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Star Wars: Visions Producers James Waugh and Kanako Shirasaki

by Kelly Knox,

Seven renowned Japanese animation studios. Nine diverse and wildly creative stories. Star Wars. Combine it all together, and you have one incredible, international anime experience called Star Wars: Visions. All nine short films come to the Disney+ streaming service, in both English and Japanese, on September 22, 2021. ANN recently sat down with executive producer James Waugh and producer Kanako Shirasaki to talk about how the impressive project came together and what makes these anime tales feel unmistakably Star Wars.

How did this project get started?
Waugh: We were all big fans, is how it came about. We all loved anime. We loved the cinematic artistry that's been coming out of Japanese animation for so long. It's been an influence across the board at Lucasfilm. At Lucasfilm Animation, Dave Filoni is a huge anime fan; George [Lucas] was as well. Anybody who is working in some sort of cinema has to be, because of the really amazing talent that's coming out of there.

So we were fans, but how do you do a Star Wars anime? We can be fans all we want and use it on different shows as a reference point internally, and talk about “wouldn't that be cool,” but there wasn't really a way to do it about five years ago when we first started talking about it. Then Disney+ came along. That kind of revolutionized everything in a very liberating and exciting way for Star Wars. Suddenly we found ourselves asking questions about, “What does a Star Wars story mean? What types of things could we do that we've never done before?”

Ultimately it came to Kathy Kennedy. She loved anime and had a big role in bringing some of the [Studio Ghibli] films west. At a certain point she said, “Let's figure out how to do this.” So we very quickly got Kanako and Justin Leach at Qubic Pictures involved, and we started going out to studios whose work we wanted to find ways to partner with. From that, it was really crafting the Visions framework, making sure we could do it in a way that would empower their creative process that wasn't just us going to them for their aesthetic, but also going to them for their cultural point of view and the unique way these creators looked at stories.

What kind of direction were the creators and studios given?
Shirasaki: We asked them specifically to use their own characters and tell their own stories in this framework. We wanted to hear their own storytelling and designs. We were very lucky that each director had different ideas.
Waugh: I think the only other thing we said is that the foundation of good Star Wars storytelling is that it is character work and a story with real human themes. We encouraged them to lean into that type of work, but otherwise we said any element in the Star Wars galaxy that has ever influenced you is fair game to have a conversation about. Without that framework, I don't think we'd have gotten stories like “The Duel” or “The Twins.” We'd be trying to figure out where it makes sense on the timeline. We wanted to this to be more celebratory.

Do you remember your reaction the first time you saw some of the work, even in a rough state?
Shirasaki: Every studio had different pipelines to submit a storyboard. Every time we got one, we were like, “Oh, my God! This is great!” When you look at it in the script in just words, you have a different impression of the story, and then you have the designs, and the characters look great. Then you see the storyboard, and it's mind-blowing.

That was the first time we saw, for example, from “The Twins,” Studio Trigger wanted to use the twin Star Destroyers. We were like, “What! We never thought about this!” [laughs] We were surprised in a great way every single time we saw something from the studios in Japan.

"The Twins" by Studio Trigger

Waugh: The first thing we saw was Takashi Okazaki's designs for “The Duel.” It took one second for us to say, “This is amazing. We have to do this.” There was no hesitation there. The specificity of his Star Wars visual language, combined with the shogun era of Japan and samurai drama costuming, was just mind-blowing and something we have always wanted to see. Bandai has done things like that, but never to this level. That was an instant, “This project is going to be amazing.”

We got the [description] for “Tatooine Rhapsody” and that was a moment where I suddenly had second thoughts of, “Oh, no, a rock opera? What are we going here?” And then, as Kanako said, in every phase of the process you see new things. By the time we got the storyboard, it was clear it was going to be one of my favorite shorts we've ever done.

What do you think makes a story feel like Star Wars?
Shirasaki: All the creators are huge Star Wars fans. They understand George Lucas's vision and the Star Wars storytelling style. They also wanted to add their own style, and the way they combined these two together was in a nice balance.

Also, I think sound adds a Star Wars element and authenticity. Most of the lightsaber sound effects are from the sound library, and some of the studios did the sound mix together with Skywalker Sound. Some of the composers are also huge fans of John Williams, so they paid a huge homage to him. A lot of these elements add up to make you feel like this is a very Star Wars story.

There are also some wonderful nods to classic anime in the short films, from TO-B1's Astro Boy-like design to the Akira motorcycle slide in “The Ninth Jedi.” Is there anything else anime fans can look for?
Shirasaki: I hope they can find lots of Easter Eggs. And at the same time, I want everyone to find Star Wars references that creators have hidden around the story, too.

Waugh: I think it's peppered with inspiration from past work in live-action and animation. Each story has its own style and feeling.

How do these different shorts come together to appeal to a broader audience that isn't familiar with anime?
Waugh: That was part of our hope. Anime has exploded culturally, there's no doubt about it, but we're all fans and have been since before that happened. I do think there's a whole host of people who haven't given anime a shot or haven't really tried it, but are Star Wars fans. We wanted this anthology to be something that allows them to come for the Star Wars and then fall in love with anime and see the rich potential of the art form.

And conversely, for the few anime fans who are not Star Wars fans, or haven't come back to the galaxy in a long time, hopefully it's a great reminder or a starting point for how imaginative Star Wars can be, and how much potential is in its storytelling. And for the fans of both, I hope that this is a love letter to them, and that they'll see it and say, “This is what I've been waiting for!”

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