Reviewby Tim Henderson, May 18th 2011
In a world where an online database known as Oz dominates social and professional functions, young Kenji Koiso's life is turned upside-down when the most popular girl in school recruits him for a summer job that entails accompanying her to her family's country home for a spell. Forced to role-play as her fiancé, things soon become more hectic when Kenji finds that his mathematical gift may have assisted in the biggest computer hacking spectacle in history.
Spoken with a serene almost automated vocal tone, the opening dialogues in Summer Wars reek of gentle consumer-pampering advertising. This is appropriate, and the same could be said of the imagery. A void of black gives way to a cell phone, so large on screen that it could pass as a religious idol: this is technology, new and sleek and functionally limitless. Clean bubble-like clouds break the scene apart and the camera slices through them, pressing forward into the softly-rendered storage space until it bursts out upon a gorgeously visualised cyberspace.
This is the land of Oz, a cyber kingdom akin to every major social networking tool and MMO rolled into the one massive marketer's dream. It's Habbo Hotel with integrated YouTube functions, Facebook with built-in Wikipedia searching, MySpace with spreadsheets, Twitter meshed with Linked In, Playstation Home with less sterility and far more people. Over a billion people in fact, all logging in through desktops and notebooks and smart-phones and portable game consoles. Everything is wrapped in a bow and guarded by a pair of fanciful whales, John and Yoko, named in such a way as to provide just enough 60's hippie idealism to wash away any potential after-taste of capitalist and corporate overload.
They're beautifully rendered mammals too. Same goes for the entirety of Oz. Summer Wars' opening burst of CG represents some of the finest computer animation seen in anime to date. The colours are clean and vibrant, and edges lack the blade-like sharpness that so often displaces the hand-drawn from the computer-rendered. This is a cyber world, but it's one rendered with a soft touch.
It is in Oz where young Kenji Koiso, the film's teenage lead is introduced. Working a summer job in the system's lower level security, he is first seen as an avatar – every bit as ludicrous as the next. It is for the alternative world of oxygen that he is torn away from his geek-heaven holiday gig. Had Natsuki not had such a pretty face, then he may not have competed in rock-paper-scissors with his best friend for a chance to take an alternative job that involved being torn from the fantastical space of the cyber for the physical mountains of the countryside.
The visuals become less abstracted and the colours more muted as Kenji and Natsuki travel by train and bus, meeting some extended family along the way. Against the rustic browns and greens of the rural lands and beneath a blue sky that would do Sydney proud, characters are drawn with skinny limbs and are animated with mesmerising fluidity. A few steps back from Tekkonkinkreet, the mild abstraction of the illustration style holds its ground, skin tightly maintaining its form and refusing to allow more deformed and experimental animation to bulge out. But it can be seen gurgling below the surface.
Intentional or not, the potential (but ultimate refusal) of Summer Wars' animation to break free from its mainstream shackles and enter a more art-house space neatly highlights the division between the physical world, and the world of data where it's acceptable to look like a chipmunk. Even in a large and enviably gorgeous home in the countryside, the internet refuses to go away. Advertising screens litter the train that shoulders the bulk of the high schoolers' travel distance, and when travelling by bus a pair of DS consoles keep young children occupied ― special attention paid by the animators as they bob and slide against the reckless driving, always holding the screens perfectly symmetrical with their own faces.
The ninetieth birthday of Natsuki's grandmother serves as the reason behind this trip and gathering; the purpose of Kenji's presence is to fill the role of Natsuki's fictional fiancé. For a short while this becomes the core focus of the film and the cameras turn their attention to shots of the landscape and rowdy family dinner banter, the festivities spoiled only by the return of a rejected adopted son Wabisuke, back from the life in America he escaped to a decade prior.
Mentally American, Wabisuke handles his day-to-day affairs via his iPhone. Summer Wars isn't coy with regard to depicting actual brands, and displays a keen eye for detail when it comes to character associations – where Wabisuke uses Apple's latest, all other characters own flip-phones of more Japanese design. Televisions and notebooks all support recognisable brands, likewise motor-vehicles, and even bottles of beer bare Sapporo's star logo. How this was legally managed is a mystery, but the end result is a distinct and welcome real-world tangibility with diversity enough to dispel any lingering sourness from promotional product placement.
It is through phones that Summer Wars enters its second act. Unwittingly solving a text message encryption that results in an Oz security meltdown, Kenji wakes up to find his face plastered on the television news, wanted as a cyber criminal. The leaps of logic required for how the police could so quickly identify and so recklessly inform the media of such a skilled hacker in a situation of growing chaos can be forgiven more easily than the narrative turn the latter end of the movie takes.
Summer Wars spends its earliest moments establishing a handful of narrative strands and taking due care to communicate the importance of technology on the world through a prevalence of screens: scenes of baseball are played not by the children at the gathering, but rather witnessed through a television as another family member vies to get his school further into the play-offs. Summer Wars' back-end regrettably, focuses too heavily on this – rather than taking other plot elements and character dramas and rolling them neatly into the one thread, it instead leaves inconveniences on the sideline as it indulges its disaster scenario and depiction of a world thrown into chaos by the betrayal of the technology that modern society has been built upon.
There are moments of genuine tension here, as well as a dash of the day-to-day getting turned into the surreal and a couple of moments of visually spectacular action. Old and new mindsets become set apart, and those who don't understand the full consequences of internet disaster can unwittingly worsen things just by walking in front of a video game. However too much gets forgotten and left behind, and the pace becomes cloying when all focus is ladled upon the one key sequence of events.
Summer Wars remains a very strong animated feature in spite of this – an archetypal example how disappointment reflects expectation as much as actual quality. The contrast of its romanticised rural landscapes against some splendid computer animation may be reason enough for some to visit, and an orchestrated score rounds out the aesthetic package nicely. Extras consist mostly of interviews, and while the Blu-Ray we were sent may not feature the sharpest line art we've seen on the format, the colours are certainly strong.
©2009 SUMMERWARS FILM PARTNERS
Overall : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
+ Great production values and ambitious ideas...
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