In ‘Star Wars: Visions’, Lucasfilm and anime join forces and go rogue
What if some of Japan’s most creative animation studios were unleashed in a galaxy far, far away?
In the animated anthology series “Star Wars: Visions”, Jedi warriors fight enemies with faces like oni (a kind of Japanese demon) and straw hat droids inhabit feudal villages straight out of Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai film “Yojimbo”. There are Sith villains and bunny-girl hybrids, tea-drinking droids (OK, that’s really oil) and sake-drinking warriors. Lightsabers are lovingly stored in traditional wrapping fabrics called furoshiki and in red lacquer boxes.
And this being an anime, there are exaggerated action sequences, stunning hand-painted backgrounds, and computer-generated wonders. And of course there are a lot of “kawaii, The typical Japanese form of cuteness.
The series, which debuted on September 22 on Disney +, consists of nine shorts by nine different directors from seven different Japanese animation houses, each film with a very different animation style. The films include a rock opera (“Tatooine Rhapsody”) and an eco-responsible tale (“The Village Bride”), as well as a psychological drama (“Akakiri”, heavy on sprayed blood) and a meditation on the family, as seen through the lens of classic yakuza films (“Lop and Ocho”).
This is the first time that strangers from any country have had this kind of access to the themes, ships, characters, and even sounds characteristic 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 of the series. “Children all over the world mimic this very distinctive sound effect when they play Jedi, and I felt we couldn’t change that sound in our short film.”
But it is also the first time that aliens have been allowed to come out ‘off-the-cannon’ in such a dramatic fashion, with stories that exist outside and separate from a cinematic universe that has been lovingly created for six decades – and cherished by generations of zealous fans who are often resistant to the slightest change.
“We had concerns about: how do we make it work? Said James Waugh, the showrunner of the series and vice president of franchise content and strategy at Lucasfilm. “There were a few times I had to go, Can we really do a rock opera in ‘Star Wars’?”
In many ways, this mashup of the hugely popular worlds of anime and “Star Wars” is 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, fiery princess and two quarrelsome and comedic peasants as the main inspiration for its first “Star Wars” movie, from 1977.
And then there are the kimono-type dresses, lightsaber duels (Mark Hamill and John Boyega trained with kendo experts to prepare them for their onscreen fights) and even the Force itself, with its elements of Buddhism and Shinto. Not much has gone unnoticed or unrecognized by Japanese fans.
“Japan has always received Star Wars with open arms,” says Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multi-Billion Dollar Franchise”. He mentions the Japanese box office of “The Phantom Menace,” which alone totaled around $ 110 million, slightly less than the film’s $ 115 million production budget.
The project was presented by Waugh to Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, who gave the show the go-ahead in early 2020; anime production company Qubic Pictures has acted as a crucial bridge between Lucasfilm and Japanese studios. This is Lucasfilm’s first collaboration with each of the seven houses, including Production IG (“Ghost in the Shell”), Kamikaze Douga (“Batman Ninja”) and Science SARU, whose feature film “Inu-Oh” has premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September.
“The animation that came from Japan was so exceptional that I was thrilled by the thought of these artists and storytellers performing what ‘Star Wars’ means to them,” Kennedy says. “I felt right away that it would take ‘Star Wars’ in directions it had never gone before.”
Even so, the decision to give the green light to “Visions” was not taken lightly.
“We really see ourselves as the stewards 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 of the new series and spinoffs, she adds, “we’re very careful to stay true to the timeline and the canon.”
Which could be the reason why “Visions” is decidedly not part of Star Wars canon. It’s hard enough to place “Visions” among other places and times without finicky fans wondering when and where it is all supposed to take place.
“Getting away from the canon was really a way for creators to explore new worlds and expand possibilities in completely unexpected and refreshing ways,” said Qubic Managing Director Justin Leach.
In addition to figuring out how “Visions” would fit into the Star Wars franchise, Lucasfilm had to contend with a number of artistic and logistical challenges. Anime is a multibillion-dollar industry (five of the 10 top-grossing films in Japan have been anime feature films), and studios across the country are notoriously overworked. There were also geographic and language barriers.
“One of the hardest parts was creating visuals that combined both the fairy tale style lessons of Star Wars with the cutting edge technology found in this universe,” says Eunyoung Choi, director of “Akakiri “. “Finding that perfect blend of those parts, so that neither overwhelmed the other, was especially important. “
And then COVID-19 hit. Meetings expected in Tokyo and northern California have been replaced by emails and video calls.
As work on the project began, the creators discovered Star Wars lovers within the animation houses, and vice versa. The anime studios included die-hard fans who had been inspired by the franchise since their high school days. And many of the creators of Lucasfilm were longtime anime fans and impressed with 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,” says Josh Rimes, director of animation development at Lucasfilm, referring to Takashi Okazaki, designer of characters at Kamikaze Douga. “He was a huge R2-D2 fanboy and had a really rare toy from a Pepsi promotion in the ’80s.”
Designers wondered about everything from the spaceship or landspeeder that suited each setting to the right color of a Padawan’s robes. Qubic’s production manager, Kanako Shirasaki, ended up facilitating many of these matters as a go-between, including several on the Force.
“If you’ve seen the movies, you kind of get a feel for what it is,” she says. “But it’s pretty hard to explain, and everyone has their own different interpretations about it. So there were some very interesting back and forths.
Anime studios went all out, employing several of Japan’s best voice actors (Masako Nozawa, Takaya Hashi) and creating rich musical scores to accompany the on-screen action. Lucasfilm opened its vast vault of lightsabers and spacecraft engine buzzes in Skywalker Sound, and oversaw the dubbing and casting of the English version, which includes performances by Alison Brie, Kimiko Glenn, Henry Golding and George Takei, as well as a fiery aria sung by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Eagle-eyed fans of Star Wars, Kurosawa, and Japanese pop culture will spy on Easter eggs in abundance. In “The Duel” alone, there is a poster for “A New Hope” in the city center and a clever nod to Daigoro, the precocious child warrior from the manga and Japanese epic film “Lone Wolf and Cub “.
For “The Ninth Jedi”, Lucasfilm combined two stories of Kamiyama, its director, into one. The first involved a turbulent time after the Jedi lost their masters and the lightsaber was gone. The other focused on a laser blacksmith – think a master samurai sword maker, but working with super powerful kyber crystals – and his daughter, who is responsible for bringing the weapons to the future Jedi.
With all of the shorts, once you remove the speeders and spaceships, the stories boil down to the very human relationships between siblings, teachers and students, warriors and, yes, droids.
“I think the essence of a Star Wars story isn’t that far removed from the essence of an anime story,” Lopez said. “The anime takes you deeper, but the reason you care is because you care about this character in his journey.”
© 2021 The New York Times Company
Learn more at nytimes.com
In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing you can help us tell the story well.