A Note from the Author: I’m trying something different here, and doing a running review of this series as I watch through it.
May the 4th is unofficially Star Wars Day. Part of that is because of the clever wordplay. “May the Fourth be with you,” and “beware the Revenge of the Fifth,” sound an awful lot like the series’ catchphrase and the third movie’s title respectively. But part of it is also that Star Wars movies used to be the quintessential embodiment of The Summer Blockbuster, right up until Episode 7 when The Force Awakens opened in December, the first Star Wars movie to be released in a month other than May. And given that Star Wars Celebration 2023 was in early April this year, it might seem like Disney has completely ignored the franchise’s historically significant day and month. Except without much fanfare, Disney+ dropped a small gift to the fans on the 4th, specifically the second season of Star Wars: Visions. And while this show has never been heralded with the same pomp and circumstance as its live action shows or even other animated offerings Visions has always been a worthwhile entry into a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
The first season of Star Wars: Visions was released in Septemeber of 2021 and it consisted of nine animated short films from a collection of Japanese animation studios. Basically, LucasFilms approached a bunch of the best anime studios in the country and told them that he would have free reign to make anything they wanted in Star Wars. The results were pretty dang cool. Kamikaze Douga, a studio mostly famous for making the opening theme songs for other, more famous cartoons submitted a moody, black and white Samurai flick that harkened back to Lucas’s own fascination with the works of Akira Kurosawa. Other entries included a fun story about a Japanese-style J-Pop band performing for Jabba the Hutt, a very Astro Boy-esque story about a cute little robot who wants to be a Jedi, and tons and tons of stories about Jedi fighting Sith. It was a good time, and this relatively obscure corner of the Star Wars canon was received warmly by those fans who decided to give it a shot. The problem is that anime is a very niche and the project was a hard sell if you aren’t already the type of nerd who knows who Production I.G. or Studio Trigger are. That said, the best part of the first season of Visions was getting to see a bunch of different creatives add a distinctly Japanese style to the Star Wars universe, whether through character design or plot elements. So it’s been really cool to see Season 2 correct some of its shortcomings and expand on its strength.
The biggest hurdle that Season 1 of Star Wars: Visions had to overcome was the fact that it was anime. How do you solve the problem of anime being a bit of a niche market here in America? By expanding the cultural footprint of your series. This year, only one of the 9 animated short films comes from Japan. The others come from a variety of points of origin including South Korea, India, Ireland, France, Spain and Chile among others. This means that even more than last year, the coolest part of Visions Season 2 has been seeing how each studio adds their own distinct, cultural flair to their films. This in turn makes the Star Wars universe feel so much more expansive and colorful. So how are the individual episodes overall? Well let’s go through them one by one.
Episode 1: Sith. Studio: El Guiri
It’s interesting comparing the first episodes of each of Visions’ two first episodes. Both are 3D-animated stories that focus on a largely black-and-white aesthetic. Both stories are also about providing a different, and unique perspective on the primary antagonists of the Star Wars universe, the Sith. But where Kamikaze Douga’s Duel was mostly a somber action piece, Madrid-based El Guiri has submitted a story about overcoming your past and self-acceptance. The story follows a mysterious artist named Lola whose greatest contribution to the Star Wars universe is the brilliant idea of using the Force to aid her art as a painter. The use of color in this short film is absolutely sublime, reflecting Lola’s mental state as she confronts ghosts from her past while struggling to finish a deeply personal piece of art. What’s fun is that Lola isn’t a Jedi and even after overcoming her ordeal, still identifies as a Sith. Which makes sense. Jedi are all about the abnegation of the self, while the Sith are all about self-actualization. A Sith artist makes sense, especially because this film makes the assertion that the two sides aren’t actually that far apart. Black and white are both part of the full spectrum of colors after all….
Episode 2: Screecher’s Reach. Studio: Cartoon Saloon
Cartoon Saloon are probably the most well-known animation studio participating in this season of Visions. The Ireland-based studio is most famous for movies like The Breadwinner, The Secret of the Kells and Wolfwalkers. They’ve received Five Academy Award nominations for their work since 2010. The studio is famous for its incredibly distinctive 2D style which recalls not only animated films of the past but also things like Irish woodwork, storybook illustrations and medieval tapestry. Additionally, their stories tend to be about children going on grand adventures and confronting the darkness and cynical reality of the real world. All of these elements come together in Screecher’s Reach which, in a bold decision by Cartoon Saloon, is an authentic ghost story set in the Star Wars universe. Now I don’t want to oversell it, this is the sci-fi equivalent of a campfire tale, featuring a distinctly Irish monster in the Banshee-like ghoul of Screecher’s Reach. It also features what might be one of the most bittersweet, plot twist endings in the entire season. Honestly, between the genuinely grim and oppressive vibes of the opening shots, through to the downer ending, this story almost feels like it’d be more at home in a setting like Warhammer 40K. But despite that tone, it’s still a confidently Star Wars production, which in turn helps to illuminate why this whole enterprise works. Easily one of the best of the set this season.
Episode 3: In the Stars. Studio: Punkrobot
One of the best parts about expanding the pool of creators for Visions season 2 was expanding the styles of the shorts. Punkrobot are a Chilean studio who contributed a really fun Stop Motion short with enough technical wizardry that it deserves to be talked about in the same breath as more famous studios like Laika or Aardman. The story is also a distinctly Chilean affair, focusing on a pair of alien sisters whose planet has been conquered by the Empire. This isn’t the usual story about resistance, the Empire has already won and are systematically stripping the planet of its resources. Instead, it’s an explicitly anti-colonial story about the sanctity of indigenous culture in the face of hopelessness and it’s really cool to see a Star Wars property, especially one tacitly approved by Disney, go that route. One of the best parts of this short is the mostly local voice cast who, despite delivering their lines in English, help to imbue the story with a wholly South American vibe. I wasn’t expecting In the Stars to be as good as the opener or Cartoon Saloon’s prestigious entry, but I guess they decided this one was batting clean up for a reason.
Episode 4: I Am Your Mother. Studio: Aardman
Oh hey, remember how I namedropped Aardman just a few sentences ago? It’s almost like I was planning that. Aardman are a UK studio most famous for their claymation films, including Wallace and Gromit as well as Chicken Run. Given that background it shouldn’t be a surprise that their submission, I am Your Mother, is a goofy romp about a novice pilot and her mother competing in a starship race. There’s honestly not a lot to say about I Am Your Mother. The character designs are charming, the jokes are all pretty funny (especially the ones that callback to Star Wars lore) and the story has a lot of heart. Anthology series like this tend to drag in the middle and a light, airy entry like this is a perfect palette cleanse.
Episode 5: Journey to the Dark Head. Studio: Studio Mir
Studio Mir is a South Korean studio mostly known among animation fans for the work they did on the Nickelodean series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra. So far, this is probably the most traditional entry in the season, both from a Star Wars perspective and compared to the last season of Visions. It’s an anime-inspired story about a Jedi and a pilot going on a mission and having to face a Sith Lord. Both of them need to face their pasts to overcome the challenges ahead of them. Journey to the Dark Head isn’t bad, per se, but it’s just kind of average when stacked up to the other entries in this anthology. The animation is eye-catching, but not as distinct as the other episodes. The story is engaging, but it suffers from what was clearly a 15 minute cap on the length. And while the new planet definitely owes something to South Korean culture, that cultural influence is less emphatic than in others. To a certain animation fan, this is probably going to be their favorite entry in the anthology but to me it felt the safest. Unlike…
Episode 6: The Spy Dancer. Studio: La Cachette
Hooooo-boy. You know, I almost ran the risk of writing this just as a review of The Spy Dancer. It’s got everything you might be looking for in a Star Wars: Visions episode. The animation is gorgeous, the story, despite being crammed into a mere twelve or thirteen minutes is engrossing and the cultural flourishes help to make it one of the most affecting pieces of Star Wars media. Studio La Cachette is a French Animation studio notable for contributing to the Gendy Tartakovsky series Primal, which was one of my favorite TV Shows of the last few years. In The Spy Dancer, they’ve made something that feels like it’s halfway between last year’s Andor, and Casablanca. This is basically a science fiction riff on the classic French Resistance tales from World War 2. Set in a popular night club that’s favorited by stormtroopers and Imperial officers, we follow the performers and wait staff as they perform what ends up being one last mission for the local arm of the Rebellion. It’s a perfect recreation, full of little details like how much the wait staff actively loathes their clientele while keeping up a mask of effervescent hospitality.
It’s amazing how much story, and pathos La Cachette manages to cram into a lean twelve minutes and change. The script is efficient, using hard-hitting lines like “I’m not a stargazer Jon. I’m just tired,” to sell the reality of this resistance cell’s fight. Like Andor, the story focuses on the smaller, more personal side of the Rebellion and how individuals come to fight against the Empire. Plus, like the best installments of Visions, the story feels distinctly French. Without spoiling anything, if this story is meant to mirror the French Resistance’s fight against Nazi Germany, than the protagonist’s personal struggle feels like it owes a lot to the complicated Franco-German relationship in the lead up to the war. Plus, the titular Spy Dancer’s performance and even her combat style looks like the sky dancing of troupes like Cirque Du Soleil, the famous French-Canadian circus outfit. It’s an engrossing blend of cultural touchstones, and science fiction troupes perfectly balanced with charismatic action and enjoyable characters. In other words, it’s the essential Star Wars experience. Easily the best of the season thus far.
Episode 7: The Bandits of Golak. Studio: 88 Pictures
This one is really interesting. On one hand, it’s the most traditional piece of Star Wars animation. Since 2008, Star Wars animated properties have been 3D affairs, usually created in house and usually executive produced by a guy name David Filoni. The Bandits of Golak looks like it could be a spinoff of Star Wars: Clone Wars or The Bad Batch. And yet it’s also one of the most culturally rich episodes of Visions. 88 Pictures is an Indian animation studio based out of Mumbai and this episode feels like the writers and directors decided to cram this thing full of as many Indian cultural touchstones into it as possible. So it’s not just a story about a Force-sensitive young girl and her older brother traveling from their rural village to find safety in a nearby temple complex. It also features things like horseback bandits with designs straight out of a Bollywood epic and an Imperial Inquisitor who bears more than a little resemblance to a member of the Mughal Dynasty. That gives this story a whole lot of extra punch and a worthwhile watch.
Episode 8: The Pit. Studio: D’Art Shtajio (and LucasFilm)
D’Art Shtajio is an interesting case study in global media. It’s a studio based on Japan that specializes in making Japanese animation, but it’s owned by American creators and its portfolio of original works is mostly focused on characters from an African American background. The niche cultural crossover between Black American culture and Japanese Animation is fascinating and it’s been going on since the 90s. I really don’t have time to talk about it, but it’s a really cool cultural blend. If you’re even vaguely interested checkout shows like Cannon Busters or Yasuke on Netflix. Anyway, The Hole is a short morality play set in the Star Wars universe about a planet where a bunch of convicts are forced to dig a hole. As the hole grows into a pit, the prisoners discover a valuable resource and a short distance away, a whole Imperial city is built off of the profits. And then, when the resources run out, the pit’s guards leave….abandoning the prisoners to die. The story has decent animation, a pretty good voice cast, starring Daveed Diggs, most well known as Hamilton’s Jefferson. Also, hey look yet another Rebellion-focused Star Wars tale that focuses on actual political themes and with specific, salient, social issues. The moral of the story is about as obvious as a baseball bat to the face but like…isn’t that the point? This is Star Wars.
Conclusion (for now):
And that’s it of this. As of this essay’s second draft I’m about 8/9ths of the way through Star Wars: Visions Season 2. But so far, this season has been just as good as the last one. I really wish Disney did more to advertise the existence of this series. Because the more corporately-managed side of the franchise, with entries like The Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, The Bad Batch and the upcoming Ashoka, is starting to feel more and more generic. Star Wars was a weird passion project by a shy kid from Central California who was obsessed with Buck Rodgers and Samurai flicks. There should always be space in this franchise for the weirder, and more personal sensibilities of its creators. Star Wars isn’t a rulebook, it’s a blank canvas waiting for unique voices to leave their mark. And Star Wars: Visions celebrates that better than any other entry in the series for a while. Thanks for reading.