There is no greater question in Star Wars than “What even is Star Wars?” That question — to break down what makes one of the most beloved sci-fi sagas in existence down to a core of ideals, imagery, symbols, and archetypes — has driven iteration upon iteration to add to its vast world since the franchise began. But in recent years, few properties from within Lucasfilm’s library have managed to celebrate and evolve what makes the stories essence so special quite like Star Wars: Visions.
From previous “Japanese studios offer their own interpretation of Western franchises” ideas (like Halo: Legends, The Animatrix, or Netflix’s own recent spree of offering animated spinoffs of in-house and third-party properties like Pacific Rim: The Black, Bright: Samurai Soul, and more), the thinking behind Disney+’s animated Visions is is not exactly new.
Seven animation studios from Japan, across nine short films — on average around 13 to 15 minutes long, the shortest barely below that and the longest just over 20 — offer their own, animated take on a slice of the galaxy far, far, away. Takes that, more often than not, transpose what we know aesthetically of the material that came before it and re-root it in traditional and modern Japanese aesthetics.
On a surface level, this partially works because the visual language of Star Wars has been forged and re-forged enough that, even extrapolated to the loosest sense of its form, there are images that are burned into our collective cultural psyche, readable and identifiable as Star Wars no matter how they are tweaked. The chilling wedge of a Star Destroyer gliding into view as it cuts across the shadow of space. The S-Foils of an X-Wing locking into that iconic shape. The snap-hiss of a lightsaber is still the snap-hiss of a lightsaber, whether that blade resembles the weapons we’ve seen wielded by Luke and Rey Skywalker, Darths Maul and Vader, or whether they resemble something more akin to the blade of a katana.
That, in and of itself, is another reason Visions’ transposition of this imagery works so effortlessly. From the get-go, Star Wars has always been influenced by Japanese culture and cinema. From the wandering swordsmen of the Jedi to A New Hope’s juxtaposition of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Star Wars storytelling and Japanese storytelling have been intertwined. If anything, Visions is just the natural evolution of that relationship, this time placing Star Wars itself in the hands of Japanese visionaries like Studio Trigger’s Hiroyuki Imaishi, Science Saru’s Eunyoung Choi, or Kinema Citrus’ Hitoshi Haga, instead of simply borrowing from them.
If that was all Star Wars: Visions was — short, sharp, slickly animated celebrations of that intrinsic visual link between the culture of Japan and what Star Wars has become since those early days as — fans would have reason enough to be satisfied. There is not a short among the nine presented on Disney+ that won’t offer at least one moment of energetic exhilaration for anyone who’s ever ooh-and-ahhed at the clash of two lightsabers or the soaring engine sounds of a starfighter, if not many more moments.
Across various styles and forms, from monochromatic to Technicolor, from 2D to 3D, Visions is a sumptuous gift, made to be watched on the nicest screen you’ve got at home — to be rewatched, screencapped, GIFed, and just stared at. The push and pull between familiar iconography and explosive, remixed visual splendor is a delight to watch unfold, emboldened with a sense of audacious glee.
Additionally, more often than not — which will perhaps be to the chagrin of certain Star Wars fans’ preponderance for logic and reason in their stories of wizards and laser swords — it asks you to willingly dive deep into your suspension of disbelief. Things happen in the vacuum of space that probably shouldn’t, characters stretch and contort and bound their way across landscapes that not even the Force should help them overcome.
The shorts in Visions deeply care about the Star Wars that came before them, but also care enough that they do not care to be constrained by it. What is canon and what isn’t, what is set when along the vast timescale of the Skywalker Saga, or even whether or not something is logistically feasible or not: none of these are of primary concern here. Instead, Visions feels like Star Wars operating on pure Id, and just wants to haul you along for the ride, in the quiet moments and the explosive ones.
It all comes together to create something that manages to balance the delicate line between feeling like Star Wars and feeling unlike anything Star Wars has done before — a tightrope each of Visions shorts makes balancing on seem effortless. But what makes Visions’ act less a mastery of balance and more like watching some best-in-field gymnasts somersault and backflip all over that tightrope is that each short also raises that vital question: “What even is Star Wars” beyond aesthetic and the ideals in its deepest of hearts?
Although the vast majority of these shorts leverage the franchise’s never-ending cyclical conflict between the Jedi and Sith for their underpinnings — not a story goes by without a mention of that ever-present energy field that binds us all, the glow of a Kyber crystal, or, of course, the fabled, humbling presence of a lightsaber — the very best among the nine found here leverage that conflict to touch upon themes that have interwoven themselves throughout the Star Wars saga in its myriad forms.
They’re ideas that, quite like the Force itself, have become the binding element that ties these myriad tales together across all those forms, the themes that capture the ephemeral, nebulous feel of Star Wars. The power of love, romantic or familial, the need to grow beyond destiny or position to find your truest self, the embrace of legacy, found in your own lineage or in a legacy of your own making. The families we choose to make or are connected to by blood, and the tragedy that can come when those connections are severed by conflict and evil.
The simple need to aspire, to be the good you want to see in the universe, and for it to triumph over that aforementioned evil. It is these beliefs that Star Wars is really built on, more than it could be built on the hilt of a lightsaber or in the cockpit of an X-Wing — it’s always been more than its symbols, its sweeping vistas, and its iconography. Star Wars is an idea, one that has spoken to people across the world, across generations, because its real heart lies beyond slick, exciting visuals.
Visions has those visuals, yes — it has them in spades, and they are a primal delight to see. But the way it takes the ideals beneath them, twists and reconfigures them, and re-presents it all so sincerely and lovingly alongside those dazzling images, is what raises it to a whole new level of spectacle and celebration. Star Wars: Visions looks cool as hell, but deep down, its greatest admiration is for the beating heart that has kept the galaxy far, far away ticking for generations.
Star Wars: Visions begins streaming its nine episodes in their entirety on Disney+ on September 22.