15 Anime To Watch Before Watching Star Wars: Visions

The "Star Wars: Visions" anthology is a much-hyped Disney+ release for animation fans who are hungry to experience Star Wars in a different way. George Lucas' galaxy far, far has always paid homage to Japanese cinema, particularly the films of Akira Kurosawa films. Now, under Lucasfilm's guidance, "Visions" opens the door to artists who specialize in Japanese animation, allowing them to tell new stories in the Star Wars universe unbounded by restrictive canon, re-mythologizing the Force and its wielders in the process.

"Star Wars: Visions" consists of nine short films produced by seven Japanese animation studios, all of which have superb reputations. However, if you're not familiar with anime, or you simply want to know more about the talent involved before watching "Visions," /Film has compiled a list of 15 projects with connections to Kamikaze Douga, Studio Colorido, TRIGGER, Science Saru, and Production I.G, as well as a few other movies, TV shows, and compilations with thematic or creative links. Before turning on "Visions," check them out.

Ghost in the Shell

A 1995 groundbreaking cyberpunk drama directed by Mamoru Oshii and animated by Production I.G, "Ghost in the Shell" engulfs you in its neo-noir landscape from the very first frame. Saturated in grey and neon, its backgrounds are full of details — every wire, chip, piece of hardware, and toothpick is exquisitely rendered. As far as the story goes, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg, is on the brink of an existential crisis. Despite her hard-ass professional exterior, Kusanagi finds herself emotionally involved in the pursuit of the elusive Puppet Master, a mysterious figure that can hack into people's brains — or their "ghosts," as consciousnesses are known in this world. The Puppet Master has designs on Kusanagi, and her personal crisis may just sync with its motives.

Submerged in meditative glances at robotic bodies in repose and extremely introspective, "Ghost in the Shell" ruminates on what it means to be both human and machine. Do mechanical enhancements make you less human? Does a sentient AI have the same the rights as a human being? How much of your identity is still intact when you transform into different entity?

How to Watch: You can rent "Ghost in the Shell" on Amazon Video, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and other digital video storefronts.

Haikyu!!

Animated by Production I.G, "Haikyu!!" should transport athletes back to their fondest memories on the court or the field, but will also capture the hearts of non-athletes, too. Yes, an anime about volleyball strategy may sound pedantic, but when the facts are delivered by characters you care about, you can't help but get wrapped up in the action.

Although he's only 5' 4”, high school student Shoyo vies for the ace position on his school volleyball team. He also has his eye set on outscoring Kageyama, his tall and grouchy rival ... only to discover that Kageyama now goes to the same school. At the prompting of the team captain, Shoyo and Kageyama link up and become an unstoppable pair with a quick attack combo that shocks opponents. 

As it goes on, "Haikyu!!" matures into an ensemble piece about slapping volleyballs, staring down your rivals (and, sometimes, your frenemies), losing, winning, and battling your anxieties. This isn't just a story about the underdogs we've been rooting for since the beginning. The deeper we go, the more we see of the lives of the opposing teams, and realize that they're underdogs, too. "Haikyu!!" is a cool breeze periodically injected with adrenaline, especially once it heads to the court. Its drama is tame, yet it's full of sincerity, illuminating each player's motives, their frailties, and the camaraderie they share with their teammates.

How to Watch: The first two seasons of "Haikyu!!" are available on Netflix.

Gurren Lagann

After spending his childhood laboring in an oppressive underground burrow, young Simon discovers a tiny drill that turns out to be the key to a mecha head. That's just the beginning. With help from the manly and rebellious Kamino, Simon escapes his subterranean village following an attack by another mech, leading him to team up with surface humans, hijack more mechas, get into all sorts of misadventures, and grow up along the way.

Director Hiroyuki Imaishi pilots the 2007 "Gurren Lagann" series, drawing on his experience working on "Neon Evangelion Genesis," one of the most popular and beloved mecha anime in existence. Ironically, Imaishi's take on mechas is much sunnier than its predecessor's. Here, youths can pilot mechas without incurring severe psychological trauma. The machines make funny poses, pilots trade humorous quips from their cockpits, and impossible combo moves keep the action moving. With a likable cast, snarky humor, and a full-on celebration of mecha anime's silliest tropes, "Gurren Lagann" embraces the impractical and should thrill mecha lovers.

As for the "Star Wars: Visions" connection? Well, the critical and commercial success of "Gurren Lagann" eventually led Imaishi to co-found Studio Trigger, and he directed "The Twins," one of the "Star Wars: Visions shorts.

How to Watch: "Gurren Lagann" is available on Netflix.

Kill la Kill

Anime already thrives on hyperbole, but "Kill la Kill," Studio Trigger's 2013 debut, dials it up to 11. How much you get out of "Kill La Kill" depends on how much you're willing endure scenes in which the female protagonist fends off perverts, which is an annoying and unfortunately common anime trope.

Looking for answers about her father's murder, Ryuko enrolls in a school run by the dictatorial student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin. There, the students wear special clothing that functions like magical armor, giving the wearer powers related to their position at school. Satsuki, for example, is flanked by other council members who have abilities that pertain to the clubs they run: the marching band, the gardening club, the tennis club, and so on. Ryuko has her own super clothing, of course — a sentient uniform that gives her advice, but has to extract her blood to function. 

"Kill la Kill" purposefully parodies the worldbuilding of other anime, often with hyper-sexualization that includes a masochistic character who charges their powers by absorbing attacks, a military organization called Nudist Beach, and skin-tight clothing that makes fun of other anime's famous transformation sequences. At one point, a villain declares, entirely deadpan, "If it means I'll fulfill my ambitions, I'll bear my breasts for the world to see." The ridiculous story, the kinetic combat, and the slapstick humor makes "Kill la Kill" supremely watchable.

How to Watch: "Kill la Kill" is available to stream on Netflix.

Little Witch Academia

Akko wants nothing more than to be a witch like her idol, Shiny Chariot. But the witch academy she enrolls in isn't very accommodating to a girl who has neither magic skills nor a noble witch name in her lineage. Akko expects things to be handed to her on a silver platter, but she often bites off more than she can chew, leading to shenanigans. "Little Witch Academia" has plenty of mysteries, too. Why does this Professor Ursula take interest in Akko? Why did a mysterious magic rod once wielded by Chariot herself choose Akko, of all people? The series delves into all that and more, showing how Akko's faith ends up being the spark that's needed in a world where magic is dwindling

Produced by Studio Trigger, "Little Witch Academia" began as series of Kickstarter-funded shorts before it was released a two-season series on Netflix. As Akko unlocks the ancient incantations that bring her closer to both answers and her long-lost idol, "Little Witch Academia" teaches its young viewers how to believe in themselves, and to work hard even when your best doesn't seem to be enough. It also has plenty to say about friendship, fandom, and kindness.

Amusingly, "Little Witch Academia" contains two scenes, one comedic and one serious, in which characters brandish lightsabers as part of a deliberate Star Wars homage, foreshadowing Trigger's involvement in "Visions."

How to Watch: You can catch "Little Witch Academia" on Netflix.

Lu over the Wall

Teenager Kai is insecure about his music and his future in his sleepy little town, a fishing village that's figuring out its place in a world dominated by commercialism and big corporations. But then Kai's tunes attract the attention of a mermaid named Lu who has a Cheshire-cat smile, fins that tap like legs, and pointy teeth that can turn living things into mermaids, and his life regains some of its missing glow. However, the more the townsfolk learn about Lu, the more suspicious they grow, even as Lu goes viral and becomes a major tourist attraction.

Like "Ponyo," Masaaki Yuasa's "Lu over the Wall" is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," and it's just as fun as Hayao Miyazaki's work. But where Miyazaki aims for operatic elegance, "Lu over the Wall" dances freestyle. The eye-popping color scheme of "Lu" marries hallucinatory hijinks with the capriciousness of a music video, and is an excellent showcase for Science SARU's work.

How to Watch: "Lu Over the Wall" can be streamed on Netflix.

Ride Your Wave

Produced by Science SARU, Masaaki Yuasa's "Ride Your Wave" makes the idea that music can will your loved one back to life astoundingly literal. A college-bound surfer and a firefighter fall in love in a seaside town. A rom-com-style montage follows, accompanied by a duet played on a ukulele. But just when the couple begin talking about marriage, the man tragically drowns trying to save someone's life. The girl mopes, giving up her surfboard and turning away from the sea. However, she discovers that singing their old song makes his spirit appear in water — any water, from the contents of her water bottle, to the toilet bowl, to local streams, to the spray of nearby firehoses.

Immersed in magical realism and full of glimmering backdrops featuring sunshine-soaked waves, "Ride Your Wave" is sensitive drama about a young woman who learns to move on and while honoring her beloved's memory. Yuasa mines comedy and drama from the whimsical premise, deploying the ingenuity first seen in "Lu over the Wall."

How to Watch: "Ride Your Wave" is streaming on HBO Max, and can be rented via Amazon Video.

Japan Sinks: 2020

"Japan Sinks: 2020" is a terrifying natural disaster story about a tragedy that unfolds in the present day. Its 10 episodes chronicle the resilience of a Filipino-Japanese family forced to move forward and make decisions on the fly when a major earthquake devastates the entire country. They endure losses and gain allies along the way. Unlike Yuasa's other Science SARU projects, this is a realistic story: The public's simultaneous reliance on and distrust of the media, the anxious children cut off from their comfort zones, and the parents who smile in spite of their hidden fears add to this gritty, modern survival tale.

Some viewers found faults with the story, especially the cult arc, which comes off as campy rather than dramatic. Still, at its most sincere "Japan Sinks: 2020" explores the laborious exertion of survival, along with smatterings of social commentary that dress down Japanese nationalism and xenophobia.

How to Watch: "Japan Sinks: 2020" can be found on Netflix.

Eden of the East

"Eden of the East" is a bold adult work by Kenji Kamiyama, director of the "Star Wars: Visions" short "the Ninth Jedi," for Production I.G. It features many of anime's hallmarks (goofy expressions, romance, silliness), but they take second seat to the show's driving force, which is a political thriller. A 20-something Japanese girl named Saki Morimi has a bizarre meet-cute with a naked Japanese man in front of the White House. He has no memory of his past, but knows he's in a Jason Bourne-type story. Could it also be a rom-com, like Saki hopes? You'll just have to watch and see. 

As it turns out, the man has a special phone with a 10-billion-yen balance, which he's supposed to spend in order to become "the savior of Japan," whatever that means. Disobeying the vaguely-defined rules and spending all the money could get him killed by the "Supporter." Saki and her new love interest slowly try figuring out if he was a bad guy or a good guy, and how this relates to a frightening (but relatively harmless) missile strike known as "Careless Monday."

The further you get into "Eden," the more the questions and dread stack up. It also paints a stunning portrait of the disillusioned younger generation, which is tired of its elders and their unrealistic expectations.

How to Watch: All 11 episodes of "Eden of the East" are available on Hulu, while the first movie (of two) can be found on Funimation.

The Animatrix

Years before most western studios began making anime spin-offs of live-action IPs (see "The Lord of the Rings" and "Blade Runner," in addition to "Star Wars"), there was the "The Animatrix," which was set in the "Matrix" movie universe. These nine anime shorts were authored by the Wachowski sisters and animated by bevy of anime artists who re-imagined the Matrix through a prism of different styles and aesthetics.

"The Animatrix" shares a mission statement with "Star Wars: Visions" — re-interpret a well-known fictional universe using the power of animation and the imaginations of some distinct, singular artists. Some shorts explain the events of the Matrix movies, while others tell little stories set inside the Matrix itself. The tales vary — there's the blood-splattered origins of the Matrix, a record-breaking track-runner who strains himself so hard that he rips through the simulation, an impressionist chase across a school hallway, street kids who turn a glitching "haunted house" into a playground, a grainy grayscale neo-noir, and more — but they're all stylish, and all very interesting.

How to Watch: "The Animatrix" is available on HBO Max.

Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury

Set to Sturgill Simpson's 2019 album "Sound & Fury," this series of short films compliments the album release. It uses a different style for each song, including both live-action and animated segments, while putting together a narrative composed of loose threads, as music videos tend to do.

Animation studio Kamikaze Douga prides itself on blending CG with traditional 2D cell animation. Its visual dreamscape, set to Simpson's music, showcases its dense cell-shading, hewn with coarse textures that feel like sharpened pencils slashed at the screen, an aesthetic that shows up again in the studio's the black-and-white "Star Wars: Visions" short, "The Duel." With a strong "Heavy Metal" vibe, one of the company's musical segments depicts a road warrior, a la Max Mad, wearing a samurai helmet that resembles Darth Vader's as she accelerates toward a battalion of villains on a steampunk craft. The woman also gets to lead a dance sequence. Whatever the story is about, you're in for a fun ride and some beautiful scenery.

How to Watch: Watch "Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound & Fury" on Netflix.

A Whisker Away

Middle-schooler Miyo is known as "Miss Ultra Gaga and Enigmatic" due to her brash and outlandish behavior at school, especially when it comes to her fixation on a quiet classmate. She also has a magic mask that transforms her into a cat, which allows her to wander into her crush's home, where he pampers her with love and tells her about his problems. However, Miyo discovers that she could be stuck in her cat form for good, forcing her to venture into the cat world or risk losing herself forever. Unsurprisingly, she'll have to learn to love herself and her human life to do so.

A Studio Colorido production, "A Whisker Away" is an escapist fantasy for young girls that thrives on cuteness and a dose of adolescent angst. You might want to have a sit-down with younger viewers about respecting their crushes' boundaries after watching, but "A Whisker Away" does nail candid depictions of teen girl's obsessiveness, as well as the problems faced by kids who have trouble communicating their pain. "A Whisker Away" also proves to be full of visual imagination once it arrives at the cat world, where felines walk on invisible bridges and their lives are depicted as snow-globed orbs.

How to Watch: "A Whisker Away" is streaming on Netflix.

Penguin Highway

Penguins suddenly begin appearing in a sunny town, much to the curiosity of the townspeople. A young boy, Aoyama, makes it his mission to investigate the source of the penguins. He turns to his adult friend — and crush — for help, only to discover that she may be connected to the mystery. In addition, a friend from school shows Aoyama an oceanic orb floating in the middle of a meadow that might have something to do with the penguins and their odd behavior.

The premise of "Penguin Highway," animated by Studio Colorido, is broadly comparable to "Stranger Things": It's about a town that's besotted with sighting of mysterious entities, and where kids string together theories away from parents' watchful eyes. Yet, "Penguin Highway" is less ominous, embracing the low-key and unfolding broad daylight. This is an enigmatic coming-of-age story about a boy who tries solve the unsolvable. Even though strands of weirdness come together to give Aoyama some answers, he learns that some things are simply incomprehensible.

How to Watch: "Penguin Highway" can be streamed for free with an Amazon Prime subscription.

Astro Boy

Astro Boy, the little robot that fights evil and fends off prejudice, is a clear influence on Abel Góngora's "Star Wars: Visions" short "T0-B1." Like "Astro Boy", Góngora's animation is clearly inspired by Disney, while the title of the short is a nod to Astro Boy himself: You pronounce the title like "Tobi," which is the name of the dead son that Astro Boy's creator designed him to replace.

The first anime to air on TV, "Astro Boy" ushered in the epoch of televised anime, molded by the manga's author and the father of anime himself, Osamu Tezuka. The hallmarks of anime — big eyes, limited animation, and high drama — became codified in the 1963 black-and-white series, which was also the first anime series exported overseas for a western audience.

Lightheartedly cartoony yet wrought with a dramatic edge, "Astro Boy" was Tezuka's conduit for commentary about prejudice and humanity. It remains powerful for its humanism and creativity, although its racist depictions of Black and Indigenous people (addressed in the 2002 manga collections released by Dark Horse) have not aged well. Both the 1963 series and its 1980 remake capture the classic corniness of the old "Twilight Zone," and while the cost-cutting animation and the wear and tear of age mark both productions, "Astro Boy" still fuels the imagination like the best of them.

Watch: Amazon Video has the English dub of the '80s series. The original 1963 pilot can be watched on YouTube.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

Any emerging or experienced artist should relate to Yuasa's first TV series, "Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!" Released in 2020, this 12-episode slice-of-life comedy by Science SARU celebrates creativity and collaboration among inspired geeks who must balance practicality with passion. An anime-obsessed artist and her business-minded pal team up with an artistic heiress to create an anime club, dreaming up death-defying fantasies full of improbable contraptions, mechas, aircrafts, and heroines with swords. And yet, in addition to their overflowing imaginations, they must also negotiate deadlines, budgets, and their limited resources. The earworm of a theme song might call everything "easy breezy," but animation is anything but.

"Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!" shows all the pitfalls of creating anime and manga: working within limitations (too many time crunches!), keeping your audience interested, aligning with your client's interest (the Robotics Club disagrees with the team's takes on mecha), and killing your darlings (sorry, you have to cut that dance party scene you poured you soul into).

"Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!" neatly sums up all of the series on this list, uttered as an artist is enchanted by a Hayao Miyazaki movie: "You take something that's totally implausible but pass it off like it is! You take reality and then exaggerate it in a way that makes sense!"

How to Watch: You'll find "Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!" on HBO Max and Crunchyroll.