It only makes sense now that Disney would start producing anime based on Star Wars.
The medium has become a pillar in the ongoing streaming wars, with Netflix (Disney’s biggest competitor) busy acquiring licenses, making exclusive deals, and producing their own original anime for years now. Last year, Netflix announced that over 100 million households watched at least one episode of anime (a 50% increase from 2019), with the genre ranking among the service’s top 10 most-watched programs in over 100 countries. Along with Netflix’s strides, HBO Max has brought the Studio Ghibli library to streaming for the first time, and Sony recently finalized its deal to acquire Crunchyroll. Even with so many beloved brands at their disposal, Disney finds itself in a position it’s not familiar with when it comes to anime: playing catch-up.
Star Wars: Visions, the franchise’s first foray into anime, is a promising start. Disney has recruited seven anime studios, a promising lineup that features talent responsible for some of the most accomplished anime of the past 20 years, and tasked each of them to bring their unique visual style to one of the biggest properties in entertainment history. While Star Wars: Visions may not boast the same level of ambition as, say, the 2003 anthology The AniMatrix—another world-building expansion for a massively popular property—there is a selection of work here that should appease both Star Wars and anime fans (plus those who overlap).
Visions opens strongly with “The Duel,” an outlier among the nine stories as it is a mix of CG and hand-drawn animation. Outside of the highly saturated color of the blasters and lightsabers, it is the only chapter delivered in black-and-white—an homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. This story of a ronin who duels a female Sith warrior with a weaponized lightsaber umbrella (something I’ve truly never seen before) features some intense action, well designed characters and an incredibly looking world. However, the short does run into the same problem that plagues a lot of CG anime, and that is the overall impressions of the characters can be quite flat. There’s an argument to be made that it would have worked better in the latter part of the series as opposed to the opening episode.
After the instantly forgettable “Tatooine Rhapsody,” we come to one of the true highlights of the series. “The Twins” is mainly a battle between siblings on top of joined star destroyers. What makes this short so appealing, and justifies the worth of this experiment, is that director Hiroyuki Imaishi (Promare) and the staff at Trigger spend all 12 minutes of this story executing Star Wars: Trigger style. For every second of this shorts runtime, the now famous Trigger aesthetic is in full display: extreme colors, characters and locations both oozing with style, and featuring highly intense and absurdly energetic action sequences. For those of us who have followed Trigger for the past decade, it is more of the same in the best possible way. To those possibly experiencing Trigger for the first time, my advice is that it’s best if you try not to blink.
By the end of “The Twins,” and in many of the shorts, the story doesn’t conclude with a clear resolution, but rather feels more like a set-up for a much wider story. In that way, Visions felt more like a pilot program for future series rather than an anthology of stand-alone episodes. If that is truly what’s going on, Disney and Lucasfilm should go all in on what the story with the most potential, Production I.G’s “The Ninth Jedi.”
Coming after “The Village Bride,” a decently produced but slight story, this wondrous short directed by Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) takes place decades after the events of The Rise of Skywalker. It stars Kara, the daughter of a legendary lightsaber-smith—in a time where the iconic weapons of the Jedi and Sith have almost become lost to history—who races to deliver nine lightsabers to a group of warriors hoping to resurrect the Jedi Order after witnessing her father being captured by nefarious forces.
Returning to hand-drawn animation for the first time in almost half a decade, Kamiyama is clearly the creator who best understood the assignment. “The Ninth Jedi” possesses the kind of charm that first drew in so many to the original trilogy. It presents us with a roster of interesting and singular-looking characters who I want to learn more about, especially Kara, who resembles both Leia in her fearlessness and Luke in his ambitions to find a greater purpose. The action is refreshing but still maintains the feel of the original films, and it contains one of the best reveals in ages, animation or otherwise. If you only see or recommend one of the nine shorts showcased here, let it be this one.
The latter four that bookend Visions never come close to the high of “The Ninth Jedi,” but that doesn’t mean they were at all lacking in quality. The Elder, the second Trigger short and perhaps the last work directed by legend Masahiko Otsuka (Gurren Lagann), will be nowhere near the top of most lists when it comes to ranking each individual short. But the legendary Otsuka must be commended for developing a short so-anti Trigger in terms of style, pace, and dialogue. Akakiri, directed by Science Saru co-founder President and CEO Eunyoung Choi, has arguably the best ending of the bunch, and—concerning labor practices aside—I’m glad to see the studio pull off a rarity in anime and have a foreigner sit in their directors chair, animation director Abel Góngora, who’s sweet and intense T0-B1 resembles both Astro Boy and Masaaki Yuasa’s cult classic Kaiba. It would have been a treat to see what Yuasa himself would have done if given the chance to tell his own Star Wars story, but perhaps we will when he decides to return to anime.
As anime is pushing itself further and further into the mainstream, it’s fair to wonder if this experiment will pay off for Disney. It’s unknown if the section of the audience who are mainly Star Wars fans will go along with watching nine anime stories, all focused on new characters. For the sake of variety, I certainly hope they do, because it would be refreshing to see Disney (not exactly known for taking big risks) continue to expand its storytelling purview. Seeking out some of anime’s most talented creators to bring their unique approach to their collection of expensive IP is a way to keep the brand fresh and exciting. Another season of Star Wars: Visions, or perhaps one for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would be a worthwhile gamble. Anime will continue to grow as it increasingly moves beyond the niche periphery it once occupied. Don’t expect Disney to just ignore that.