Review: What if “Star Wars” was really Japanese?

“Intellectual property” was probably not a term that was thought to apply to “Star Wars” when the first film premiered in May 1977. Over 40 years of movies, books, TV series, toys, games, cards collectible and theme park rides later, it’s hard to think of George Lucas’ outer space saga as anything else.

This could have been on the minds of the executives at Lucasfilm who came up with “Star Wars: Visions,” a set of nine animated shorts arriving at Disney + on Wednesday. This is the brand’s latest calculated exploitation, but it won’t tire you out. It’s low-key and small-scale, and it has a quirky twist: The 13- to 22-minute films were created by a variety of Japanese anime studios, making the project an example of both cross-cultural collaboration and mutual homage.

Animation has been a significant segment of “Star Wars” business and history, primarily through the “Clone Wars” movies and series, including the current Disney + show “Star Wars: The Bad. Batch “. But it never had the two-dimensional, handcrafted beauty you’ll find throughout the chapters of “Visions,” not to mention the visual variety, which makes it easy to watch movies in just one two-and-a-half. -hour sitting.

The Japanese animators had carte blanche to invent characters and to deviate from “canonical” scenarios (hoping to prevent the indignation of overprotective fans). The standalone films feature a slew of new heroes, though at least one incorporates familiar characters: bounty hunter Boba Fett appears in Taku Kimura’s “Tatooine Rhapsody” (Studio Colorido), hunting a Hutt who fled the company. family criminal join a group.

The anime as a genre and “Star Wars” as a franchise are insular, highly formalized creative worlds with traditions and expectations that can be overwhelming. But they’ve always influenced each other, and there are intersections that are apparent in the movies. Lucas’ core concept of the Force aligns with the eco-romanticism that prevails in sci-fi and fantasy anime. Jedi Knights, with their robes and lightsabers, are samurai by another name. And the two traditions share an inordinate penchant for the chirping of their robotic companions.

These elements appear in varying configurations throughout the nine films. What varies is the mix: the degree to which the films resemble “Star Wars” shorts that have anime character designs, or like anime shorts that borrow “Star Wars” motifs. .

Movies on the “Star Wars” side include “The Twins” (directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi for Studio Trigger), about a brother and sister who are darker counterparts of Luke and Leia, fighting on a double-hulled star destroyer. , and the ambitious “The Ninth Jedi” (Production IG) by Kenji Kamiyama, on a plan to assemble a group of hunted Jedi and rearm them with lightsabers.

More interesting to those who are bigger fans of anime than Lucasfilm are the shorts that put the action in Japanese settings that are not part of the “Star Wars” landscape. Planet Tau in Yuki Igarashi (Studio Geno) ‘s “Lop & Ocho”, one of the most thrilling films, is a richly detailed Japanese urban world. “The Elder” by Masahiko Otsuka (Trigger) and “Akakiri” by Eunyoung Choi (Science SARU) evoke the Japanese countryside as it is traditionally depicted in anime; “Akakiri” strengthens the link with the effects of watercolor and pen and ink.

“Akakiri” also comes full circle between the anime and “Star Wars”: its story of a princess and a samurai on a dangerous journey in the company of two bumpy commoners is the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s film “The Hidden Fortress “, which was one of Lucas’ main inspirations for the original” Star Wars “movie.

The most interesting shorts are the ones that dig into those kinds of connections. Takanobu Mizuno’s predominantly black and white “Duel” (Kamikaze Douga) also summons Kurosawa, with a wandering “Yojimbo” style ronin accompanied by an R2-D2 robot in a traditional straw peasant hat. Abel Góngora’s charming and cartoonish “T0-B1” (Science SARU), about an android who wants to be human, is a tribute to the classic anime hero Astro Boy.

(The collection poses a practical cultural and aesthetic question for the non-Japanese speaker: subtitles versus dubbing. Subtitles are always the right answer for the anime, but with “Visions,” the English tracks feature a a number of notable voices including Neil Patrick Harris, Alison Brie and “Shang-Chi” star Simu Liu. The voice acting still seems so contrived, but it’s worth activating it every now and then, like when George Takei expresses one of the commoners in “Akakiri.”)

Whether “Star Wars: Visions” is, ultimately, more of a fun diversion than a truly rewarding experience is not a factor of race time or skill. This is because all of the movies – and you can realize that with a sinking feel watching them – play as auditions for continuing series rather than as organic sets; none really feel self-sufficient, and some even end with obvious cliffhangers. To paraphrase Yoda, there is nothing that can be done. Try only for future residue.

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