The new Disney+ anthology series, Star Wars: Visions, is the half-century-old franchise’s first straight-up anime project. Arguably, it’s been a long time coming. Back in 1977, George Lucas
stole borrowed the narrative DNA of the original Star Wars from the heart of Japanese cinema: the jidaigeki story of The Hidden Fortress, directed by the incomparable Akira Kurasawa. The Jedi themselves owe much to samurai culture in everything from their code of honor and discipline (a la the bushido code) to robes reminiscent of the formal kamishimo. All to say: while Star Wars has nodded to these appropriations in various ways, there has never been an event quite like Visions: where seven Japanese anime studios were handed the keys to the Star Wars universe.
If Visions has gotten you intrigued about anime, but don’t know quite where to begin, here are a few suggestions on how to jump from a few of our favorite of the Visions episodes into the broader work of the creators involved.
“Tatooine Rhapsody” by Studio Colorido
If you enjoyed Studio Colorido’s entry in the Visions anthology, you should definitely check out Penguin Highway. A feature film from Studio Colorido, Penguin Highway is a surreal and affecting adaptation of a beloved sci-fi novel. After penguins start to appear in his suburb far from the sea, 4th grade genius Aoyama becomes intent on figuring out what’s up. Aoyama must untangle the mystery of these peculiar penguins–and how they are connected to the new dental technician that Aoyama has an outsized crush on. This delightful film is a good coming of age story suitable for early teens.
You might also check out another Studio Colordio project, A Whisker Away. In this curious blend of slice-of-life school years and magical, middle-schooler Miyo Sasaki finds a mask that allows her to transform into a cat to capture the attention of her classmate, Hinode.
“The Ninth Jedi” by Production I.G.
Production I.G. has been making a range of anime projects for the past thirty years. If you liked The Ninth Jedi, then we’ve got two recommendations for you.
The 14+ anime series FLCL (streaming on Hulu) is an absolute trip: fun, wacky, and frenetic. The zaniness kicks off when sixth grader Naota Nandaba is knocked-over by a pink-haired Vespa-driving maniac. She then decides to knock him over the head with her bass guitar–causing, of course, a robot to be born out of the horn-like bump on his head. The six-episode story spins out wonderfully and strangely from there. Regarded as a landmark for experimental and abstract anime, FLCL has inspired many other animated series, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender–which is a great intro to anime-styles for your 7+ kids.To be clear, Production I.G. did not create Avatar, and there is a fair amount of debate as to whether Avatar actually is anime, mostly because it was American-made.
If you’re ready to dive into the real deep-end of the sci-fi waters of anime, you’ve gotta check out Production I.G.’s Ghost in the Shell. A high-water mark in anime filmmaking, Ghost in the Shell is a groundbreaking cyberpunk neo-noir story about a cyborg hunting down a dangerous hacker, the Puppet Master. By turns visually stunning, violent, and philosophically thought-provoking, Production I.G.’s 1995 film is not to be missed, but it’s 100 percent only for adults, or maybe your 17-year-olds kids. Still, en then, maybe with some parental guidance.
“T0-B1” by Science SARU
“T0-B1” took the Star Wars world of droids into wonderfully new territory for the franchise. But “T0-B1” is also a great doorway into the Japanese work that inspired it: Astro Boy. The creation of Manga comic book legend Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy had an incredible influence on the culture of manga in the late 20th century. Telling the story of a young robot boy created by a scientist who’d lost his human son, these manga are full of funny and heartwarming adventures beautifully told by Tezuka, a master of the manga form sometimes referred to as the Walt Disney of Japan. You should totally read the English translations of the manga, but you should also check out some of the screen adaptations available on demand from FuboTV, Apple TV, and Youtube.
Science SARU is also producing some of the most diverse, experimental and wide-ranging anime projects out there. Our current favorite is the series, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, which you can watch on HBOMax. While “T0-B1” homages the classics of its genre, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! takes on the nature of the Japanese anime industry itself. The story follows the members of a high school anime club as they make their own films–with all the trials that come with that.
In its way, Eizouken is a great way for someone new to anime to explore both the culture of anime, its varied styles (the anime used a range of techniques to tell its story) and its own beloved influences. After watching this, you’ll probably find yourself hankering to dive more fully into the corners of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking — like My Neighbor Totaro or Kiki’s Delivery Service — and hunting down copies of the Akira manga at your local comic shop.
Here’s our guide to watching Miyazaki movies with your kids.