Being an Asian-American fan of the “Star Wars” franchise often comes with some serious mental and ethical gymnastics. On the one hand, lots of Asian-American fans like myself can enjoy the storytelling, character dynamics and overall aesthetic of the “Star Wars” universe—but on the other, those same fans feel a bit of discomfort at knowing how for a long while, this very same universe appropriates East Asian and South Asian culture.
Now, it’s a very human experience to encounter new things and feel moved enough to want to create art around such subjects. However, that becomes much more complicated when appreciation turns into appropriation, which is exactly what “Star Wars” and many other science fiction/fantasy franchises made by white people are guilty of. It’s one thing for someone like George Lucas to use Asian names (ie. Ahsoka, Padme), Asian clothes (ie. the Jedi garb being based off Chinese hanfu, some of Padme’s costumes based off Mongolian royalty garb) and even Asian-originating religions (ie. Buddhism, which has been explicitly referenced by George Lucas in creating the famous Jedi Code of the universe). That one thing turns into an uglier thing when Lucas and company use these aspects of Asian culture and slap them on white characters, all the while completely neglecting Asian characters and actors themselves (Kelly Marie Tran and the racism towards her character Rose, anyone?). All of these complicated forms of ‘representation,’ combined with many white fans’ blatant ignorance or insistence that Asian people don’t actually belong in the “Star Wars” universe makes for a frustrating experience, to say the least.
Perhaps it’s because of all of these frustrations among particularly Asian and Asian-American fans that makes “Star Wars: Visions” so much more enjoyable—because perhaps for one of the first times, the East Asian influence in particular is actually handled with the respect and love that it deserves. For those who don’t know, the recently released Disney+ series “Star Wars: Visions” is the beautifully crafted animated anthology in which LucasFilms partnered with a number of Japanese studios, such as Trigger, Kamikaze Douga and Kinema Citrus. Each studio brought a distinctly different episode, each with their own animation styles and, what personally thrilled me, much more obvious references to East Asian—and specifically Japanese—culture. This is obviously due in part to the fact that the episodes are literally created by Japanese animation studios, and for that reason, the actual incorporation of Japanese elements feels real and respectful, rather than the often ornamental-like feel that other “Star Wars” series often have in terms of East Asian influence.
Some personal favorite episodes from “Visions” that truly capture this realness include “The Duel,” “The Village Bride” and “Lop and Ochō.” Each of these episodes follows a different protagonist, true to the anthology style—but each of them feature such beautiful details to authentic Japanese culture. In the instance of “The Duel,” we follow a narrative reminiscent of old samurai movies: a lone warrior defends a village from the dark Sith. The costumes, the impressive shot of our hero appearing with the wind, the dramatic drop of our villain wielding a wasaga (i.e. a Japanese paper umbrella) as a weapon. All of these individual elements together create a still compelling “Star Wars” story, all the while keeping true to its very Japanese aesthetic and visuals.
“The Village Bride,” while not explicitly a samurai-esque episode in the way “The Duel” is, still explores yet another facet of Japanese culture, more specifically spirituality, perhaps most closely analogous to Shintoism and the belief in a connection to the natural world. In this episode, we follow a young exiled Jedi who observes an old ritual to simultaneously keep a planet in balance as well as appease the threat of the Empire. The worldbuilding itself is intriguing and nods to a familiar kind of East Asian spiritual belief without making it seem silly or overbearingly superstitious. More than that, however, is the attention that the episode finally draws to our Jedi protagonist, who remains mostly passive throughout the story until the end. In another twist that is reminiscent of samurai and other historical East Asian action-genre media, our Jedi makes the decision to defend the others against this Imperial force. Perhaps on a more personal level, though, there is also something incredibly powerful about seeing a female Asian Jedi say the iconic “I am a Jedi” line after deciding to step up to the challenge. It brings me back to my own childhood, back when I was playing with sticks and yelling about how I, too, was a Jedi even if I didn’t have Jedi characters who looked like me.
But speaking of characters that didn’t always look like me, this brings us to the last episode of focus, “Lop and Ochō.” This time around, we follow Lop, a bunny-humanoid alien who has been adopted into a family now trying to protect themselves from the Empire. This episode is all about family and familial duties, another running theme in both “Star Wars” and many Asian-centered stories—however, whereas I feel that many of these kinds of stories emphasize that birth family is the most important, this episode says otherwise. Rather, this episode emphasizes just how much the adopted family counts as real family, which takes form in how it is Lop who inherits the ‘ancestral sword’—or the iconic Jedi lightsaber. The tradition of a family heirloom being passed down to another is hardly new, but the recollection of this particular tale is told through a moving sequence of images reminiscent of ancient Japanese paintings. This, combined with even the fashion of the lightsaber and the ultimate duel that occurs between Lop and her foster sister Ochō literally proceeds against a cherry blossom backdrop, feeling like a genuine nod to the culture that inspired and executed this story.
So in the end, this wholehearted execution of “Visions” feels like a love letter to all the things that the “Star Wars” franchise has often overlooked in terms of explicit credit to and representation of the very cultures that helped shape this universe. It masterfully weaves together the cultures that inspired the whole universe, and it’s done with the grace and magic that reminded me how “Star Wars” can actually be good again. It’s a shame that Disney overlords won’t make the material of this series canon (that’s a whole other conversation), but for now, I wholeheartedly thank the creators and contributors of “Visions” for making me once again believe in a galaxy far, far away.