When Masi Oka was first approached to provide a voice for “Star Wars: Visions” — Lucasfilm’s sensational new anthology series for Disney Plus that presents nine “Star Wars” shorts by seven Japanese anime studios — it did not take much to convince the actor to say yes. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the first movie Oka ever saw in theaters. It was the first VHS tape he ever purchased. His first job out of college was at Industrial Light and Magic, and some of his earliest credits are as a visual effects artist on George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels.
“My whole career was shaped by ‘Star Wars,'” Oka says. As an actor, he’d held out hope that he might land a role in Disney’s live-action “Star Wars” sequels, or on the Disney Plus series “The Mandalorian.” So by the time he heard about “Visions,” he was primed.
“I was told it was ‘Star Wars’ and they were trying to do something with anime,” he says with a huge smile. “I didn’t need to know about anything else. Count me in.”
“Star Wars: Visions” is no less than the most creatively ambitious project in the “Star Wars” franchise since Lucas first transported moviegoers to a galaxy far, far away 44 years ago. Each animated short — ranging from 22 to 13 minutes in length — takes a radically unique narrative and aesthetic approach to the “Star Wars” universe: Only one episode features any familiar characters, several step outside of established “Star Wars” canon, and all of them push the visual boundaries of the franchise while still remaining innately “Star Wars.”
And yet, it turns out that for a long time, all Oka could know about the project was that Lucasfilm was “trying to do something” with “Star Wars” and anime.
The seeds of “Visions” first sprouted around the release of 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” in a series of meetings with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy about how to expand the “Star Wars” universe. Between the direct inspiration Lucas drew for “Star Wars” from the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, the success of the “Clone Wars” animated series, and the vast ecosystem of anime-inspired “Star Wars” fan art on the internet, telling a “Star Wars” story through the lens of anime seemed like a no brainer.
“This has been something that we wanted to do forever,” says executive producer James Waugh, who also serves as Lucasfilm’s vice president of franchise content and strategy. “We all have that vernacular of referencing different movies and scenes [from anime]. I think the question was how do you do that with ‘Star Wars’ in the right way?”
One of the biggest sticking points was just how Lucasfilm should go about incorporating anime into the world of “Star Wars.” The clearest path to drawing a “Star Wars”-sized audience would be an anime feature film or animated series, but those kinds of projects would be tied to a single aesthetic that would by necessity leave behind the vast spectrum of visual and narrative approaches in anime.
“We wanted this to be a kind of survey of all the nuance and tones and textures of anime,” Waugh says. “We didn’t want this to be one note, because I think there’s an expectation of what anime is versus, you know, truly the diverse array of storytelling that is done in the medium.”
Another hurdle was the sticky issue of how to make a “Star Wars” anime project while remaining within “Star Wars” canon. “But if we have to stay in canon, we’re going to be completely directing it,” says executive producer Jacqui Lopez, vice president of production at Lucasfilm Animation.
The dilemma stalled any progress, leaving “‘Star Wars,’ with anime” as a tantalizing idea floating through the halls of Lucasfilm without any home — until Disney’s nascent streaming service walked in the door.
“It took Disney Plus, really, to give us the opportunity for a platform that changed the way we were thinking about ‘Star Wars’ storytelling,” Waugh says. “Then it was just a matter of how do we do it in a way that was going to be as authentic as possible, and really let the studios own the storytelling as unique expressions of ‘Star Wars’ — which we just hadn’t explored within the creative strategy we were working through at the time. That’s what unlocked the ‘Visions’ framework. We really wanted to have something that allowed us to lean into the medium in a more celebratory way.”
With the relative freedom afforded by Disney Plus, and a desire to cast as wide a net as possible, Lucasfilm seized on the idea of recruiting a suite of anime studios — each with their own visual specialities and storytelling interests — to make a series of one-off short films. Starting in early 2020, Lucasfilm partnered with Qubic Pictures, a production company that specializes in bridging anime projects between Japan and the U.S., to find the right anime studios in Japan for the project, sort through their pitches, and develop their final ideas into finished films.
“I had always thought that ‘Star Wars’ and anime fit together, but I wasn’t quite sure until I actually saw it in the finished form,” says co-executive producer Justin Leach, CEO and founder of Qubic. “It was so exciting to see how naturally the two fit together.”
“I think Star Wars has a very special place in Japanese people’s hearts,” added producer Kanako Shirasaki, head of production at Qubic. “Creators in Japan, you can feel their love for ‘Star Wars’ and George Lucas from every single shot.”
Some studios submitted a single pitch for consideration, while others pitched several ideas. Then Lucasfilm and Qubic sorted through how to create the widest assortment of approaches to achieve their desire for as comprehensive a survey of anime as possible.
“We purposefully tried to go after different styles,” Lopez says. “We went to each studio thinking, ‘Okay, we have studios that do action. Now let’s get heart. Now let’s get whimsy.’ We really tried to curate it that way.”
One thing Lucasfilm did not do, however, was be a stickler about “Star Wars” canon — either way. If a studio wanted to step far outside the established story — like Trigger did with “The Twins,” about a pair of Sith siblings genetically engineered to keep the Empire in power — Lucasfilm gave its blessing. If a studio hoped to draw from existing characters — like Studio Colorido’s “Tatooine Rhapsody,” about a rag-tag rock band that runs afoul of Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt — Lucasfilm stepped in with their help and expertise, too.
“We wanted to make sure that they got to tell their human story first,” Waugh says. “We never said it should be here or there. We wanted it to be a pretty blank canvass. Are these things part of the overall saga? I think some of them are. Things like ‘The Twins’ clearly are an amazing remix celebration of ‘Star Wars.'”
While each short takes on its own unique flavor, they all share a preoccupation with one of the singular objects within the “Star Wars” franchise: the lightsaber, as a totem of power, symbol of familial tradition, or literal catalyst for the short’s central story. It’s so striking that it could seem as if Lucasfilm and Qubic decided to use the lightsaber as a kind of unifying motif for “Visions.”
Nope. “It just happened to be that way,” Shirasaki says with a shrug. “It’s a happy coincidence.”
“Lots of Japanese people grew up playing chanbara — it’s just like you roll up a newspaper and play like a samurai,” she adds. “All these creators are huge fans of ‘Star Wars,’ so I’m sure they really wanted to use the most iconic props of the series.”
The short most focused on lightsabers, Production I.G’s “The Ninth Jedi,” initially started as two shorts set in an era when the ancient weapon is so scarce, it’s practically a legend. One short focused on a father and daughter working to create lightsabers in hopes that the Jedi will return to wield them, the other was set among a group of Force-sensitive warriors drawn together with the promise that they could, in fact, get their hands on a lightsaber. The stories fit together so naturally that Lucasfilm and Qubic suggested combining them.
“Ultimately, we saw the opportunity to say let’s make sure they can run with this because clearly there’s a bigger vision here than breaking this into those slices,” Waugh says.
“The Ninth Jedi” is also Oka’s episode; he plays one of the potential Jedi awaiting a lightsaber from the nearby planet. Like any English-language voice actor in an anime project, Oka recorded his dialogue after the short was finished and animated to fit the performance of his character’s original Japanese actor. Oka’s job was to watch the completed version and try his best to match the movement of his character’s mouth to his dialogue.
Born and raised as a young child in Japan before his family moved to America, Oka had the advantage of innately understanding the original Japanese performance.
“Because I speak Japanese fluently, I understand what they’re saying and where the inflections are and where the emphasis is and what tone it is,” Oka says.
The English language cast of “Visions” runs the gamut of all-Asian actors for shorts like “The Duel” (with Brian Tee and Lucy Liu) and “The Village Bride” (with Karen Kukuhara and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to more ethnically varied casts like “The Elder” (with David Harbour, Jordan Fisher, and James Hong) and “The Twins” (with Neil Patrick Harris and Alison Brie).
If a character was clearly drawn to be Japanese or from Japanese culture, the producers looked for actors who also fit that description. “If the character was more kind of the ‘Star Wars’ undefined ethnicity, then we were much more agile and really looked for the best voice talent,” says Waugh. “Look, our hope is that people watch the Japanese original version as well. That is what inspired the casting selection. That’s where it all started. And that was the director’s vision for how those characters should be rendered.”
For Oka, being a part of a “Star Wars” project that so directly reflected his own cultural background was not only “a dream come true,” but the fulfillment of the promise of what “Star Wars” meant to him as a child.
“To see anime and ‘Star Wars,’ two huge influences in my life that shaped who I am today, come together, it’s just my mind couldn’t handle it for a while. The ‘Star Wars’ universe has unlimited potential and unlimited creativity,” he says. “It could go anywhere it wants. You can always be surprised with something new.”
In that spirit, “The Ninth Jedi” is also one of several “Visions” shorts that all but heralds the possibility for future stories. When asked if Lucasfilm is actively working on seeing that possibility through and continuing the stories within “Visions,” Waugh stares at his Zoom camera for a good few seconds with an inscrutable smile.
“That’s a great idea,” he says finally. “There are definitely more stories. So it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. It’s nothing that we actually have in active production at the moment.”
Oka, naturally, would love to see his character return — and then some.
“I’d love to see it as a full series!” he says with a laugh. “A movie! Maybe a live-action film! A full franchise! Video games! Why not?!”