Both Shirasaki and Waugh are cagey about what may be next. There’s definitely an appetite for more Visions, especially now that the shorts are out and they’ve been well-received. The upcoming novel Ronin, due in October, is an extension of “The Duel,” Visions‘ first episode. According to Waugh, it’s “unlike anything we’ve done before.” So could a manga also be coming? Another season of shorts? Perhaps even a series based on one of the shorts?
“What makes Visions special is the really compelling creators playing with Star Wars and telling Star Wars stories,” he continued. The idea isn’t to make this a “free-for-all non-canon space,” but rather to nurture this special thing. The central idea from the very start was to open up the creative landscape that is Star Wars. Visions took the first step and now the world is definitively larger. What comes next is anyone’s guess.