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To the Star Wars: Visions brain trust, Star Wars and anime were always destined to meet. After all, Japanese mythology and the films of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa were key influences on Star Wars creator, George Lucas. So to bring Visions to life, Lucasfilm partnered with seven Japanese anime studios, as well as 65 voice actors, and now, nine short films are available to stream on Disney+. For executive producer James Waugh, it was essential that each anime studio take the reins.
“The goal with Visions was always that we wanted this to be authentic Japanese anime,” Waugh tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We wanted it to be a true expression from these individual creators in a process that they’re used to. The last thing we wanted to do was be a Western studio that went with our ideas and then really leaned on them for their aesthetic. They were creating stories and concepts that could only come from their unique cultural perspective.”
Waugh also credits Lucasfilm president Kathleen “Kathy” Kennedy with Visions finally coming to fruition.
“[Kennedy is] also a huge animation fan and a huge anime fan, and was very instrumental in bringing a lot of [studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao] Miyazaki’s work to the West,” Waugh explains. “And so at a certain point, there was definitely a conversation of, ‘Everybody keeps talking about how much they like this. Let’s go meet with these people. Let’s figure out how we could do this.’ So it was definitely her impetus.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Waugh is joined by his fellow executive producers Josh Rimes and Jacqui Lopez, as well as producer Kanako Shirasaki. The group discusses the odds of Visions elements crossing over into live action and which characters they’d most like to see in that form.
So who got that first call from Kathy Kennedy to fuse Star Wars and anime?
James Waugh: I would say it was a mutual set of calls. We, at Lucasfilm, have been big fans of the form for a long time, and obviously, it’s inspired a lot of what we’ve done. It’s sort of a shorthand. In story meetings sometimes, you’re referencing shows or films that you know that have been influential. So we were talking about it for a long time and wanted to find a way to do it. But we were very much in a feature strategy at the time, so finding a way to do a Star Wars anime project that was authentic, we really weren’t sure. Then Disney+ came along and with Disney+, we were sort of reevaluating what “A Star Wars Story” could be and what type of Star Wars storytelling could be explored. Even shorts were all new. So the platform allowed for that, and Kathy had known that we were all big fans for a long time. She’s also a huge animation fan and a huge anime fan, and was very instrumental in bringing a lot of Miyazaki’s work to the West. And so at a certain point, there was definitely a conversation of, “Everybody keeps talking about how much they like this. Let’s go meet with these people. Let’s figure out how we could do this.” So it was definitely her impetus. Then we ended up working with Qubic Pictures and Josh [Rimes] and Jacqui [Lopez], and we started taking pitches from studios that we really admired.
For the uninitiated, what makes Star Wars and anime such an ideal fit?
Josh Rimes: I think it comes from that DNA of the old Akira Kurosawa films. It’s those films that George discovered growing up and in his USC day that just really inspired him. The Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo. There is so much of that DNA along with his fandom of World War II movies, Westerns and Flash Gordon that really went into the pot of all the ingredients that made Star Wars what it is.
Jacqui Lopez: For me, I think it’s world-building and the hero’s journey. Most of the anime I’ve been watching is all about a different universe. You suspend your belief very easily in anime, and you have a set of rules that can be crazy rules. But in the end, there’s so much heart in it, and there’s a lot about doing the right thing for the underdog and helping people. And then it’s just the iconography. The style lends itself so well to Star Wars. So much of the fan art that we’ve seen blends those two, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s perfect.” And even the Bandai toys from a while back that had the samurai Stormtroopers. It just feels like it was meant to happen and I’m sorry it just took so long. (Laughs.)
Waugh: Also, both of these are just highly cinematic mediums, and really, the visual language is so much of its success. And so that bombast and exaggeration that you find in anime, you also find in the best of Star Wars.
Kanako Shirasaki: The core of a Star Wars story is about family, friends, and what you believe in. And that’s very universal in any storytelling, which also echoes in Japanese animations. Many of them are about bettering yourself or helping others or a story of family, so these two have lots of things in common. And lots of Japanese creators are heavily influenced by Star Wars. It’s really huge, iconic content for many Japanese people. So they already like Star Wars very much, and it’s just a great marriage between these two.
Lopez: Especially if you think about the importance of the lightsaber in Star Wars versus the importance of a katana in any of the samurai movies. It definitely has some parallel things happening.
We now live in a world where animated Star Wars characters are appearing in live action. Could elements from Visions also make the leap? Has anyone explicitly ruled that out or deemed it an impossibility?
Lopez: Never say never. (Laughs.)
Waugh: Nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it. There are no plans right now, just to be completely transparent. That’s not the intention. That said, I think every great piece of Star Wars content influences future creators, and we see that with what you just noticed with characters from animation finding their way in live action or characters from the old EU appearing in threads of Star Wars. The Dark Troopers [The Mandalorian season two] were from a video game in the ’90s. Great Star Wars ideas are like, “Goonies never die.” (Laughs.) These things will last forever.
Well, in the interest of getting ahead of ourselves, which Visions character would you like to see in live action? To give you some time to think, I’m going to say that Karen Fukahara’s character would be my choice.
Rimes: She’s amazing.
Lopez: Yeah, she is.
Rimes: Oh man, it’s such an embarrassment of riches. I want to go to Tatooine and listen to Star Waver play a concert.
Shirasaki: I would love to see Boatman droids. (Laughs.) A side story from that old droid, yeah.
Lopez: That’s a hard one. I love Lop. I love her character and who she turns out to be and her strength. But I would have a hard time imagining what that would look like in live-action, a bunny. So I think it would be Kara. I think the heroine in “The Ninth Jedi” would be an amazing character in live-action.
“Lop and Ocho” was actually my favorite episode.
Lopez: Yeah, that one just came out of nowhere. I mean, it took over all of us. It was amazing.
Waugh: I was going to be redundant and say the same thing that Josh said about being at a Star Waver concert. But I’m just going to own it: I want to see Lop in live action.
Waugh: I think ILM could do it.
Lopez: That’s true.
Waugh: I want a bunny.
Rimes: A Lepi, right? Not a bunny, come on.
Waugh, Rimes, Lopez and Shirasaki: (Laugh.)
Did you bring the treatments or scripts to these animators and let them run wild? Or did they contribute to the writing of the stories they’d be telling?
Rimes: They were involved. We had initial discussions, but we left it pretty wide open and had them come back with short ideas or prompts and a piece of art. And that’s really how the conversation began. So all of these stories are so authentic to these creators, and I think you see them in the shorts. Even “Lop and Ocho,” for example, [Geno Studio] wanted to explore the idea of wabi-sabi, which is a Japanese term and is really similar to Star Wars. It’s about balance, nature and technology, and finding that zen-like middle, which has so many echoes with Star Wars, the light side and dark side and balance. So we were really lucky to get some really authentic Japanese points of view that we could then work with as they developed their stories.
Lopez: Yeah, and their passion really came out that way because it was their ideas and their thoughts of what Star Wars meant to them growing up in Japan. So I think that the authenticity really shows through.
Waugh: That’s it, and I think that’s really important to say. The goal with Visions was always that we wanted this to be authentic Japanese anime. We wanted it to be a true expression from these individual creators in a process that they’re used to. The last thing we wanted to do was be a Western studio that went with our ideas and then really leaned on them for their aesthetic. We were really hoping that it worked the other way. They were creating stories and concepts that could only come from their unique cultural perspective. And so that’s why we worked really hard to crack that Visions framework, that there could be an expression of Star Wars that was more celebratory. But these were all their stories.
The What If…? team had to revise some storylines since they inadvertently overlapped with the live-action MCU’s plans. Did anything similar happen in your case?
Rimes, Shirasaki and Waugh: No. (Laughs.)
Well, it sounded like a good question.
Lopez: Maybe a name. I think there were names we had to change, right?
Waugh: There was a name, yeah, but we work so closely with live action. I mean, we really do manage Star Wars in a very holistic way. I know what’s going on in live action and they know what’s going on with animation. We’re building it together. Even though this is a different expression than what they’re doing, I don’t see that happening at Lucasfilm.
You hired some really impressive voice actors. How did you approach voice casting?
Shirasaki: The Japanese cast is totally the studios and directors’ creative decisions. In a way, we’re so lucky to have a great cast, including Masako Nozawa, who has been the voice for Goku from Dragon Ball Z for the entire time. So you can hear some iconic voices in the Japanese original version.
Rimes: And with the English dub, it was really different for us. In making animations for the Western style, we do voice records really early. We find our casts early on and sometimes board to that and animate to that. But it’s done much differently for anime production, so we were very up against timelines. As soon as the Japanese dubs came in, we were fast at work on updating scripts and finding voice actors. We really took big swings, and we took a lot of inspiration from what Kathy did on the Miyazaki films by going out to some really high-level talent and also a lot of AAPI talent. We went out to a lot of Japanese-American voiceover actors, like George Takei and Karen Fukuhara, who you mentioned. It was really important to us to get a nice diverse group of fun talent and talent we’ve worked with before in Star Wars. There were some folks like Andrew Kishino and Christopher Sean.
Lopez: Bobby Moynihan.
Rimes: Bobby Moynihan, of course.
Lopez: Yeah, it was also really fun to see what cast members loved Star Wars and loved anime. As soon as we said, “anime Star Wars,” there were some that were like, “Yes, I’m in.” (Laughs.) So that was really fun, too.
Waugh: Joseph Gordon-Levitt was one.
Josh, are you responsible for Alison Brie given the BoJack Horseman connection?
Rimes: (Laughs.) I worked on the first couple seasons of Bojack Horseman, but no, I’ve got to give a ton of credit to our casting manager, Lindsay Halper, who was just a rockstar when casting this. We would all get together and throw out names, but day to day, she is talking to the different voiceover agents out there and really finding folks that are interested in Star Wars. She would talk to people we’ve worked with before and to people that might be new to us. And Alison sort of put up her hand. I think she was busy working overseas, but the timing was just right where we were looking to record “The Twins.” And she was amazing. She really brought her pipes for that role. There’s a lot of yelling and screaming, but she was great.
Waugh: Yeah, Lindsay has been an absolute hero and champion through this whole project in all honesty.
Lopez: Yeah, we gave her zero time to do it, so it was pretty amazing. And like Josh said, because the lip sync is locked at the very, very end in anime, that really put us in a little three-month window there.
Rimes: And we’re casting nine separate shows, if you look at it.
Lopez: Yeah, it was 65 actors, I think.
Kyber crystals are a common thread in a lot of these episodes. Is there any particular reason for that, or is it just pure coincidence?
Rimes: I think it’s a coincidence. Again, it really came from the cultural perspective of the studios. To what Jacqui said before, there’s something very special to the idea of the ancient samurai in that culture and what a katana blade, sword, or family heirloom mean to the Japanese culture from generation to generation. It just really dovetails and fits really perfectly within Star Wars.
Do you get the impression that Star Wars is going to keep making bold choices a la Visions? Does Disney+ give Lucasfilm more latitude to take these big swings?
Waugh: Yes, the way it’s managed now is that we see Disney+ as an amazing platform opportunity that has really redefined how we’re looking at Star Wars and what opportunities could present themselves for Star Wars. So I hope you will keep seeing us be as bold as possible and do really interesting things like this. I’m glad to hear you put it that way because I think this is a byproduct. We probably wouldn’t have been able to do this without Disney+, but the future is really bright because there’s a lot of great things to do with Star Wars that are completely unexpected.
Whether it’s a personal connection or just sheer enjoyment, what episode are you most excited for people to see?
Shirasaki: Which child is my favorite? (Laughs.) Ah, it’s so hard. Well, I’ll say the first one that came up in my mind was “Akakiri.” It’s a very interesting story, and it has two very funny sidekicks. I also want people to hear the music as well because it features a drum called tambora, which is very unique from other shorts. So I hope people enjoy that.
Lopez: It changes from month to month, and it has since the beginning. But I think that “Lop and Ocho” has stolen my heart. That character is so real and meaningful to me. The battle that she goes after and the strength that she shows in that story is just amazing and so heartfelt.
Rimes: I think “The Village Bride” and “The Ninth Jedi” continue to capture my imagination. “The Village Bride,” the music’s amazing. The colors, it just immerses you. It’s just such a beautiful tone poem. And “The Ninth Jedi,” they really leaned into the DNA of Star Wars, but twisted it up in such an interesting way with how they depict lightsabers. But the score is so beautiful and it’s very evocative to John Williams. And Kara (Kimiko Glenn), our lead character is just someone you really want to root for in the same way you rooted for Rey or Luke Skywalker. So those ones are fantastic.
Lopez: I’m going to be Kara for Halloween. I decided last minute. (Laughs.)
The music in “The Village Bride” is really something else.
Shirasaki: It’s just stunning.
Rimes: [Composer] Kevin Penkin, he’s good.
Lopez: Kevin Penkin, yeah. And just the vocals. We don’t have a lot of vocals in Star Wars music, so it was interesting to see how well that came in.
Shirasaki: He features some Japanese traditional instruments as well, so I hope people enjoy that combination and compilation with Western and Eastern instruments.
I can’t let you off the hook, James.
Waugh: I have a different favorite on different days, and I think the reason is because we intentionally picked studios that were completely different from each other. From the start, we wanted to make sure that this was an example of the full spectrum of storytelling types and tone that’s found in the medium of anime. There’s definitely a Western perspective of what anime is, and the truth is that it’s so much more varied than that. So when I’m in a more whimsical mood or just a heartfelt mood, “The Village Bride” blows me away. But usually, I am in a rock-and-roll mood, so [“Tatooine Rhapsody”] all the way. I can’t wait to see your Star Waver TikToks.
Waugh, Rimes, Lopez and Shirasaki: (Laugh.)
Waugh: We can hope.
Is a second batch of shorts in the cards someday?
Lopez: That’s a great idea! (Laughs.)
Waugh: That is a great idea. We want to keep doing bold things, so fingers crossed.
Star Wars: Visions is now streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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