My friend @Madpenguin highly recommended the anime series “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” to me some years ago and that anime proved to be something that defined the magic of Japanese animation; it reminded me that a feature does not need a highly specialized CGI animation engine to make a successful animated film, that nothing can compare with an excellent story and a methodical direction to make one love an animated film. Having been impressed once, I immediately grabbed director Mamoru Hosoda‘s “Summer Wars“ and I was not sorry at all. The film has won the highly coveted “Japanese Animated Film of the Year” for 2010 and it proves that Hosoda is a not a one-hit wonder and may be on his way to join the ranks of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon if he can keep it up.
Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school student who works part time as a computer moderator in the massive worldwide OZ program; a virtual reality program where reality and fantasy can come alive. One day, popular girl Netsuke (Nanami Sakuraba) asks Kenji on a trip to meet her family, there, she commits him to pretend to be her boyfriend to brighten the birthday of her great-grandmother Sakae (Sumiko Fuji) since she hasn’t fallen in love with anyone as of yet. But things are about to take a turn, as a rogue mysterious A.I. called “Love Machine” seemed to have invaded the OZ mainframe and Kenji though innocent, may be the prime suspect because of his considerable math skills. Now the Shinohara family that hails from a proud samurai family with Kazuma (Mitsuki Tanimura), Natsuki, Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) and Kenji taking point must gather their skills, resources and intelligence to stop the A.I. before it destroys the world…but first they have to eat a meal together.
“Summer Wars” starts off innocently enough like a Paulie Shore flick and that one with Jennifer Aniston; but don’t let the stereotypical teen love fool you. The film quickly abandons its rather clichéd beginning and turns into a family drama-comedy then into one of those cyber-fantasy action thriller. The direction by Hosoda is pretty focused and it manages to keep the film moving quickly despite its many twists and turns. At first, I feared that the film would have an overload of ‘our reliance to technology’ and how the technological world of OZ would be the film’s central focus. But thankfully, the direction and the screenplay by Okudera Satoko knew exactly how to use interplay between the events in the OZ virtual world, the Shinohara household and the coming 90th birthday of their great-grandmother. The direction blends family drama, lovers spat, comedy and fantasy to make for a satisfying anime treat.
In the world of OZ, humans need ‘avatars’ to move around and these avatars reflect a lot about their personality. The normal life outside the OZ world, is filled with potential chaos and it seems like technology is the one thing that provides order. There is a strong commentary about our dependence on the computer can cause our doom, and that we need to remember that whatever man can create, man can also destroy much easier. We have to admit that we have become heavily dependent on our computers, phones and have created a world of virtual friendships; but in the end family and friends are things that are truly important. The ability to work together and to unselfishly sacrifice oneself when the need arises is the key to all the world’s issues. The film also has some light symbolisms scattered throughout, but none of them were too complex that the casual viewer would miss them.
Now, while I truly liked the film‘s premise, I have to point out that the screenplay is not without some flaws. The scene where one major character was arrested felt a little too mishandled; it happened too quickly and dismissed as easily. I also thought that some elements about the family were a bit undefined but not so much to hamper its pace. Some scenes in the OZ system also felt a little too heavy-handed, I mean the battle sequences were quite original and good, but I felt that the card game to end the final struggle didn’t match the sense of urgency as established in the film’s first half. However, the voice-acting was just excellent. The Japanese cast had what it took to express the emotions and the urgency of the situation. I really liked the performances of Sumiko Fuji and Nanami Sakuraba; I would have to say that their voice talents gave a huge amount of credibility and mystique to their characters. Not to be outdone, the supporting cast and the voice talents of Kamiki and Tanimura were also quite fitting to do the job as the math wizard and the hikkomori-power gamer.
The visuals in the film are lush with a blend of 2D and 3D animation, rather subdued in colors, but nonetheless beautifully simple. It resembles one of those stationeries, coloring books and role-playing games we have grown to love. The film has a spectacular palette, and its beauty lied within its simplicity. The battles had that mixed martial arts forms of Kung Fu and Japanese fencing. The visuals represented something within the characters that drive the film, and so, mild attention to detail may help one appreciate the film’s intentions better.
I suppose the main reason why I was so happy with “Summer Wars” is the fact that it had a very human approach to its premise and that it allowed the depth of each character to drive its plot. I have always been a sucker for stories about family, unity and how our history can define us. The direction knew where it wanted to go with its plot, and it maintained its credibility despite some rough spots. “Summer Wars” had a clever screenplay and a direction that brings forth its positives with amazing execution complemented by impressive animation work, this is one film anime fans shouldn’t miss. Reflecting on the significance of family and our history amid this seemingly unstoppable digital age gives the film a heart-warming atmosphere. The film is brimming with great intentions that it is easy to love and enjoy.