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December 21
2021

FILTERING TWO ENTWINED WORLDS OF INFLUENCES THROUGH STAR WARS: VISIONS

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Padawan Dan Gavash and Jedi Master Tajin Crosser character designs by Shigeo Akahori combined with background art by Studio Bihou for “The Elder.”

Padawan Dan Gavash and Jedi Master Tajin Crosser character designs by Shigeo Akahori combined with background art by Studio Bihou for “The Elder.”

As a lead into the release of the original Star Wars, Lucasfilm and Ballantine Books published a novelization and subsequently the sequel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster in 1978. The universe expanded into animation in 1985 with the ABC television series Droids and Ewoks, but it was not until the arrival of David Filoni, who became the overseer of Lucasfilm Animation projects, that the medium became such a force in storytelling that characters like The Clone Wars fan favorite Ahsoka Tano made the transition into live action.

Visions has been a wonderful project to work on from the beginning, because the instigation there was to find the best anime houses and directors and ask them what is their literal vision of Star Wars, and to give them some freedom to be able to express that in a style that is so beloved across the world.”

—Lynwen Brennan, Lucasfilm Executive Vice President & General Manager, Lucasfilm

The demand for animation has accelerated with the arrival of streaming services and their content warfare with one another in order to grow membership numbers. A major part of the attraction to Disney+ is the Star Wars franchise, and Lucasfilm has seen this as opportunity to do projects that are not canon-dependent and honor what inspired George Lucas to write the Skywalker saga in the first place. An example of this is the anime anthology series Star Wars: Visions, which re-projects Japanese influences through the lens of Star Wars.

Shigeo Akahori explores various poses for the title character in “The Elder.”

Shigeo Akahori explores various poses for the title character in “The Elder.”

At the apex of power within the studio empire founded by George Lucas is Lynwen Brennan, Lucasfilm Executive Vice President & General Manager at  Lucasfilm, who is responsible for Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound. Part of her role is finding new ways and avenues to promote the Star Wars brand. “Visions has been a wonderful project to work on from the beginning,” notes Brennan, “because the instigation there was to find the best anime houses and directors and ask them what is their literal vision of Star Wars, and to give them some freedom to be able to express that in a style that is so beloved across the world.”

Serving as an Executive Producer on the nine episodes is James Waugh, Vice President, Franchise Content & Strategy at Lucasfilm, while Kanako Shirasaki, Head of Production for Qubic Pictures, is a producer. “It was interesting to see the ideas coming from the studios,” notes Shirasaki, who previously produced the Netflix anime series Eden about a human girl raised by robot. “Obviously, Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese classic cinema influenced George Lucas and Star Wars, and in turn Star Wars has influenced these creators in Japan. It is nice to see a circle going back and forth between these two. It is great to see those elements merge into one and turn into something great, like ‘The Duel.’”

“It was interesting to see the ideas coming from the studios. Obviously, Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese classic cinema influenced George Lucas and Star Wars, and in turn Star Wars has influenced these creators in Japan. It is nice to see a circle going back and forth between these two. It is great to see those elements merge into one and turn into something great, like ‘The Duel.’”

—Kanako Shirasaki, Head of Production, Qubic Pictures

Yuki Igarashi conceptualizes a landspeeder traveling through a shopping district in “Lop & Ochō.”

Yuki Igarashi conceptualizes a landspeeder traveling through a shopping district in “Lop & Ochō.”

Hired to do the animated shorts ranging from 13 to 22 minutes are Kamikaze Douga, Geno Studio (Twin Engine), Studio Colorido (Twin Engine), TRIGGER, Kinema Citrus, Production I.G and Science SARU. The anime styles are diverse, ranging from the film-grain-ink illustrative quality of  “The Duel” to the ‘Jedi Astro Boy’ in the Disney Pinocchio hybrid “T0-B1,” to the Studio Ghibli-flavored “The Ninth Jedi.” With the exception of “Tatooine Rhapsody,” which features Boba Fett, Bib Fortuna  and Jabba the Hutt, the characters are making their Star Wars debut, whether it be a roaming and masterless samurai in the vein of Yojimbo, portrayed by Toshirô Mifune (who was the first choice to play Obi-Wan Kenobi), or a lightsaber-wielding, furry-tailed creature, or a singing padawan who wants to keep rockin’ across the galaxy. “A big part of selecting the anime studios was that we were fans of a lot of their work and also wanted to make sure this anthology showcased all of the different styles and storytelling types that are being done in the medium,” explains Waugh. “Anime isn’t a ubiquitous singular form. Different artists are doing different things.”

Among the deadly weapons that The Elder wields is Force Lightning.

Among the deadly weapons that The Elder wields is Force Lightning.

Concept art by Takashi Okazaki of Ronin and R5-D56 for “The Duel.”

Concept art by Takashi Okazaki of Ronin and R5-D56 for “The Duel.”

Lightsabers, Jedi, Siths and droid companions are scattered throughout the different shorts, as well as the Seven Samurai and Yojimbo in “The Duel” and the bickering servants in The Hidden Fortress (1958), which originally inspired the droid characters of C-3PO and R2-D2 appearing in “Akakiri.” “What was interesting to me about it was none of that was prompted,” states Waugh. “In some way the Akira Kurosawa and the jidai-geki [Japanese term for period drama from which the word Jedi is derived] influences on Star Wars was so grounded into the DNA of it that these studios were reinterpreting Star Wars and finding aspects of Star Wars that resonated with them. It was like extracting the Kurosawa elements that were deeply rooted in the culture that their studios are in. It was fascinating to see that. In a way they got to honor George’s work with Star Wars and a master like Kurosawa in their films.”

Along with writing and directing “The Ninth Jedi” for Star Wars: Visions, Kenji Kamiyana has worked on Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 and Blade Runner: Black Lotus.

Along with writing and directing “The Ninth Jedi” for Star Wars: Visions, Kenji Kamiyana has worked on Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 and Blade Runner: Black Lotus

Loose guidelines were given to the anime studios. “We wanted them to tell their Star Wars story using whatever elements from the galaxy [they chose], or reinterpret elements that inspired them,” remarks Waugh. “[We told them] ‘Don’t lean predominately on known characters as the lead. We want you to make up your own characters, tell your stories, and when it comes to timeline, if that was warranted, we could help you solve that, but that shouldn’t drive the creative process.’ It was really that thin. Frankly, we wanted it to be a celebratory expression of Star Wars.” No text crawls appear. “We tend to use the crawls more for the continuing saga storytelling,” Waugh explains. “If someone wanted to use a crawl, we would have happily had that discussion.” Recurring elements do appear throughout the shorts. “There are some things like the lightsabers usage that people have mentioned, but nothing was ever prescribed from us on that,” he adds. “What happens is that it’s such a fundamental element of the franchise that if you’re a director wanting to tell a Star Wars story, of course you want to play with that toy!”

The world and characters of “The Duel” are furthered explored with the publication of Ronin: A Visions Novel.

The world and characters of “The Duel” are furthered explored with the publication of Ronin: A Visions Novel.

“A big part of selecting the anime studios was that we were fans of a lot of their work and also wanted to make sure this anthology showcased all of the different styles and storytelling types that are being done in the medium. Anime isn’t a ubiquitous singular form. Different artists are doing different things.”

—James Waugh, Executive Producer/Vice President, Franchise Content & Strategy, Lucasfilm

A broken lightsaber is converted into a microphone, another is attached to a device that turns it into a lethal umbrella; the others take a shape of a katana that have engraved Japanese characters, while a sabersmith crafts a series of them that reflect the user’s strength and relationship with the Force. “Because we have the Visions framework, the lightsaber could be turned into a microphone or the umbrella lightsaber,” observes Shirasaki. “This might influence the next generation of creators to make Star Wars, but not immediately!”A fun part of the project was being able to take advantage of what anime has to offer, compared to other animation styles along with live action. “That’s one of the fun things about anime,” adds Shirasaki. “You get to push ideas in a way because of the cinematic language of the form. You go to a live-action director and they’re probably not thinking lightsaber umbrella first; that is so much a byproduct of the medium.”

Twins Am and Karre have a serious difference in opinion about making a hyper canon operational.

Twins Am and Karre have a serious difference in opinion about making a hyper canon operational.

Music takes center stage, in particular a rock band featuring a wayward offspring of Jabba the Hutt in “Tatooine Rhapsody.”

Music takes center stage, in particular a rock band featuring a wayward offspring of Jabba the Hutt in “Tatooine Rhapsody.”

2D and 3D animation are combined together. “You can find some of the 3D elements in starships,” remarks Shirasaki. “Most of them are 2D animation, but you can find lots of combinations of these two. The studios did the best job to deliver the best artistic style using the two techniques together.” Imaginative concepts include the memories of a planet being awakened; a helmet being a rocket-propelled device in “The Village Princess”; a droid pilot with a preference for drinking tea in “The Ninth Jedi”; the ceremonial revelation of the ancestral history with a lightsaber in “Lop & Ochō”; and Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett not being able to shake off the catchy tune being performed by the band Star Waver in “Tatooine Rapsody.”

“Because we have the Visions framework, the lightsaber could be turned into a microphone or the umbrella lightsaber. This might influence the next generation of creators to make Star Wars, but not immediately! That’s one of the fun things about anime. You get to push ideas in a way because of the cinematic language of the form. You go to a live-action director and they’re probably not thinking lightsaber umbrella first; that is so much a byproduct of the medium.”

—Kanako Shirasaki, Head of Production, Qubic Pictures

F overcomes the trauma of her Jedi Master being murdered to protect a village from raiders in “The Village Bride.”

F overcomes the trauma of her Jedi Master being murdered to protect a village from raiders in “The Village Bride.”

“‘Tatooine Rapsody’ was so much fun!” chuckles Shirasaki. “When we first heard that director Taku Kimura wanted to do a rock band, we didn’t know what kind of rock band he was looking for. He said the Ramones and 1970s New York garage rock bands. We were like, ‘That sounds pretty interesting.’ The music is great throughout.” Waugh laughs as well. “One of the most fun things about the whole process was that I sat in on the record for the English dub where Joseph Gordon-Levitt sang that song. He brought so much life and energy from his punk roots to the song. Joseph was giddy about having the opportunity to sing a punk song in the Star Wars galaxy!”

Originally, “The Ninth Jedi,” which revolves around the daughter of a lightsaber-smith, was meant to be two episodes.

Originally, “The Ninth Jedi,” which revolves around the daughter of a lightsaber-smith, was meant to be two episodes.

“Akakiri” was influenced by The Hidden Fortress, which inspired George Lucas to create R2-D2 and C-3PO.

“Akakiri” was influenced by The Hidden Fortress, which inspired George Lucas to create R2-D2 and C-3PO.

The animation style for “T0-B1” can be described as Astro Boy meets Disney’s Pinocchio.

The animation style for “T0-B1” can be described as Astro Boy meets Disney’s Pinocchio.

Continuing the franchise tradition that began with the publication of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker in 1976, Star Wars: Visions will not be confined to Disney+ as the world of  “The Duel” is explored further in Star Wars: Ronin: A Visions Novel by Emma Mieko Candon. “In terms of what surprised us, definitely ‘Tatooine Rhapsody,’” reveals Waugh. “That was an absolute surprise. The other one was ‘Lop & Ochō’. Seeing the character of Lop coming to life, being somebody that you could so empathize with and felt for, and how human that character was rendered despite being a bunny was touching.” Shirasaki agrees. “Both voice actors behind Lop, Anna Cathcart for the English dub and Seiran Kobayashi for the Japanese original voice, both did a phenomenal job to bring the Lop character to life. I hope everyone enjoys it in both languages.”


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