Review – Star Wars: Visions

Star Wars: Visions is an incredible creative treasure trove and probably the single most-exciting and innovative addition to the franchise since…I can’t even say when, but certainly at least since I’ve been a fan. The easiest comparison point I can make isn’t even a work of fiction, exactly, but the West End Games release of the Star Wars roleplaying game, before my time as a fan. That opened the galaxy up wildly, inviting players to take on new roles and tell their own stories while providing a great deal of new lore and settings and story prompts. In the same way, Visions is refreshingly free from the intertangled core relationships between familiar characters that fill most of Star Wars content (brief appearances by Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt in a single episode of this anthology notwithstanding). But more than that, it feels free from the stranglehold of canon itself. You can choose to align the stories to the larger canon galaxy if you want, or imagine them in alternative universes, but they’re doing their own thing that’s not hung up on continuity or interconnected storytelling. It’s the freedom of creative energy from many creators also found in A Certain Point of View, but with a complete detachment from the films. It’s beautiful and inspiring.

Visions is, of course, an anthology series from different anime studios with very distinctive styles. For someone familiar with anime broadly and a fan of certain works, but lacking some of the cultural touchstones of a true fan (and I’d fall into this casual-fan category), you’ll surely recognize some influences, homages, and familiar styles. I’d be fascinated to know what a heavy anime fan made of the nine unique shorts, though. Just as excitingly, I think this is a great jumping-off point for someone with little to no familiarity with anime as a medium, as it showcases a wide range of art and animation styles, themes, and storytelling methods. Each episode feels quite unique.

It’s easy to binge all nine episodes, as I did; they’re all fairly short and intensely watchable. I can imagine easily re-watching many of these episodes again and again, as well. Every episode feels crafted by an auteur with a unique point of view and intent, and as a result, they’re all worth watching, although I certainly favored some over others. I expect that we’ll see a lot of officially licensed works, fan fiction, and analytical essays exploring the dimensions of each and every one of these episodes over time. I know I’d certainly like to see more, especially of my favorite stories of this batch, and basically every episode has some dangling plot threads that could be woven into follow-up chapters.

Speaking of favorites, there were a few knock-outs for me: “The Duel,” a story of a wandering Ronin who stumbles onto a village besieged by a group of bandits (lovingly rendered like an old black-and-white film with heavy nods to Akira Kurosawa, with splashes of color for lasers and lightsabers), from studio Kamikaze Douga; “The Ninth Jedi,” set in a distant future in which the Jedi have disappeared from the galaxy, where the daughter of a man who’s rediscovered the techniques behind crafting lightsabers must do her part to renew the Order, from Production I.G; and “The Elder,” showcasing a Master/Padawan team during the height of the Old Republic who stumble upon a powerful Dark Sider in the Outer Rim, from Trigger.

While those were the ones I most loved, virtually every episode had some charming character, intriguing idea, or gorgeous aesthetic. “Tatooine Rhapsody,” from Studio Colorido, managed to combine a band story, a gangster story, a Jedi in the Dark Times plot, and one really oddball punk Hutt. “The Village Bride,” from Kinema Citrus, offered another interesting alternative Force tradition and provided an understated redemption narrative for the Jedi exile protagonist that left a lot of intriguing mystery. “T0-B1,” from Science Saru, mixed a quirky, silly tone with some rather dark narrative and a classic animation style with themes that echoed Astro Boy, Mega Man, and Pinnochio–and it offers up a droid that may just be able to feel the Force, or at least who truly understands the concepts of the Force and finds a way of life more authentic to the Jedi way than the dreams of adventure he started off with. “Lop and Ochō,” from Geno Studio, has some truly gorgeous visuals and a strong emotional heart about complicated family dynamics, although the narrative itself is way too rushed and confused, deserving much more room to breathe and grow. “Akakiri,” from Science Saru, feels largely like an even more explicit remake of The Hidden Fortress than A New Hope, with a dash of Obi-Wan’s complicated history with Satine thrown in, up until its very dark twist ending, an ending that perhaps won’t feel so entirely surprising given how George Lucas tended to treat dreams and prophecy in his films–but this, too, is a whole lot of narrative that feels a tad rushed, or maybe ended too early, right when the story gets interesting. The only one I didn’t really like was “The Twins,” from studio Trigger just like “The Elder”; this story, rather than the brooding and tense investigation with a quietly dynamic mentor-student relationship at the core of “The Elder,” was exposition-heavy, flashy and over-the-top, heavy-handed with its ideas, and somewhat absurd in the excesses of its stylized action sequences, although my wife was a fan and could probably explain its charms quite well. There’s something for everyone in this set, and each story will appeal to someone, truly.

There’s a lot more that I could say about each episode. Like I said earlier, I expect there will be a lot of essays exploring elements of every episode, after all, and I think the episodes are worth that level of intense consideration. But I’ll leave this as a broad initial reaction: this was some incredible television, all the more remarkable because I’d felt rather indifferent about it until the opening scene of that very first episode. This is good Star Wars and good animation, well worth the viewing.

And yes, now I’m really stoked for Emma Mieko Candon’s Ronin, a novel that will expand on the world of “The Duel”; I’m sure we’ll see many more works that do similar for the other stories–or, at least, I really hope so.

TCW 7.9: “Old Friends Not Forgotten”

What a rousing start to the Siege of Mandalore arc! From the opening title sequence to the ending cliffhanger, this was another great episode of television–at 30 minutes, still short, compared to the 50-to-60-minute standard of bingeable dramas nowadays, but a little longer than the typical Clone Wars episode or comparable cartoon.

I’m sure every fan delighted in the use of the old Lucasfilm logo and classic film scores. There are also a number of great nods to earlier episodes of The Clone Wars, and to the larger franchise. A particularly great moment for me happens early on, when Anakin uses a faked surrender to secure the capture of a critical bridge–a plot point that echoes Obi-Wan’s delaying deception from the series’ introductory movie.

This episode also lets Ahsoka put Anakin and Obi-Wan to task when she’s reunited with them. She’s clearly learned from her experiences among non-Jedi, and the politicking and cultivated distance from the vulnerable now frustrate her. Obi-Wan continues to act like a model Jedi, but in distancing himself from Mandalore, in trying to respect Satine’s fervent defense of neutrality and pacifism, Obi-Wan presents as weak to his young friend, as worrying more about what the Council will think than what is right. And frankly, I think Obi-Wan’s concerns are justified, but I understand Ahsoka’s perspective, shaped by Anakin’s impulsive, action-oriented persona and further defined by her exposure to the galaxy’s citizens who struggle and suffer because of the Jedi’s neglect of their concerns.

When Obi-Wan and Anakin get called off near the end to rescue Palpatine, Ahsoka gets in a brutal jab at Kenobi. He’s not going to help the people of Coruscant, she says; instead, he’s going because the Chancellor needs help. Obi-Wan says that’s not fair, but Ahsoka retorts that she wasn’t trying to be fair. When this arc is over, I’ll be very interested to rewatch Revenge of the Sith, and I can’t help but think already about how this exchange must color Obi-Wan’s perspective throughout the events of the film. By the end of Revenge, he’s failed his best friend, the Jedi Order, the Republic…and this young self-exile, too. It’s a lot for him to carry.

Ahsoka and Anakin also had a touching farewell, points of which brought me near to tears. Is this truly the last moment they ever had together (until years after he becomes Vader)? While they ended on good terms, will Ahsoka regret choosing to be more distant? It’s very Jedi-like of her to be willing to let go of a friendship, but her attitude toward him, while grateful and respectful, could make him feel that he’s already lost her. It’s not Ahsoka’s problem, but it’s still likely to have had an impact.

If I had a criticism, it would be that the show expects us to understand the Maul situation better than is perhaps warranted. Even having recently finished a rewatch of the earlier seasons, enough weeks have passed with the steady drip of new episodes that I don’t have a crystal-clear recall of what happened at the end of Maul’s reign over Mandalore. And I had read the Dark Horse comic chronicling what happened to Maul after Sidious reclaimed him, but that’s been even farther in the past. While many of the people watching this new season are probably hardcore fans, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are a lot of new viewers, hopping on via access to Disney+. I can’t be the only one straining to recall details, and some might be scratching their heads in pure confusion. Of course, the show has always played rather light with exposition and connective tissue–think of Admiral Trench’s reappearances, or what exactly was going on with Mother Talzin, or even how exactly Maul came back the first time. But just because it’s a feature of the show to avoid clearly explaining developments between episodes or seasons doesn’t make it a good feature. While there was a lot happening, I was surprised that the creators couldn’t take time to provide even a couple of sentences of dialogue to explain just how Maul ended up back in control of Mandalore. Maybe we’ll get that later. Either way, the little bit of confusion this caused me doesn’t take much away from an otherwise great episode.

TCW 7.4: “Unfinished Business”

This was another episode in which I lost it over a single, character-defining line:

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Over the course of The Clone Wars, we saw Anakin come to embrace his role as war hero. Violence became the easy answer. An early example of that can be found in “Voyage of Temptation” (season 2, episode 13): Obi-Wan and Satine hesitate to stop a traitor, saboteur, and terrorist sympathizer as he taunts their noble ideals. The villain even mockingly asks, “Who will strike first and brand themselves a cold-blooded killer?” At that point, Anakin handily shows up to stab him in the back. Under the disapproving gaze of Obi-Wan, Anakin retorts, “What? He was going to blow up the ship.” Then, in the season three Citadel arc (episodes 18-20), Anakin is introduced to Tarkin, who challenges him with the idea that the “Jedi Code prevents them from going far enough to achieve victory, to do whatever it takes to win,” which Anakin finds he agrees with based on his own wartime experiences (season 3, episode 19, “Counterattack”).

Following Ahsoka’s departure from the Jedi Order, Anakin is left reeling, doubting more than ever his relationship with the Order and the inherent rightness of its ways. In “Unfinished Business,” Anakin is close to unhinged, willing to do anything at all to achieve victory. Even though his actions are intended to save lives, it’s clear enough that the Dark Side already has a strong hold on him. And yet he gets results, and he remains a hero to the Jedi and the Republic, rewarded for the lengths he’ll go to. At this point, Anakin sees the virtues of the Jedi as weaknesses, hindrances. It’s not a far moral step from what he does to Trench to his disarming and beheading of Dooku. Another reminder that The Clone Wars did (and still does) an excellent job of deepening the characters and better illustrating their moral journeys from Attack of the Clones to Revenge of the Sith!

 

TCW 7.2: “A Distant Echo”

I have a very narrow reaction to this latest episode. There is plenty to say if I wanted: it’s a beautiful, emotionally powerful episode with a fun adventure/thriller plot that ends in a heartbreaking revelation. It’s good Star Wars and good storytelling. And it looks and sounds great throughout. But the only thing I really want to say is, bless The Clone Wars for coming back, if only for this moment:

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It was always easy enough to read in Attack of the Clones that Obi-Wan knew about how Anakin felt for Padmé. And of course Obi-Wan deduces that Anakin is the father of the unborn child(ren) Padmé is carrying in Revenge of the Sith. But I love how The Clone Wars has teased out how much Obi-Wan knew, how much he understands Anakin’s affection for Padmé and how that could pull on his loyalty to the Jedi Code. Obi-Wan had experienced that competition himself with Satine Kryze. Obi-Wan and Anakin often have veiled conversations about Anakin’s feelings, even though Anakin insists on hiding the truth, even though Obi-Wan refuses to admit how much he knows, or suspects. This little moment in “A Distant Echo,” so close to the events of Revenge of the Sith, is such a delightful exchange. Obi-Wan comes as close as he probably ever was able to in laying out all he knew. And even in this moment, he doesn’t condemn Anakin or force the conversation. And Anakin’s look back to Obi-Wan…

Look, a lot of people don’t like Revenge of the Sith. And like all Star Wars, it’s not perfect. But the fraying of relationships between Anakin on one side and Obi-Wan and Padmé on the other has always twisted at my heartstrings. And moments like this just add further emotional nuance and dramatic irony. The Clone Wars gave so much depth to the prequel trilogy and to the Star Wars galaxy as a whole. I’m glad to see that it came back firing on all cylinders, ready to continue revising and refreshing our understanding of that galaxy and the characters who populate it.