As far as family entertainment goes anime is rarely high on the agenda, especially given the numerous offerings from Disney, Dreamworks, and other such movie studios. Generally their features appeal to children and adults alike, and in order to compete with them Japanese animation studios have had to shake off their habitual approach and focus on making films that are more accessible to Western markets. The undisputed king of this is Miyazaki Hayao, but over the years there have been several challengers to his throne, the latest being Hosoda Mamoru.
Now those of you who have watched the latest anime incarnation of Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo (The Girl who Leapt Through Time), will be familiar with Hosoda’s work as a director, and as good as that movie is, his latest effort, Summer Wars, would have been at least equal to it except for one thing.
It’s been done before.
The story follows the brief summer “holiday” of a high school maths prodigy called Koiso Kenji as he travels to the countryside with his senpai (and secret crush), Shinohara Natsuki, ostensibly to celebrate her grandmother’s 90th birthday. During his stay he receives a strange e-mail containing a sequence of numbers, and thinking it simply another maths problem, he solves it and sends it back. The following day all hell breaks loose (but in a quaint manner, this is rural Japan after all).
Summer Wars has a lot to recommend it in terms of its plot and story. The pacing and progression is very good, and the numerous events that take place are justifiable to a certain degree. It’s just unfortunate that while watching Summer Wars, I couldn’t help but think of a certain 1983 movie called War Games.
If one disregards the settings in the real and virtual worlds for a moment, then what’s left, ironically enough, is a high school kid who unwittingly begins the end of the world through something nuclear, and all because he broke a code. It’s even more ironic that the computer in War Games was developed from a simple Tic-Tac-Toe playing AI, and that it believes it is simply playing another “game” (if you can call global thermo-nuclear war a game that is).
Even with the parallels between the two films Summer Wars is a good enough story in its own right, and like War Games, is very much a movie of its time. The use of online social networking is something that only a few shows have touched upon, and even though the application of it is somewhat unbelievable (everything from traffic management to emergency services is part of the OZ network), it’s a purposeful device that makes the story much more relevant to this day and age and it doesn’t really impinge on one’s enjoyment of the movie.
Summer Wars is distinctive in its looks, regardless of which world is on screen at the time. The settings, backgrounds and characters are very similar to those used in Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, but there is far more creativity and diversity in the design of this movie, an example of which is skin tone, with several characters being tanned to various degrees. Alongside this is the look of the characters themselves, and it’s truly nice to watch a show that takes a more realistic approach in this area. The people in the movie literally do come in all shapes and sizes, with no two characters (in the “real world”), sharing anything more than the resemblance that close relatives would have.
The one aspect of the design that is surprising is that of the virtual world, but not in the way that most people would think. The CG used in the movie is extremely well handled and each avatar is completely unique, yet also reflective its real world user. That said, those who have seen certain other examples of Hosoda’s directorial works, either Superflat Monogram or Superflat First Love, may experience some bemusement as the design of Summer War’s virtual world has been adapted from those featurettes. While the art and animation are very good throughout the movie, it would have been nice if Madhouse had avoided cutting corners by using things that have been done before, but that’s just a personal preference. As far as the virtual world goes, the majority of viewers will find it inventive, original, and more than a little amusing at times.
A big plus for the movie is its cast, and although most are relatively unknown (including the two leads), this doesn’t preclude them from providing some very good performances. Kamiki Ryonosuke is very good as the bumbling, introverted and ever so slightly love-struck Kenji, while Sakuraba Nanami provides an excellent balance to this as the spirited and precocious Natsuki. One of the biggest surprises in terms of acting is Tanimura Mitsuki, whose portrayal of Kazuma has all the foibles and gripes one would expect from a 13 year old with a game addiction.
In terms of music the various pieces on offer serve the movie very well, and Matsumoto Akihiko (who also provided the music for Resident Evil Outbreak: Files 1 & 2), really shows his talent as both a writer and composer. Strangely, the ending theme, Bokura no Natsu no Yume, is the only track composed by someone else (in this case by Yamashita Tatsuro), and is actually a rather appropriate lilting ballad that rounds things of nicely.
So where are the problems with the sound? In truth the majority of issues stem from the effects as there are several notable occasions where they clash with the music and speech. The majority of the movie is relatively well choreographed so that the noise is kept to a manageable level, but when events get out of hand the effect on one’s ears can be a little tough.
The one area where Summer Wars really excels is in its wealth of characters. While most of the focus is on Kenji, a good amount of time is spent observing Natsuki’s extended family, and it’s this aspect of the movie that makes it such an enjoyable film to watch. Anyone with slightly dysfunctional relatives will appreciate the numerous minor clashes, feuds, loyalties, gripes, trials and tribulations that go into making any such gatherings a “success”, and it was an absolute joy to see Natsuki’s family bounce off each other like peas on a drum (which probably makes this required viewing at Christmas time). The entire family structure and their relationships with each other are handled in a very intelligent manner, and viewers may be surprised to find themselves relating to certain situations, and finding a degree of familiarity with certain events in the story.
As far as actual development goes, there isn’t really any aside from Kenji, and even that takes time to progress (although he does “man-up” in the end). Aside from that, there isn’t much in the plot that encourages the rest of the characters to grow, but then again, each is an individual to a tee, and therein lies the true strength of this movie – characterisation. It’s the power of their personalities (thanks to some great acting and scripting), that allows the viewer to relate to the characters in a way that many other shows would envy, and it’s for this reason that development isn’t really a necessity.
Summer Wars is a very enjoyable romp in the realms of absurdity that has the benefit of being relevant to a degree. The exponential growth of social networks is having an increasing impact on society, and it’s this phenomenon that is satirised the most, hence the inclusion of so many societal controls and services within the confines of OZ. While the story itself may not be new, one could consider this a more up to date re-telling of the theme – kind of a “War Games 2009” so to speak.
Whatever you think of the movie, at heart it’s only meant to do one thing – entertain – and it does that very well.