Reviewby Justin Sevakis, Nov 27th 2009
It's the start of what promises to be a long, hot, boring summer. Math nerd Kenji Koiso is settling into his part-time job as a low-level moderator in OZ, the massive, all-encompasing social networking virtual world that has become the preferred conduit for pretty much all online activity. Those plans come to an abrupt halt when the school hottie Natsuki pokes her head in the door. "Who wants a summer job?" she asks.
The job, at first, seems to be a personal assistant position. Natsuki and the rest of her massive extended family are all making a pilgrimage to their gigantic family estate in Nagano to celebrate the 90th birthday of their grand matriarch (and Natsuki's great grandmother) Sakae Jinnouchi. The Jinnouchi clan is very proud and very old fashioned; they come from samurai lineage, and had a hand in seemingly every major battle in Japan's history (though not always on the winning side). A long decesed relative blew the family fortune years ago, but Great-Grandma Sakae maintains incredible connections in government and commerce.
And so why did Natsuki bring Kenji all this way? To satisfy her committment to Great-Grandma Sakae to bring home a future husband. Kenji, being a dateless loser with a serious self-esteem problem, tries his best to play along, but being trapped in a house with a large chaotic family of strangers is stressful at best.
His first sleepless night at the house he gets a mysterious message from a stranger on OZ. It's a math puzzle. With the sleeplessness and concentration of a true nerd, he solves it. Little does he know, that "problem" was the cryptography of OZ's user security protocol. The next morning the family is awakened to news reports that Kenji has basically brought down the internet and brought chaos to the world. With Kenji's avatar, an unknown force (known as "Love Machine") begins taking over the accounts of other users, gathering more and more power and turning the entire social network into a giant army of computing horsepower ready to do his bidding: a botnet, more or less. With no clear agenda, it ends up taking over the rest of the internet as well.
Little does anyone know, the Jinnouchi clan has far more to do with this act of cyber-terrorism than even Kenji. It's up to Great Grandma Jinnouchi, her ancient rotery dial phone, her incredible fighting spirit, and even her next of kin to save the world.
For as long as anyone can remember, the big summer movie has been a Hollywood tradition. Summer movies are loud, adventurous, unchallenging: a film that can be enjoyed, hypothetically, by anybody. More often than not, this type of film can be boiled down to a pretty common plotline: the hero pines after a girl, but is ultimately distracted by having to act heroically in the face of some giant cataclysm, the fate of millions at stake. We see these movies purely for entertainment value. We already know these characters, and know how the story will end, more or less.
Summer Wars is one of these summer movies in a literal sense. On the surface, it follows all the rules. It's entertaining as hell. We love the protagonist, Kenji, as he gets thrust into a ridiculous situation with the hottest girl in school. We grin in recognition at her silly, dysfucntional family, and grit our teeth in anticipation of his eventual triumph. And if that's as far as we want to go, that's perfectly okay. The film has delivered. It's thrilling, funny, affable, enjoyable. It fulfills our expectations of the genre, and looks great doing it. By this measure, sheer entertainment value, it's the best anime to come along since Cowboy Bebop back in the mid 90s.
But that's not all there is, not by a longshot. Summer Wars is practically overflowing with sharp social insight in a way we have not seen from anime in years. Hosoda's perspective is that of a distinctly younger generation than we're used to. He's keenly aware of the role social networking and the always-on internet now plays in our lives, and feels no need cast judgement on that: it's simply how people live in today's day and age. The characters in the extended Jinnouchi family that stay oblivious to it are the ones who ultimately do nothing and don't matter in the end. They willingly ignore the action, and consequently are oblivious to it.
This isn't to say the film criticizes the old. Indeed Great Grandma Sakae is arguably the most powerful character in the film, and she doesn't even have a touch tone phone. But the source of her power is that she is still connected, even if it's by antiquated means. Her network of friends and acquaintences spreads far and wide, and she knows how to use it when she needs to. For all of her meddling and high ideals, the woman isn't trying to hold anyone to an unrealistic standard: she's simply trying to get everyone to contribute and do their best to contribute according to their ability. The family members, largely successful (though often working class), seem to bear this out. Despite their sometimes amusing dysfunction and widely divergent lives and interests, they're all good people who work hard and try to do the right thing.
One character that's relatively common in the real world but fairly unique in movies is Kazuma, the shut-in 13-year-old who has as little to do with the rest of the family as possible. Kazuma spends most of his time in OZ, where he's a superstar in the online fighting circuit online known as King Kazuma. His high level account and his quick reflexes serve in good stead when the Love Machine takes over, and soon it's Kazuma and Kenji against the biggest, most destructive botnet in history. GPS fails. Traffic systems fall off the grid. At Great Grandma Sakae's insistence, the family pulls together to help.
The rest of the family's contributions to the ad-hoc team of freedom fighters is a little less predictable. One is able to contribute a Cray supercomputer, while another can contribute ice. Then there's a large military boat. And the kids, always under-foot, contribute pestilence. As with any large family, the chaos pretty much never stops; there are always divergent personalities bouncing off of each other, threatening to distract our heroes from their task. It never stops being fun to watch.
Much of Hosoda's team from his earlier work, Girl Who Leapt Through Time, is reunited for Summer Wars. Character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto somehow manages to pull together a gigantic cast with wildly variant appearances, all of them somehow familiar types and yet resolutely original in appearance. His work here takes on a realism that reminded me of Hisashi Eguchi's work on Roujin Z. The visuals, created by Madhouse, are sharp and consistently great, but the real show-stopper is the world of OZ, a visually inventive blend of Superflat artistry with the never-ending expansiveness of the digital world. As Love Machine's strength builds, its collection of other avatars made me think of Katsuhiro Otomo's trademark gigantic piles of disaster, as seen in Akira and Roujin Z.
And it's precisely that attitude about the digital world that makes Summer Wars so much more than an average blockbuster. Even in today's world, Hollywood computers are still a ridiculous blend of flashy and unrealistic interfaces and ominous power, betraying both computer illiteracy and technophobia on the part of its creators. Hosoda wisely maintains an actual, recognizable Windows-ish GUI on his computers, and keeps the real action in the symbolic visual fantasy world of OZ. But more than that, he doesn't condemn anybody for how much of their lives are lived online. OZ might be the wild west, but for the millions who choose to live in it, it's home, and the film respects that.
Decades from now, Summer Wars will be seen as the official arrival of Mamoru Hosoda into the realm of historically important anime directors. It's a near-perfect blend of social satire and science fiction, at once timely and timeless, sardonic and optimistic. It's visually inspired and firmly entrenched in tradition, but on the other hand, it does for computer and math nerds what Miyazaki's Porco Rosso did for porcine fighter pilots, making their hidden world accessible to the viewers and turning their talents into superpowers. For that reason alone, it's a triumph. Lord knows there's a lot more nerds out there than flying pigs.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Incredibly entertaining, and intriguingly intelligent. Accessible and fast-paced. Pretty much perfect.
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