Movie Reviews

A Resounding Success | “Star Wars: Visions” Season 1 (2021) Disney Plus Series Review

On Wednesday, Disney dropped the entirety of the first season of “Star Wars: Visions”, an anthology series made up of nine short films produced by seven Japanese animation studios. 

Some use the aesthetics of Star Wars to tell unique stories completely detached from the films, while others fit nicely into Star Wars canon. Likewise, some work very well as short one-off stories, while others feel more like pilots to Star Wars anime that I desperately want to see developed into their own shows. 

However, all are creative, unique, and breathe new life into the franchise. It was really great to see just how comfortably Star Wars fits in the anime format — no doubt it has something to do with the fact that George Lucas was heavily inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s body of work, and the fact that Star Wars and anime have borrowed tropes from each other for decades, especially when Star Wars forayed into animated series with Genndy Tartakovsky and Dave Filoni. 

Below are mini-reviews of all 9 short films in “Star Wars: Visions” Season 1: 

Episode 1: The Duel by Kamikaze Douga

Tapping into Star Wars’ Kurosawa roots, “The Duel” is a black and white short film that focuses on a lone wanderer named Ronin (Brian Tee) who has stopped at a village that is about to besieged by remnants of the Imperial army, led by a Sith Bandit Leader (Lucy Liu). Ronin agrees to take on the Bandit Leader and her troops, and their fight is really the centerpiece of the episode. As such, it’s intense, well-paced, and exciting. 

We learn very quickly that rather than being a protective Jedi, Ronin bears a blade of a Sith, and has apparently been collecting Sith kyber crystals — the thing that powers their lightsabers. As such, it alludes to the fact that he is not entirely good, acting as a sort of vengeful force directed at the Sith whose interests just so happen to be aligned with those the Sith exploit. 

I’m completely down for a show — or at least a few follow-up episodes — centered around Ronin. He’s an interesting antihero and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe. 

The Duel gets an 8/10

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Episode 2:  Tatooine Rhapsody by Studio Colorido

Whereas “The Duel” focused more on exaggerated realism and mimicking the style of Kurosawa’s films, “Tatooine Rhapsody” is very cartoonish, pursuing a version of the chibi style. The film follows Jedi Padawan Jay (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is rescued by the Hutt Geezer (Bobby Moynihan) and gets recruited into his band.

We fast forward a few years after Order 66 and we see the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) crash one of their performances in pursuit of Geezer, who is in trouble with Jabba the Hutt. Fett eventually catches him, but Jabba allows him to have one last performance at Mos Espa Grand Arena (where the podracing happened in “The Phantom Menace”), and the band is determined to play their hearts out in hopes of persuading Jabba to spare Geezer. 

This is not a bad short, and I definitely think there’s an audience for it. But personally, it’s not my cup of tea, and I couldn’t get into the art style. 

I do like how, unlike most of the other shorts, it focused on something other than lightsaber duels and huge battles. If we get a second season of Visions, I’d like to see other studios take a risk like this. Maybe we could see a Star Wars slice-of-life anime? 

“Tatooine Rhapsody” gets a 7/10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Episode 3: The Twins by Studio Trigger

The short is absolutely insane, to the point where the laws of physics — even the warped, fictionalized laws of physics of the Star Wars universe — need not apply. The short focuses on Sith twins Karre (Neil Patrick Harris) and Am (Alison Brie), who have been charged by the Empire to oversee the development of a huge cannon that connects two Star Destroyers that should be as powerful as the Death Star. 

But all goes awry as Karre opens himself up to the light side of the force and steals the kyber crystal that is supposed to power the machine. Am chases him, and they have a ridiculous anime fight that involves Karre and Am fighting in space without helmets and Karre using his X-wing’s hyperdrive to pummel his lightsaber into Am and the Star Destroyers (like Vice Admiral Holdo did in “The Last Jedi”) — and somehow Am is absolutely fine after this.

The short is visually stunning and tries to be emotionally-charged, but because we haven’t had enough time to get to know Karre or Am before their fight, it feels like any other generic over-the-top anime fight where each side shouts their ideals at inappropriate times. Because of this — and because there isn’t really a sense of grounded reality — I couldn’t connect with the short, despite how good it looked. 

“The Twins” gets a 6/10

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Episode 4: The Village Bride by Kinema Citrus

“The Village Bride” is one of the best shorts in Visions Season 1, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that it accomplishes a lot of worldbuilding and character development in a very short time. The film takes place on a remote planet in which a soon-to-be-married couple, Haru (Nichole Sakura) and her groom, Asu (Christopher Sean), travel to a place called the Magina, from which they can see the planet’s memories, including those of when they were kids. 

Our real protagonists are masterless Jedi Padawan F (Karen Fukuhara), and her friend, Valco (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The story takes place some time after Order 66 jedi purge, as the village Haru and Asu is from is being threatened by a group of bandits who have weaponized an army of abandoned Separtist battle droids. Their wedding is bittersweet as Haru has agreed to take her father’s place (the village leader) as a hostage the day after, which creates conflict with her sister, Saku (Stephanie Sheh), who wants to fight back. 

F’s dead master was apparently from the planet, and there is a lot of focus on the planet and the villagers’ connection with it, all told visually. It feels very similarly to what a Star Wars film produced by Studio Ghibli might look like. 

F and Valco of course get drawn into the conflict, and their fight is tense, dramatic and well-done. And after it, F cuts off her padawan braid, signifying her growth from padawan to jedi, which symbolizes how, rather than be a neutral witness to the galaxy like she had been up until that point, she’s chosen to be an active participant in it. 

F is a great central character, Valco is a great supporting character, and I would love to see a full anime series focusing just on their visits to various planets in the galaxy. 

The Village Bride gets a 9/10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Episode 5: The Ninth Jedi by Production I.G

The Ninth Jedi takes place during an unspecified period of time where the Jedi have been extinct for generations, and their way of making lightsabers has been lost to time. That is, until sabersmith Zhima (Simu Liu) rediscovers it, and starts forging them for Margrave Juro (Andrew Kishino), a jedi master who watches over the planet of Hy Izlan, and wants to re-establish the jedi order by uniting all the masterless jedi across the galaxy. 

But Sith acolytes are out to foil him, and hunt down all the jedi they can before they can get their lightsabers. When two such alcotyes come to kidnap Zhima, he sends his daughter, Kara (Kimiko Glenn), to deliver them to the assembled jedi at a temple in the sky. 

In the short, the lightsabers change colors based on what side of the force the user is — dark side users get red, whereas light side users get anything from green to purple to blue. And it’s suspected that Sith acolytes have intercepted Juro’s transmission, so it uses this mechanic as a way to dramatically reveal who is friend and who is foe. 

I like the art style — it’s grounded in a rough realism and is clean and functional — but it’s not exceptional like the styles of “The Duel” or “The Village Bride.” But it kept me consistently interested through its multiple engaging characters, its good storytelling and fantastic action. 

This not only works as a short, but also as a great pilot for what I’d really like to be a Star Wars anime series. 

“The Ninth Jedi” gets an 8/10

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Episode 6: T0-B1 by Science SARU

There aren’t many episodes focused around droids in Visions Season 1, though most have some sort of a droid sidekick. T0-B1 is the exception, as it focuses on a droid of the same name (Jaden Waldman), who is built by the armless scientist Mitaka (Kyle Chandler) who is trying to bring life to a remote, desolate planet. 

This short’s style is also very cartoonish, but I think it works. T0-B1 is stylistically like Astro Boy and Mega Man, with Mitaka looking similar to Dr. Light from Megaman. 

T0-B1 is like a son to Mitaka, and as such acts like a little boy, going on adventures, pretending to be a jedi. When Mitaka tells him there is a kyber crystal on the planet, he searches for days for it to no avail, until he has the bright idea to go to a place in Mitaka’s house he is not allowed. This leads him to summoning an Inquisitor to the planet — which is an issue as Mitaka is a former jedi. 

The short does a good job of balancing childlike themes of T0-B1’s innocence with the harsh reality of Mitaka’s exile and the people hunting him, and the short does not pull punches. Much like when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle get killed in “A New Hope”, T0-B1 also is exposed to death for the first time, and is changed because of it, briefly breaking his childlike happiness. 

This short has great themes, and really exemplifies how children view Star Wars.  

“T0-B1” gets an 8/10

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Episode 7: The Elder by Studio Trigger

I grew up with the “Jedi Apprentice” books as a kid, which were a great series of short novels centering on the adventures of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, before Episode 1. They consisted mostly of the two jedi visiting various planets and helping where they can, without the help of any clones, and not a battle droid to be seen. It was a very simple series — essentially “The Mandalorian” except with Jedi, and  “The Elder” greatly reminds me of it. 

Taking place hundreds of years after the Sith Order destroyed themselves and implemented the Rule of Two, this short stars Jedi Master Tajin (David Harbour) and his padawan, Dan (Jordan Fisher), as they visit a planet in the remote Outer Rim, where Tajin feels a brief disturbance in the force. They investigate, and learn that a strange elderly man from off-planet had recently visited the village they land at and trekked through the nearby mountains. Finding his ship, they recognize it as belonging to the ancient Sith. 

They split up, and Dan encounters the elder (James Hong), who is revealed to be a former Sith who left the order before it fell apart. He battles him and loses resoundingly, leading to a one-on-one duel between Tajin and the elder, which Tajin barely wins. Tajin even admits that had he encountered the elder in his prime, he probably would have lost. 

This is a much stronger outing than Studio Trigger’s other entry in this series. It plays out almost like a horror-mystery, with the elder Sith lord played up as this unnatural, unsettling figure, and it climaxes in a tense duel with steaks grounded by a believable reality “The Twins” lacked.  

I would love to see a full series continue Tajin and Dan’s adventures. 

“The Elder” gets an 8/10

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Episode 8:  Lop and Ochō by Sayawaka

Family is a strong theme in Star Wars, as all nine episodic films focus on both the Skywalker and Palpatine bloodlines. “Lop and Ochō” explores this theme through a bunny alien named Lop (Anna Cathcart), who is adopted into a powerful family by a man named Yasaburo (Paul Nakauchi) at the beckoning of his biological daughter, Ochō (Hiromi Dames).

The short then fast forwards years later as a grown-up Ochō fails to convince her father to cooperate with the Empire, as Yasaburo wants to drive them from their home. Ochō sees an alliance with the Empire as the only way for their world to industrialize and catch up with the rest of the galaxy, but Yasaburo fears that the Empire will betray them. Convinced that there is no use persuading her father, Ochō joins the Imperials and plans to take over her clan by force. Saddened by this betrayal, Yasaburo gifts Lop the family sword — a lightsaber a Jedi left them long ago — and she uses it to confront Ochō in hopes of saving not only her family, but her planet.

There are good themes in this episode, I just feel like the filmmakers needed more time to flesh this story out in order for it to work. I get that it’s only 19 minutes long, but it feels a little half done, especially considering that other shorts in this series were able to tell more complete stories with the same time limitations.

This is definitely not a bad short, but it is far from my favorite.

“Lop and Ochō” gets a 6.5/10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Episode 9: Akakiri by Yuichiro Kido

This short borrows from the cliffnotes of “Revenge of the Sith”, featuring a jedi knight named Tsubaki (Henry Golding) who helps a princess named Misa (Jamie Chung), that he clearly has love for, retake her kingdom from her aunt and Sith lord Masago (Lorraine Toussaint). If you’re familiar with “Revenge of the Sith”, you’ll know that it’s the film in which Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader, who was enticed by a theoretical Sith power to stop people from dying. We get to see that power in action during this episode.

This short also has an excellent supporting cast through the characters of Senshuu (George Takei) and Kamahachi (Keone Yeong), two comedic guides that balance the episode out, and help give weight to Tsubaki’s confrontation of Masago.

It’s a strong short, but I wish it fleshed out Tsubaki and Misa’s relationship as the episode gives us barely enough to understand why he cares about her, which is key to the short’s climax.

“Akakiri” gets a 7/10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Overall, “Star Wars: Visions” Season 1 was very strong and imaginative. I hope they continue producing episodes of this — I’m also all in for sequel episodes of select shorts.

For a franchise that hit rock bottom creatively in 2019 through “The Rise of Skywalker”, it’s great to see six anime studios get the chance to tell unique stories in this universe outside of the done-to-death story of Empire vs. Rebels.

While not every short reached its full potential, each is a triumph in creativity and they are all worth your time.

“Star Wars: Visions” Season 1 gets an 8/10

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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