What would happen if some of the most creative animation studios in Japan were let loose in a galaxy far, far away?
In the anime anthology series “Star Wars: Visions,” Jedi warriors battle enemies with faces like oni (a kind of Japanese demon), and straw-hatted droids inhabit feudal villages straight out of Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai film “Yojimbo.” There are Sith villains and rabbit-girl hybrids, tea-sipping droids (OK, it’s really oil) and sake-sipping warriors. Lightsabers are lovingly squirreled away in traditional wrapping cloths called furoshiki and in red lacquer boxes.
And this being anime, there are over-the-top action sequences, stunning hand-painted backgrounds and computer-generated wonders. And of course, there’s plenty of “kawaii,” the distinctly Japanese form of cuteness.
The series, which premiered Wednesday on Disney+, consists of nine short films by nine different directors from seven different Japanese animation houses, each film with a vastly different animation style. The films include a rock opera (“Tatooine Rhapsody”) and an eco-cautionary tale (“The Village Bride”), as well as a psychological drama (“Akakiri,” heavy on the blood spray) and a meditation on family, as seen through the lens of classic yakuza films (“Lop and Ocho”).
It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise. “I really wanted to use the original lightsaber sounds,” said Kenji Kamiyama (“Napping Princess”), the director of “The Ninth Jedi,” the fifth episode in the series. “Kids all over the world mimic that very distinctive sound effect when they play Jedi, and I felt we couldn’t change that sound in our short.”
But it is also the first time outsiders have been allowed to go “off-canon” in such a dramatic way, with stories that exist outside of and separate from a cinematic universe that has been lovingly created over six decades — and cherished by generations of zealous fans often resistant to even the smallest changes.
“We had concerns of: How do we make this work?” said James Waugh, the series showrunner and Lucasfilm’s vice president of franchise content and strategy. “There were a few moments where I had to go, Can we really do a rock opera in ‘Star Wars’?”
In many ways, this mash-up of the hugely popular worlds of anime and “Star Wars” is a natural. George Lucas has been open about his creation’s debt to Japanese culture, crediting Kurosawa’s 1958 period drama “The Hidden Fortress,” with its charismatic hero, spirited princess and two quarreling and comical peasants as a primary inspiration for his first “Star Wars” film, from 1977.
And then there are the kimono-like robes, the lightsaber duels (Mark Hamill and John Boyega trained with kendo experts to prepare them for their onscreen battles) and even the Force itself, with its elements of Buddhism and Shintoism. Little of this has gone unnoticed, or unappreciated, by Japanese fans.
“Japan has always received Star Wars with open arms,” said Chris Taylor, the author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise.” He pointed to the Japanese box-office of “The Phantom Menace,” which alone made about 110 million — just shy of the film’s $115 million production budget.
The project was pitched by Waugh to the Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who greenlit the series at the beginning of 2020; the anime production company Qubic Pictures acted as a crucial bridge between Lucasfilm and the Japanese studios. It is Lucasfilm Animation’s first collaboration with each of the seven houses, which include Production I.G (“Ghost in the Shell”), Kamikaze Douga (“Batman Ninja”) and Science SARU, whose feature film “Inu-Oh” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this month.
“The animation that has come out of Japan has been so exceptional that I was thrilled by the thought of these artists and storytellers interpreting what ‘Star Wars’ means to them,” Kennedy said. “I felt immediately that it would take ‘Star Wars’ in directions it’s never gone before.”
Even so, the decision to greenlight “Visions” wasn’t made lightly.
“We really see ourselves as guardians of the franchise, and every misstep is, as you know, all over the internet,” said Jacqui Lopez, vice president of franchise production at Lucasfilm and one of the executive producers. With most new series and spinoffs, she added, “we are very careful to stay true in the timeline and in canon.”
Which might be why “Visions” is decidedly not part of Star Wars canon. Setting “Visions” amid other places and times is tough enough without persnickety fans sniping about when and where all this is supposedly taking place.
“Going off-canon was really a way to allow the creators to explore new worlds and expand the possibilities in ways that are just unexpected and refreshing,” said the chief executive of Qubic, Justin Leach.
In addition to working out how “Visions” would fit into the Star Wars franchise, Lucasfilm had to deal with a number of artistic and logistical issues. Anime is a multibillion dollar industry (five of the Top 10 highest grossing films in Japan have been anime features), and studios throughout the country are notoriously overworked. There were geographical and language barriers, too.
“One of the most challenging parts was creating visuals that combined both the fairy tale-style lessons of Star Wars with the advanced technology found in this universe,” said Eunyoung Choi, the director of “Akakiri.” “Finding that perfect mix of these parts, so that neither overwhelmed the other, was particularly important.”
And then Covid-19 struck. Hoped-for meetings in Tokyo and Northern California were replaced by emails and video calls.
As work on the project began, the creators discovered lovers of Star Wars within the anime houses, and vice versa. The anime studios included hard-core fans who had been inspired by the franchise since their high school days. And many of the Lucasfilm creators were longtime anime fans and in awe of the works of the Japanese creators.
“When we had a zoom call with Takashi-san, he had shelves and shelves of Star Wars toys behind him,” said Josh Rimes, Lucasfilm’s director of animation development, referring to Takashi Okazaki, a character designer at Kamikaze Douga. “He was a huge R2-D2 fanboy and had a really rare toy from a Pepsi promotion in the ’80s.”
The creators had questions about everything from which starship or landspeeder was right for each setting to the proper color of a Padawan’s robes. Qubic’s head of production, Kanako Shirasaki, ended up facilitating many of these questions as a go-between — including several about the Force.
“If you’ve seen the movies, you kind of have an idea of what it is,” she said. “But it’s quite difficult to explain, and everyone has their own different interpretations on it. So there was some very interesting back and forth.”
The anime studios went all in, employing many of Japan’s top voice actors (Masako Nozawa, Takaya Hashi) and creating rich musical scores to accompany the on-screen action. Lucasfilm opened up its vast vault of lightsaber whooshes and starship engine hums at Skywalker Sound, and oversaw the dubs and voice casting of the English version, which includes performances by Alison Brie, Kimiko Glenn, Henry Golding and George Takei, as well as a spirited tune sung by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Eagle-eyed fans of Star Wars, Kurosawa and Japanese pop culture will spy Easter eggs galore. In “The Duel” alone, there’s a poster for “A New Hope” in the center of town and a clever nod to Daigoro, the precocious child warrior in Japan’s long-running manga and movie epic “Lone Wolf and Cub.”
For “The Ninth Jedi,” Lucasfilm combined two stories from Kamiyama, its director, into one. The first involved a turbulent period after the Jedis have lost their masters and there are no lightsabers to be had. The other focused on a lightsabersmith — think a master crafter of samurai swords, but working with super powerful kyber crystals — and his daughter, who is tasked with bringing the weapons to the would-be Jedi.
With all of the shorts, once you strip away the speeders and starships, the stories come down to the very human relationships between brothers and sisters, teachers and students, warriors and, yes, droids.
“I think the essence of a Star Wars story is not that far off from the essence of an anime story,” said Lopez. “Anime lets you go further out there, but the reason you care about it is because you care about that character in their journey.”