“It’s a Love Letter”: The Producers of Star Wars: Visions Celebrate the Unique Anime Collection

Executive producers James Waugh and Jacqui Lopez of Lucasfilm and producer Kanako Shirasaki pull back the curtain on creating the new Disney+ anime anthology series, streaming now.

There is a moment in “The Duel,” the first short in the new Star Wars: Visions anthology, when the Sith Bandit jabs at a waterfall with her red lightsaber. Listen carefully and you’ll find the sound effect generated by the sizzling blade meeting the natural element matches another moment: when Darth Maul, separated from the Jedi by electro rays in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, tests the barrier for himself.

In “The Twins,” another short in the anime series, Karre’s armor sprouts several lightsaber-wielding mechanical arms, accompanied by a tone that Skywalker Sound designer David W. Collins called a “Grievous/Kylo cocktail,” producer Kanako Shirasaki recalls with a laugh, a familiar yet previously unheard blend of effects that helped create Kylo Ren’s unstable blade and General Grievous’s arsenal in the past.

“THE TWINS” - The twins introduction

These audial Easter eggs are just one element of the connective tissue that binds Star Wars: Visions, an altogether different visual expression not previously seen in Star Wars storytelling, that is nevertheless authentically part of the greater galaxy far, far away through shared themes, characters, and, of course, lightsabers.

Each tale is the product of the individual studio and director behind it, an eclectic mix of legends like Production I.G and scrappy up-and-comers with a more quirky or meditative approach to the assignment. The collaboration with Lucasfilm builds on an affinity for Japanese cinema still felt strongly in the company’s halls to this day. “Working on Star Wars, you need to have a really strong vocabulary in Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa films, of course, but also films likeThe Sword of Doom, a foundational Samurai movie,” says James Waugh, Lucasfilm Vice President, Franchise Content & Strategy.

Dan from "The Elder"

“I think what’s so resonant about those films is that their heroes are very similar to our heroes in Star Wars,” adds Jacqui Lopez,  Lucasfilm Vice President, Franchise Production. “They want to help people less fortunate, they have that conflict in themselves, and it’s that journey of the hero.”

With Star Wars: Visions streaming now on Disney+ in all its cinematic glory, producer Shirasaki and executive producers Waugh and Lopez recently sat down with StarWars.com to delve into the 18-month-long process to bring these new Star Wars stories to fruition.

Ronin from "The Duel"

Honoring the maker

The original concept for the series stems from a desire to take Star Wars back to its roots, honoring the Japanese cinema that inspired creator George Lucas at the outset of what would become Star Wars: A New Hope. Elements of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress flow through the imaginative space opera, and for Visions, Kurosawa’s influence is palpable in tales like “The Duel” from Kamikaze Douga and Science SARU’s “Akakiri.”

“The thing about ‘The Duel’ is it’s a love letter to Star Wars and Kurosawa, yes, but it’s so much more,” Waugh notes. “It’s really a love letter to cinema as a form expressed through George and Kurosowa — fundamental cinematic techniques, like the boiling teapot building tension toward the end. It’s the cinematic legacy and appreciation of it all; there’s just so much for cinephiles.Combined with the hand-drawn animation, unfolding in black and white with carefully placed pops of red highlights, the short feels like a piece of Star Wars history, recently unearthed yet part of the legacy for decades, a hidden treasure only now come to light.

T0-B1

No two Visions shorts are alike in visual exploration, story, or tone, yet in each expression we find new Jedi, Padawans, dark side users, and droids who instantly feel like denizens of the Star Wars galaxy. In the span of 20 minutes or less, it’s hard not to get attached to characters like Dan in “The Elder,” created by TRIGGER, and the titular “T0-B1” from Science SARU.

The latter takes a page from classic Disney animation and the striking otherworldly landscapes of French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, for a Pinocchio-like tale of a humanoid droid who wants to be a real Jedi boy. “It’s just so joyful,” says Waugh. “It is a Pinocchio story and I think that’s what’s so cool about it. It’s a story that is a mythic fable outside of Star Wars and it finds a home in Star Wars. It also references a lot of anime history — it’s steeped in that!”

Shorts like “Tatooine Rhapsody” from Studio Colorido and Geno Studio’s “Lop & Ochō” are more of a departure, a gamble for Lucasfilm executives during the ideation stage that took place almost entirely in virtual sessions during the global pandemic. Although some pitches came in beforehand, Waugh notes that the series was greenlit the week that San Francisco, where Lucasfilm headquarters reside, went into the initial lockdown in March 2020.

Concept art of Star Waver Star Waver in "Tatooine Rhapsody"

The initial pitch for “Tatooine Rhapsody” was a quick sketch and a paragraph. Waugh was concerned. “A rock opera? Can we do that? Is that just too silly or too far?” he wondered.

“I’m so happy you had the courage,” Lopez tells him. “It was a bold move and you had conviction. I’m really grateful because it’s awesome.” The resulting tale of the band Star Waver on a quest for stardom ended up being a quintessential Star Wars rock opera meets space opera. “It’s about a dreamer. And this is a story that’s so relatable and so Star Wars,” Waugh says. “People in the real world dream about being a rockstar — it’s ubiquitous. But that dream is only really achieved through belief and friendship. And that’s the Star Wars part, too.” And fans on both sides of the world will recognize the voice of Boba Fett. While the English dub tapped Temuera Morrison to reprise the role, the original Japanese version utilizes Akio Kaneda, who has been performing the role of Fett in Japanese translations of other Star Wars films and animation, Shirasaki notes.

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Epic Stories. Tons of TV. Live Sports.

Ensuring storytellers had the leeway to explore their own Star Wars stories, directors and concept artists were presented with few guidelines at the outset. Ultimately, each anime short had to be translated from the original Japanese into English, creating two versions that had to convey the same intent.

Sometimes the work called for a specific one-to-one script translation. “‘I have a bad feeling about this’ is an iconic phrase in Japanese, too,” Shirasaki says. “But some of the Japanese dialog is really challenging to translate into a different language.” In a few instances, cultural touchpoints didn’t easily transfer to a global audience. “I grew up in Japan, so I understand Japanese context,” Shirasaki says, and she worked closely with British-born and bilingual production coordinator Katrina Minett to finesse certain aspects. “I really needed another eye to see the Japanese culture from a different perspective or give us some guidance. For example, in ‘Lop & Ochō’ the director really wanted to reference the Yakuza movie genre to show the relationship between father and daughter. So we had a long discussion on the best way to fulfill the director’s concept.” It also helped that the U.S.-based team was open to the creative process. “Lucasfilm was very open minded and respectful,” Shirasaki adds.

Lop concept art

Lopez admits she had some hesitation when the saw the early concept for Lop, a rabbit-like alien who gets adopted into a human family, but she knew to trust the collaborative partners, all noteworthy storytellers in their own right. “I was a little nervous when we first saw the character design. How is that going to be a serious character?” she recalls. Now, she adores the interpretation. “I just fell in love with that character and I don’t think anyone will bat an eye that she’s a bunny. You follow her journey. In the beginning, she’s orphaned and then the family takes her in and you feel so good. The sisters are best friends; the father loves her. And then, just by her need and drive to do the right thing for her family, for her community, for her [planet], she turns into such a badass.”

Master and apprentice

TRIGGER tackled two wildly divergent shorts that took pages from classic Star Wars tropes of teachers and twins. “What’s so cool about ‘The Twins’ is that it is there are so many instantly recognizable Star Wars elements that are inverted,” Waugh says, including Karre’s many lightsaber blades. “‘The Twins’ feels, to me, like a byproduct of remix culture…remixing the elements of Star Wars in a new way that is subverted but still feels, at its heart, like Star Wars, just flipped.

Dan and Tajin

The studio’s second short, “The Elder” is a case of art imitating life, a quiet story of a Jedi master and his student who must confront a hidden foe strong in the Force. The titular character has a demonic quality to his design, Shirasaki says, but the crux of the tale — about each generation passing on what they have learned — is a classic Star Wars mythos that mirrors director Masahiko Otsuka’s own life. “He started as a Padawan in the industry and now he’s more like a Jedi,” Shirasaki says, “having to guide the young animators in the next era.” The short is expected to be Otsuka’s last before retiring from the profession, Lopez notes.

It’s an essential tenet of Star Wars: the student must become the master and the master must eventually pass on. “It’s a quiet story,” Lopez adds, with touches that remind her of Kurosawa’s attention to detail. “It just warms my heart when [the Padawan, Dan,] turns to the three little kids and winks and then the three little kids wink back.”

F watching Asu and haru

Kinema Citrus’s “The Village Bride” pays homage to another great: Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Studio Ghibli. With a score from renowned anime composer Kevin Penkin, the brightly colored story incorporates one planet’s customs and grasp of the Force as well as the mystery of a Jedi student lost after Order 66. “I think that one rose to the top with a lot of us,” Lopez says. “We started seeing the storyboards and then seeing the color, it was like, ‘Wow, this is really special.’ It was so ethereal and it was that Ghibli style, the slow pacing. It’s amazing how much you get immersed in that story, even though it’s, you know, 12-14 minutes long.”

The sabersmith

The freeform approach allowed creators to introduce unexpected details, like the concept of a saber smith in “The Ninth Jedi,” a departure from the lore of Jedi Padawans constructing their own weapons as part of their training. The story reimagines the weapon of the Jedi as a lost relic, legendary but rarely seen, with a surprise twist. “[Visions gives us] the opportunity to explore ideas like that, but it’s also kind of a Luke Skywalker story,” Waugh says. “‘The Ninth Jedi’ does such amazing worldbuilding, it feels like that story has such a history that led into it. You can tell a million stories that led into that moment, right? And it feels like it is also just the beginning, like Episode IV. There’s a huge tapestry of stories ahead.”

A scene from "Akakiri"

The anthology ends with Science SARU’s “Akakiri,” a road movie from director Eunyoung Choi once again pulling in elements of The Hidden Fortress like the exiled princess, a character that also inspired the creation of Princess Leia. “The reason I think we’re imprinting on these characters so quickly, we really have to kind of take our metaphorical hats off to the creators, the directors and the studios who are really, really masters of their craft. There’s a ton of Star Wars shorthand there, but these are creators that are really fantastic at what they do and impressive to watch.

“Ultimately, we hope that Star Wars fans who don’t know the imaginative, amazing things that are happening from Japanese culture in Japanese animation, see this and fall in love with the medium like we have. This is a great introduction to all the amazing types of storytelling being done in anime. Conversely, if there are anime fans out there who don’t know Star Wars or don’t love Star Wars, I hope this brings them in, because all of these stories are truly Star Wars stories fundamentally. And I hope that through the lens of anime, they get to see all Star Wars has to offer.”

Star Wars: Visions is streaming now, exclusively on Disney+.

Associate Editor Kristin Baver is the author of the book Skywalker: A Family At War, host of This Week! In Star Wars, and an all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.

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