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 the oni (a kind of Japanese demon) and straw hat droids inhabit feudal villages straight out of the movie. of Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai “Yojimbo”. There are Sith villains and bunny-girl hybrids, tea-drinking droids (OK, that’s really oil) and sake-drinking warriors. Lightsabers are neatly 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 is a lot of “kawaii”, the uniquely Japanese form of cuteness.
The series, which premiered Wednesday 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. âI really wanted to use the original lightsaber sounds,â said Kenji Kamiyama (âNapping Princessâ), the director of âThe Ninth Jedi,â 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’s also the first time that aliens have been allowed out of the canon in such a dramatic fashion, with stories that exist outside and separate from a cinematic universe lovingly created for six decades – and cherished by generations of zealous fans often resistant to the slightest changes.
âWe 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 mix of the hugely popular worlds of anime and âStar Warsâ 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 Shintoism. Not much has gone unnoticed or unrecognized by Japanese fans.
“Japan has always received Star Wars with open arms,” ââsaid Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multi-Billion Dollar Franchise.” He pointed to the Japanese box office of “The Phantom Menace,” which alone grossed 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 Animation’s first collaboration with each of the seven houses, which include Production IG (“Ghost in the Shell”), Kamikaze Douga (“Batman Ninja”) and Science SARU, including the feature film “Inu-Oh “premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this month.
âThe animation that comes from Japan has been so exceptional that I was thrilled by the thought of these artists and storytellers performing what ‘Star Wars’ means to them,â Kennedy said. “I felt right away that this 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.
âWe really see ourselves as the stewards of the franchise, and every misstep is, as you know, all over the internet,â 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 added, “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 the Star Wars cannon. It’s hard enough to put “Visions” among other places and times without finicky fans wondering when and where it is all supposed to take place.
âGetting away from the canon was really a way for creators to explore new worlds and expand possibilities in ways that were just unexpected and refreshing,â 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 are animated films), and studios across the country are notoriously overworked. There were also geographic and linguistic barriers.
âOne of the hardest parts was creating the visuals that combined both the fairy tale style lessons of Star Wars with the cutting edge technology found in this universe,â said Eunyoung Choi, director of âAkakiri “. âFinding that perfect blend of those parts, so that neither overwhelmed the other, was especially important. “
And then the 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.
âWhen we had a zoom call with Takashi-san, he had shelves and shelves of Star Wars toys behind him,â said Josh Rimes, animation development director at Lucasfilm, referring to designer Takashi Okazaki. 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.
âIf you’ve seen the movies, you kind of get a feel for what it is,â she said. âBut it’s pretty hard to explain, and everyone has their own different interpretations about it. So there were 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 from 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 swordsmith, but working with super powerful kyber crystals – and his daughter, who is responsible for bringing the weapons to the future Jedi.
With all the shorts, once you take out the speeders and spaceships, the stories boil down to the very human relationships between siblings, teachers and students, warriors and, yes, droids.
âI think the essence of a Star Wars story isn’t that far removed from the essence of an anime story,â Lopez said. “The anime takes you deeper, but the reason you care is because you care about this character in his journey.”