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Without the influence of Eastern culture and Akira Kurosawa, there would be no Star Wars. It’s common knowledge that George Lucas drew heavily from Eastern philosophy when developing the story that would become the Original Trilogy of films. Given the clear influence of Japanese films on Star Wars, it’s no surprise that Star Wars: Visions was developed. An anthology series of short animated films, Visions showcases vastly different anime styles from film to film. Much like other anthology series, like Love, Death and Robots, there are short films I found greatly enjoyable and others that I found wanting.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched yet.
The short films in the anthology are not considered part of either the current canon orchestrated by Disney or the Legends continuity that was shuffled way when the Mouse House bought the franchise. With the films not having to adhere to any established timeline, the animation houses responsible for the films had the greatest amount of leeway to develop their own stories, some of which provide nods and winks to the influences of both Japanese films and the Star Wars franchise that has developed over the last forty years.
Out of the group of nine short films, the ones that I enjoyed greatly were The Duel, The Ninth Jedi, The Elder, Akakiri, and Lop and Ocho. The Duel is the most reminiscent of Kurosawa’s masterpiece films, specifically Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. The black-and-white aesthetic fits the period-setting, allowing the splashes of color from lights, blasters, and lightsabers to stand out and pop. The use of the parasol lightsaber by one of the Sith in the story was an interesting touch, if deeply impractical. Discovering that the Ronin who defends the village is not a Jedi but a reformed Sith was an interesting twist for the story. It was not what I expected when I began watching the film, but it fits the idea of a masterless samurai that wanders from place to place, a common trope in many of Kurosawa’s films.
Set in a distant future after another great war between the Sith and the Jedi, The Ninth Jedi plays another such trick on the audience. A gathering of Jedi is brought together in the hopes of gaining lightsabers, which have become a long-forgotten technology at this point. The idea used here that the kyber crystals within the saber react to the wielder’s connection to the force is a nice touch and an effective Checkov’s Gun when the twist is revealed. One aspect of the story that I found most intriguing is the idea of the cyclical nature of the Star Wars universe: always ebbing and flowing based on the rise, downfall, and resurgence of the Sith and Jedi. As long as one exists, the other rises up to supplant them. The reveal that most of the Jedi in attendance are Sith moles was unexpected (since it would make sense that at least one Sith would have snuck in). Out of all of the stories, this is the one I would like see more of in the next anthology.
Out of all of the short films I enjoyed, The Elder is the most philosophically-inclined of the bunch. Focusing on a duel between The Elder (who may have been an escaped Sith) and two Jedi (Tajin and Dan), the focus is less on the fighting and more on the concept of time and the ravages it brings. For all of the Sith’s talk in the films and other media about power and order, the truth remains that Time is the ultimate victor over all things. While a Jedi or Sith may stand strong and powerful in their prime, age will diminish them, replacing them with the next generation of powerful people to take their place. In this way, it is another take on the cyclical nature of both life and this franchise.
Lop and Echo is story that focuses on the core element of the Star Wars franchise: family. The original series of films, as well as standout series like The Mandalorian and Star Wars: Rebels, are stories about the families we’re born to and the families we find along our journey. Set on the planet Tao, which is now under the thumb of the Empire, the story focuses on the Yasaburo clan, specifically the patriarch Yasaburo, his biological daughter Ocho, and his adopted daughter Lop. A stark parallel can be seen between this episode and the period in Japanese history known as the Meiji Restoration, a period of time where the country undertook a rapid modernization and a casting off of the old ways of the feudal system that had been in place for over two centuries. Ocho believes in the Empire and blinds herself to the destruction it will bring to her planet. Yasaburo stands as an insurrectionist against Imperial rule, which eventually brings Lop in against her adopted sister. A fight between family members is always the toughest, primarily because it hurts worse than fighting a stranger. The ending of the film leaves little doubt that while the family is fractured, it may not be completely broken.
The last of the films I found enjoyable is Akakiri, a somber, melancholic tale focusing on a character not unlike Anakin Skywalker in the Prequel Trilogy. Like Anakin, Tsubaki sees terrible visions of the death of a loved one while pursuing a Sith Lord named Masago. Once he confronts Masago, Tsubaki’s vision comes true when he cuts down his love Misa. And just like Anakin, Tsubaki accepts the apprenticeship of a Sith Lord to bring his love back to life. The familiarity of the story does not detract from the impact of the visuals. Of all nine films in this anthology, this one felt the most like a Star Wars story, bittersweet and dark with just a hint of light at the end.
The other films in the series may be fun for some but I found them rather lacking in both stakes and presentation. One of the hazards and benefits of an anthology series like this is that while you’ll find some stories that don’t speak to you at all, there are others that touch something in your imagination and heart. I’d definitely encourage fans of both anime and Star Wars to check out the series and decide for yourself which ones speak to you and which ones don’t. In the end, Star Wars is meant for all of us to enjoy, a communal legend where each of us finds meaning in a galaxy far, far away.