Emma Candon’s Ronin: A Vision of What Star Wars Could Look Like

Emma Mieko Candon’s novel, Star Wars Visions: Ronin, is remarkable in several ways. It’s remarkable for taking the story hinted at in the Visions short “The Duel” and turning it into a full narrative, it’s remarkable for generating its own setting unmoored (or better yet, unburdened) by existing Star Wars storytelling and continuity, it’s remarkable for LGBTQIA+ representation (thankfully something SW publishing seems to be pretty good about), and it’s remarkable for putting Star Wars squarely in a Japanese-inspired milieu and still feeling perfectly like Star Wars. As Candon put it in their author’s note, Ronin is an “iterat[ion] on an American saga that is itself an iteration on Japanese narratives.” Like the Star Wars Visions shorts themselves, it feels like Star Wars has come home to where it all began.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the influences of Star Wars, from Flash Gordon adventure serials, to the monomyth, to political commentary on Nixonian America. By now most of us know of the historical allegories about Nazi Germany, the Vietnam War, the American Revolution, and the Roman Republic’s transformation into the Roman Empire. Many of us also know that George Lucas took inspiration from Japanese, Indian, and Chinese cultures for ideas of the Jedi and the Force — and SW’s cultural influences (or depending on how you see it, appropriations) go even beyond that when we consider costuming, location design, and the ever-expanding on-screen world of Star Wars on cinema and television. You could probably write a whole book on the real-world cultural influences from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Oceania, and Asia on Star Wars.

Star Wars has many roots. But those aren’t the only place Star Wars belongs. It also belongs to everyone who’s engaged with it, who’s thought about it — but for so long, Star Wars had this idea that it had to look, and feel, a certain way. Star Wars Visions broke that idea for the screen just as Ronin broke it for the page. And I think that’s great.

Star Wars publishing has shown a willingness to experiment with books like From a Certain Point of View from Del Rey or The Legends of Luke Skywalker from Disney-LFL Press. They’ve hired an author pool of different backgrounds and experiences, and I’d love to see that continue going forward. I’d also love to see authors able to take their experiences and tell stories that we might not have previously thought really fit in Star Wars, but actually do. Ronin shows the way — if we can have space dreadnoughts with pavilions, gardens, and sliding wood-and-paper doors, we can have it all. We can frame our Star Wars stories in ways we never thought possible. But we can do it in an honest way, that doesn’t look like we’re pillaging from different cultures to lend our stories exotic flavor — by letting creatives engage with Star Wars in a way that’s informed by their own backgrounds and experiences.

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What Star Wars Can Learn From Star Wars: Visions

Since Disney+ launched, one of its biggest selling points has been exclusive Star Wars media released directly to the platform. Starting with The Mandalorian, Star Wars launched its parent companies into the streaming era, and after its wild, runaway success, a green light went up for a number of Star Wars projects that otherwise might never have been given that go-ahead. One of those projects, and perhaps the most unusual and niche of them all, is Star Wars: Visions. A limited series of standalone episodes, each produced by one of seven different Japanese animation studios and telling an all-new story, a project like Visions would not have been possible previously, except maybe as a direct-to-home-video release, but thanks to streaming it was released to a platform that is already the home of major streaming flagship shows like the aforementioned Mandalorian or The Clone Wars.

What this article is going to broach are the elements that Visions brought to the table that would be welcome and wise to take further to the wider universe of Star Wars media at large. There are many different ideas, theories and other factors that could be considered here, but one that we will not get into is how Visions’ existence as media that is foundationally Japanese affects its place within the winding cultural miasma that Star Wars has always been, and how Star Wars can continue to draw from this well in ways that aren’t appropriative. Emma Candon, author of the Visions tie-in novel Ronin, dug into this idea far more thoroughly and with more insight than we would be able to here, so please check out her Twitter thread in the link below for more thoughts on this topic.

Setting that where it is, here are some more ways that Star Wars as a media franchise can learn from what the creators of Visions have produced.

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Razor’s Edge: Why I Struggle With Star Wars “What-Ifs”

The embodiment of evil in the galaxy lies disarmed at Mace Windu’s feet.

Ravaged by his own reflected lightning, Palpatine whimpers helplessly. Anakin Skywalker, standing uncomfortably close, insists that he live to stand trial. Mace swats the notion away: “He’s too dangerous to be left alive!”

Maybe he is, maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s faking his current weakness, maybe he’s not. With the entire galaxy hanging in the balance, Mace refuses to take that chance. After a moment of agonized uncertainty, he swings his lightsaber.

The saber connects. Palpatine has wagered everything on Anakin’s loyalty, and dies knowing he’s lost.

What happens next?

*     *     *     *     *

AUs—alternate universes—are having a moment right now.

This is mostly Marvel’s doing, with the first season of Loki introducing several “variants” of the titular character and What If…? now doing the legwork to show how those variants might come about by changing one or two little details from the history we already know. Whether coincidentally or otherwise, Star Wars is now poised to dive heavily into AUs for the first time since D-Day with Star Wars: Visions, an anthology of anime shorts untethered by canon—some diverging in small ways (if at all), some existing in wholly different realities with only aesthetic and tonal connections to Star Wars as we know it.

While we’ve seen lots of ambiguously-canon stories over the years—from the recent LEGO games and specials all the way back to “Skippy the Jedi Droid” in the Star Wars Tales comics—that material has almost always been set in the familiar continuity, with its ambiguity stemming solely from a comedic tone. Only once before, with Star Wars Infinities, has the franchise so pointedly and prominently delved into AU storytelling. Where in Visions continuity is ultimately beside the point, Infinities was much more in line with Marvel’s What If…? model—picking a single point of divergence from the story of each of the three original films and then spinning out a whole comic miniseries from how that divergence might change the story.

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Escape Pod: Mistress Mnemos and the Storytelling Framing Device

One of the cleverest, most self-referential character arcs in the original Star Wars trilogy is C-3PO’s ability as a storyteller. In the first movie he claims to be “not very good at telling stories,” but in the final film he recounts the heroes’ adventures to the Ewok village with a delightful blend of humanlike charisma and droidlike sound effects. Either modesty or a lack of confidence was holding our anxious droid back, and as masks fall, it turns out that Threepio can make stories interesting (to everyone except Han, anyway). Vader is actually Anakin; lightsabers are actually useless; and Threepio is actually very good at telling stories.

But what if he isn’t?

Mistress Mnemos is a room-size supercomputer whose mission is to store all the Rebel Alliance’s data, whether entertaining or not. She debuted in Russ Manning’s newspaper comic strips in 1979, and has never even been referenced since. This in spite of her incredible potential as comic relief, femme and non-humanoid droid representation, and commentary on the nature of storytelling itself. As she is built into the walls of a secret Rebel stronghold and literally plugged into the story’s narrator, Mnemos is the platonic ideal of a captive audience.

As brilliant as she was back then, I think Mnemos could serve an even more important role now. She protests Threepio’s excessive, self-centered tangents — “My banks are overflowing with trivia as it is!” — and that was in 1979, decades before “Star Wars trivia” was the subject of board games, parties, and masters’ theses.

Even her name has aged in a fantastically relevant way: the prefix “mnemo-” means “memory,” one of the most vital themes for a franchise so rooted in nostalgia, so backwards- and inwards-looking, with even its freshest new stories haunted (and frequently visited) by the ghosts of the Expanded Universe. Every spinoff of the original trilogy must contend with its audience’s presumed memories, and that presumption often bleeds into the stories’ themes and the struggles of their characters: Revan’s amnesia, Anakin’s dreams, Yoda’s burnt library. As the audience, we remember the story, while the characters can forget, or try to stop it, or need to move on. But Mnemos must remember, too, no matter how unhappy it makes her.

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Let’s Talk About The High Republic’s Republic Problem

This piece contains spoilers for the second wave of The High Republic,
including major spoilers for Out of the Shadows.

I’ve spent a lot of time defending Light of the Jedi over the past few months.

Not so much the book itself—most of the people I’ve spoken with were at least satisfied with it if not blown away—but specifically its tone where the Republic is concerned. In going quite so far out of its way to underline that this was a new! era! of optimism and belief in the government and people working together and so on and so forth, it’s fair to say that it ended up with a bit of a, um, West Wing problem. Watching people of good faith and peak competence run a government can be quite stirring if you’re prepared to take that premise at face value—but for a lot of people, simply being told that Lina Soh is a good chancellor just isn’t enough.

Especially not when the government she runs, stronger than Valorum’s though it may be, still plainly has its problems. How could a strong, benevolent chancellor cooperate with groups like the Byne Guild that thrive on indentured servitude? How could she not see how nakedly propagandistic a lavish Republic Fair would appear to people barely scraping by on the Rim, people too preoccupied with murderous raiders to worry about their planet getting its own Biscuit Baron? Worse, how could she not see how appealing a target that fair would be to those same raiders?

I gave Charles Soule a lot of leeway where Light‘s tone was concerned because it had a unique role as the first novel of a huge new initiative—the nonstop recitations of “we are all the Republic” made me think less of The West Wing than of Han Solo ruminating on the death of Chewbacca in Vector Prime:

“They had been living on the very edge of disaster for so very long, fighting battles, literally, for decades, running from bounty hunters and assassins. (…) So many times, it seemed, one or more of them should have died.

And yet, in a strange way, that close flirting with death had only made Han think them all the more invulnerable. They could dodge any blaster, or piggyback on the side of an asteroid, or climb out a garbage chute, or…

But not anymore. Now now. The bubble of security was gone, so suddenly, blown apart by a diving moon.

(…) to Han Solo, the galaxy suddenly seemed a more dangerous place by far.”

Light is a strong book on its own terms, don’t get me wrong—but like Vector before it, it’s also a marketing exercise. It’s a flashing neon sign signaling to new or lapsed readers that THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM ALL THOSE OTHER STAR WARS BOOKS, AND HERE’S HOW.

I do think the High Republic creative team recognized how that was going to come across to some people, just like I think they recognized that the Republic Fair was also going to smack of colonialism to a lot of people. But while Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm makes a point of demonstrating Soh’s willingness to roll up her sleeves and risk her own safety in the name of those oft-repeated ideals, I’m starting to think it’s a mistake to dwell on her at all.

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