Lucasfilm’s new animated short film anthology showcases top animation producers from Japan, all huge ‘Star Wars’ fans, who’ve drawn upon their own heritage to create an exciting and beautifully designed set of stories, now streaming on Disney+.
It’s Star Wars like you’ve never seen before. No, really.
Seven Japanese anime studios, including Ghost in the Shell’s Production I.G and Promare’s Studio TRIGGER, have designed and produced nine original animated Star Wars short films, each with new characters and vastly different animation styles.
“This was a thing that we've all wanted to do for years now,” says James Waugh, vice president at Lucasfilm. “We didn't really know how to do it in a world five years ago when we didn't have [Disney+] D+, but as D+ really solidified itself as this incredible platform, it forced us to relook at our strategy and really say, ‘What is the right Star Wars story for that platform?’ and ‘How do we find a way to mix a form we love with the galaxy we love?’”
That “thing” is Lucasfilm’s latest project, Star Wars: Visions, released yesterday and now available to stream on Disney+. The anthology of nine animated short films is executive produced by Waugh along with Star Wars: Forces of Destiny’s Jacqui Lopez and Star Wars Resistance’s Josh Rimes. The episodes are also produced by Eden’s Justin Leach and Kanako Shirasaki.
“And all the creators that joined this project are huge Star Wars fans,” notes Shirasaki. “We didn't know that in the beginning, but as you meet them and start having a conversation, you learn their love of Star Wars is very strong.”
From the beginning, Star Wars: Visions has had two goals, according to both Waugh and Shirasaki: the first, to showcase Japanese culture through stories and diverse styles of anime, from color-infused retro stylings to black-and-white based gritty sketch art. Even the character outfits and fighting styles are a tip-of-the-hat to Japanese history.
“There are different notes being played in anime, and I think there’s a kind of ‘lay’ point of view of what anime is and the truth is that it’s much broader than that,” explains Waugh. “What we wanted to do is really get the unique cultural perspective that births anime. Because I think if it's just an aesthetic choice, you're not really getting the full experience. The cultural influence matters.”
He adds, “I don't think what drove this project in any way, shape, or form is the idea that anime has really grown its fan base over the years. That's a stroke of luck and a kismet moment. I think the truth of this is that we have been such fans of the work that's been going on for so long at these individual studios, that it's really inspired many creators at Lucasfilm. You can see it in our comics and in our games. Ultimately it was our president Kathy Kennedy who ended up saying, ‘You keep talking about anime all the time. Everybody seems to love it. I love it. Why aren't we exploring this in a more robust way?’ She was one hundred percent right.”
Since its inception, Star Wars stories have been influenced by Japanese culture, from the country’s mythology to the films of Akira Kurosawa. So, Waugh and Lucasfilm partnered with Leach and Shirasaki at Qubic Pictures and began meeting with different anime studios in Japan, putting their second goal into motion: asking creatives, who were also avid Star Wars fans, to draw inspiration from their own heritage and come up with stories to further expand the Star Wars galaxy.
“We reached out to studios to submit pitches and asked them to tell us original stories in the Star Wars universe, and we chose the shorts from there,” says Shirasaki. “They had access to all the materials about Star Wars from Lucasfilm, but they were already very knowledgeable and put lots of their original ideas into their designs too.”
While these nine films do take place in familiar Star Wars settings with some familiar characters, such as Boba Fett to Jabba the Hutt, their creative directive was not to follow a specific genesis of events but create something entirely new that had never been seen before.
“The whole idea of the Visions framework was to not look at everything from the lens of ‘How do we fit this on the timeline?’” notes Waugh. “It was, ‘What would you do with any Star Wars element you want? What Star Wars story or expression have you always wanted to render?’ It was a pretty high-level brief. I do think we selected some of the pitches based off what was going to make a good anthology, but it was really these studio’s visions - pun intended - driving specific stories.”
Waugh, Shirasaki and the other producers have even actively steered away from stories that relied too heavily on fan-favorite characters.
“What we didn't want to do is get everybody doing different versions of a Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker story,” Waugh reveals. “This wasn’t What If…? for us. This was about a really robust universe with a lot of potential, and what story you would create that wasn't relying on the equity of those other characters.”
And despite the challenges of the pandemic, with tight travel restrictions between Japan and the U.S., Lucasfilm, Geno Studio, Studio Colorido, Kamikaze Douga, Kinema Citrus, Science Saru and the other studios have managed to create a truly special collage of set-apart Star Wars stories that have a highly personal and historical creators’ touch, while still holding fast to the core of this beloved galaxy far, far away.
“We wanted to ensure that the stories were as authentic as possible and that they had the values that really are fundamental to Star Wars storytelling: heart, soul, and believing in something,” notes Waugh. “But they all had a great innate sense of that already.”