Your mileage will vary with Star Wars: Visions, a hit-or-miss anime experiment

Anthology series are always a mixed-bag affair, and Star Wars: Visions is no exception, bringing nine fresh versions of Lucasfilm lore to Disney+. Travis Johnson reckons this animated experiment works about half the time.

On paper, Star Wars: Visions has some merit as a creative enterprise. We all know that Star Wars has deep roots sunk into all kinds of rich cultural soil, including Japanese samurai movies in general and the cinema of legendary director Akira Kurosawa in particular. You don’t have to be so nerdy as to know that A New Hope is more or less a remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress—just look at the robes of the Jedi, or the sweeping plane of Darth Vader’s helmet and mask—the influence is unmistakeable.

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So letting a selection of anime production houses loose in the Galaxy seems like an obvious and workable idea, and Star Wars: Visions is the result: nine short films untethered (for the most part) to Star Wars canon, upping the Japanese stylistic and narrative elements that are already in the franchise’s DNA, and ignoring anything that might get in the way of that. As a creative experiment, it’s admirable. As an actual unit of entertainment, the median result is middling.

Partly, that’s just the nature of an anthology—some episodes are going to soar, some are going to stumble. The episodes that read most clearly are the ones where the creatives involved have largely just gone, “okay, Jedi are wandering ronin—let’s go!”, because the cognitive leap is a short one. ‘The Duel’, from Kamizake Douga (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) puts a mysterious wandering lightsaber-wielder up against a bunch of stormtroopers who are oppressing a village, and that’s a story that’s been told in a hundred samurai flicks—something the creative team nod to in the largely black and white animation.

‘The Elder’ from Studio Trigger pits a Jedi and his eager Padawan up against an ancient Sith master on a distant planet. ‘The Ninth Jedi’ is one of the more interesting episodes, positing a post-Rise of Skywalker Galaxy where lightsabers are rare, and a number of characters claiming to be Jedi come together at the behest of a man who is manufacturing new sabers for the worthy.

Things don’t go so well when the overt anime elements are dialled up. ‘T0-B1’ by Science SARU feels like an Astro Boy pastiche, focussing as it does on a little boy droid who wants to be a Jedi. ‘Lop and Ochō’ has simply beautiful animation, but dropping an anthropomorphic rabbit into Star Wars is a bit of a stretch, even if there’s past form for such a thing. ‘The Twins’, also from Studio Trigger, is the weakest of the bunch, essentially one long overpowered fight sequence between battling siblings that feels like it was culled from a not-very-memorable episode of Dragon Ball Z.

Your mileage may vary, of course, especially if you’re an anime fan and have any investment in or familiarity with the studios involved. For someone outside of that fandom, Star Wars: Visions looks like an experiment with a roughly 50% success rate. Several eps feel like they’re setting us up for longer stories which we may not ever get to see, eschewing the in-built constraints of the format and instead acting as backdoor pilots for sagas that may never unfold. Others merely pay lip service to Star Wars and do their own thing, with minimal connection to the franchise and lore we’re familiar with.

For all that, it’s cool that this project exists, and that Disney and Lucasfilm are messing about with what Star Wars can be. It’ll be a while before we see Star Wars up on the big screen again and while shows like The Mandalorian and The Bad Batch keep the canonical Galaxy ticking over, Visions opens the possibility of a richer, more creatively challenging and diverse Star Wars, even if the actual results only even out to a solid three stars.