Summer Wars is the second feature-length film by Mamoru Hosada (Toki o Kakeru Shōjo i.e. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”), and features new character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Neon Genesis Evangelion), and brought to life with uncharacteristically unique animation from acclaimed studio Madhouse. Anime features that lack franchise starpower and massive marketing don’t usually make the best candidates for importation, and despite being distributed by Warner Bros, certain aspects of the film itself may further complicate a good localization effort here in the States. Still, I feel compelled to plead its cause to anyone willing to listen, and will wholeheartedly recommend anyone looking for a new animated classic to seek it out.
The film takes place in a world much like our own, with much of society being run by the online super-network called Oz, a virtual world that manages everyday tasks like online banking to military defense systems. Second-place math Olympian Kenji Koiso toils as a lowly maintenance workers for Oz when his schoolgirl crush, Natsuki Shinohara, offers him work over the summer on her great-grandmother’s estate in Nagano. As it turns out, it’s great-grandmother’s 90th birthday, and much to his surprise, Natsuki wants Kenji to act her as her fiancé for the occasion.
It isn’t long before Kenji receives a mysterious math problem on his phone and without giving it a second thought, quickly solves it and falls asleep. Unfortunately, this happened be a top-secret security code for the Oz network, and by solving it Kenji unwittingly unleashes a massive virus that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of this virtual – and soon physical – world. What transpires next is a tale of overcoming challenges, taking responsibility, and never giving up in the face of Armageddon. Hosada took aim at making a movie about love and family, and that feeling emanates through every frame.
Still, there’s one aspect that may not go down as smoothly is the apparent bent against American militarism, as that industrial machine plays the main antagonist. Politics aside, even large-budget mainstream films that showcase the US military machine or its representatives in a negative light tend to fail at the box-office, which suggests that a little-known import from Japan probably has little chance of success, outside the most passionate cult and enthusiast circles.
Hosada’s second work as a feature-length film director is every bit as special as his first (The Girl Who Lept Through Time), and he shows a commitment to character and substance that’s lacking in most mainstream anime films these days. Sadamoto’s character designs are both natural and evocative, and its during the most intense moments inside the virtual environments that he really gets to show off his more creative side. In short, the animation is as much fun to watch as the familial storyline is engaging, and I think this will make stellar watching (and re-watching) at home and on nice HD displays.
Summer Wars is an exceptional film, and seldom fails in its message of love and understanding. Technology purists will argue that virtual networks aren’t as simplistic as the ones portrayed here, and some are are sure to decry what they may feel is an anti-American bent in the creation of the military antagonists. But they’d be missing the point, as beyond the impressive animation and intense action sequences lay one of the best depictions of family the genre has produced in years. The characters are convincing, the family aspect is spot on (I have a large one myself; it’s disturbingly accurate) and will leave people feeling that the world is quite conquerable with the right attitude…and people to help you.
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Warner Bros Japan