Star Wars: Visions is an anthology series set in the Star Wars galaxy. The episodes were created by several different Japanese animation studios to infuse the world of Star Wars with the look and feel of anime. The episodes are more like vignettes, each telling a short, self-contained story with seemingly no connection. The stories are also not beholden to the Star Wars canon, and most don’t feature any pre-existing characters. I must admit that while I enjoy anime on occasion and love Star Wars, this sounded like a bad idea to me from the start. Sure, anime has a loyal customer base here in America, and I’m sure there’s some overlap with Star Wars fandom. This must sound appealing to a studio that has churned out mixed results over the past few years, struggling to find an identity post-Lucas. However, I get nervous whenever two unrelated things are combined like this. It seems like a gimmick, and the fact that Lucasfilm is probably desperate for more universally beloved shows doesn’t quell that sentiment. When footage started coming out, though, I was won over. Various anime styles are on display, with an impressive cast breathing life into these characters, old and new. Let’s dive in.
In “The Duel,” a mysterious Ronin wanders into a town and must protect it from invading bandits. “Tattooine Rhapsody” follows a rock band who must rescue one of their own from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. “The Twins” is about a pair of twins (shocker!) who were created by the Dark Side; while sister Am wants to pursue the path of absolute power, brother Karre has other plans. “The Village Bride” finds a Jedi in a small village, torn between remaining hidden and saving a young woman from being taken hostage. In “The Ninth Jedi,” a mysterious ruler seeks to reestablish the Jedi Order. “T0-B1” tells the story of a droid who wishes to become a Jedi. “The Elder” sees a Jedi Master and his padawan battle a formidable opponent. In “Lop and Ocho,” a planet is overrun by the Empire, and a family is ripped apart by their differing stances on the situation. “Akakiri” follows a Jedi who returns to help the woman he loves in the fight against a tyrant, her aunt the shogun.
The main thing I was looking forward to with Visions was the animation. Japanese animation tends to be hand-drawn, something American mainstream animation is sorely lacking these days. The style of the animation varies by episode, which makes sense given that only a couple were done by the same studio. Aesthetically speaking, the episodes I liked the most were “The Duel,” “The Ninth Jedi,” and “The Elder.” “The Duel” caught me off guard with what appears to be a hybrid of CG and traditional animation. I actually liked this, though. It gives the episode a gritty, unsettling look that goes well with its tone. Star Wars: Resistance used what looked like a mixture of the two media to disastrous effects. Granted, that was under Disney Television Animation, and this is a respected anime studio. Still, it’s nice to see the same mistakes weren’t repeated in this regard. The use of light and color in this episode is simply striking and something we would never get in live-action Star Wars. “The Ninth Jedi” and “The Elder” are visually the closest to the type of anime I tend to enjoy. They’re still stylized and exaggerated, but they don’t have the huge, over-the-top eyes and heads like characters in “T0-B1” and “Tattooine Rhapsody.” That’s not to bash the more cartoony episodes; I just usually prefer more reserved anime, so those episodes were more to my liking. “The Twins” and “Lop and Ocho” were particularly hard for me to get into, in part due to the characters’ designs. Regardless of my personal taste, though, I can’t fault the technique. The animation is skillfully crafted across the board.
Things are a little more complicated with the stories in Visions. I question the choice to make the episodes quite this short. Some of them barely hit the 15-minute mark even with the intro and end credits, and more often than not, this wasn’t enough time to tell a satisfying story. After having just watched the season, I already find myself struggling to remember the names of characters who don’t share names with their respective episodes. Ironically, the episodes that make out the best are the ones that focus all their energy on visuals and cool ideas rather than characters and relationships. That’s rarely the case for me, but I think the runtime has a lot to do with it.
“The Duel” starts out shrouded in mystery, and the main focus is the reveal that both the Ronin and the leader of the bandits are Sith. In another Star Wars story, the Ronin would be a Jedi saving the town out of the goodness of his heart. It’s genuinely surprising and exciting to realize that both are on the same “side” and that any Sith would be interested in the welfare of a small village. Why does the Ronin help the village? Is he merely a former Sith? I’m also interested in Lucy Liu’s character, the bandit leader. She’s creepy looking, and her movements and voice match. I point that out both because it’s essential and because Visions struggles with this on the whole. The gripping visuals and simple storyline in “The Duel” make it one of the best entries in the series. I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but “Tattooine Rhapsody” really isn’t for me. The animation style doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s not the kicker. I can get used to animation or even come to like it if the story and characters win me over. However, I didn’t like the music in this episode or the concept of a rock band in Star Wars. I can appreciate the bond they were building between the bandmates, but this is yet another story element that fails to stick with the minimal runtime. The exaggerated movements of Jay (Gordon-Levitt) put me off as well.
I like the idea of “The Twins” more, and some of the visuals are very effective, like the image of the twins in gestation. But the facial expressions are exactly what people stereotypically associate with anime, which is a pet peeve of mine. These overblown movements and gestures really take me out of the experience. Likewise, Alison Brie is way overacting her role as Am. Neil Patrick Harris fares better as her brother Karre and really sinks into the role. But the anticlimactic ending and everything about Am just put me off too much to get into this one. “The Village Bride” is visually sumptuous but doesn’t have a very satisfying payoff. None of the characters left much of an impression on me, despite a talented cast including Karen Fukuhara, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Christopher Sean, and Andrew Kishino. “The Ninth Jedi” mostly keeps it simple, but it really feels like Star Wars while several of these stories don’t. It has one of the most satisfying conclusions, genuinely stunning visuals, and great voice work from Kimiko Glenn, Simu Liu, and Andrew Kishino (again).
T0-B1 is light on story and has very cartoony visuals, but I actually liked this one a lot. It’s fun, fast-paced, and I really felt something when the robot boy lost his master. “The Elder” stars David Harbour as the Jedi Master, Jordan Fisher as his apprentice, and James Hong as the titular Elder. This episode fumbles the conclusion a little in bending over backward for a happy ending; however, I liked the three characters a lot. The dialogue is sparse but well used, and the visuals are just incredible. I’m not sure I would say “Lop and Ocho” is terrible, but I can’t see myself rewatching it. I like the idea of Lop being taken in by a family of a different species and planetary origin. However, the time jump prevents us from seeing how they all interact together. When Ocho betrays her sister and father to side with the Empire, it doesn’t feel earned. Why does she feel this way? She talks about their home, but why does the idea of home mean more to her than her family? Why does she deny that Lop is part of the family? It was her idea to adopt her. By the way, why did they give the sister the Spanish word for eight as a name? They even pronounce it this way. I also don’t like Lop’s character design. She’s way too cutesy and looks like a bunny rabbit; it’s difficult to take her seriously as a character, especially after so little buildup with her. Finally, “Akakiri” was mostly boring. I admit that I really liked the ending; it was dark, unexpected, and more like what I expected from “The Elder”’s denouement. The vocal performances from Jamie Chung, Henry Golding, George Takei, Keone Young, and Lorraine Toussaint are excellent. I even like the animation style in this one. It’s unique but not distracting. However, aside from the ending, this story just did nothing for me. The tension between the former lovers is nonexistent, and this story format is simply too cramped for time to insert flashbacks.
Overall, I find it hard to judge Visions as a whole. A couple of the episodes are great, most are thoroughly mediocre, and some annoyed me a lot. I know there are loud, exaggerated anime series and movies, but those tend to be the ones I avoid. I just don’t like listening to voice actors yell or looking at overexaggerated facial and body movements. Animation is the art of exaggeration, but for me, it ceases to be believable after a certain point. I commend Lucasfilm for using real anime studios rather than slapping the word anime on American or Philippino projects. Looking at you, Netflix. I liked enough of Visions that I’m glad I saw it, and if they do more seasons, quality control could potentially go up. These episodes are too short to tell some of these stories. However, a lot of creativity went into the designs. If you’re a die-hard Star Wars fan, it could annoy you that they stray so far from canon and known characters. However, “Tattooine Rhapsody,” the only episode that features established characters, is among the worst of the season. I liked the episodes that evoked the feel of classic Star Wars the best. Visions is no Clone Wars, Bad Batch, or even Rebels, but I appreciate that they’re trying something different.