Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Summer Wars [Hosoda Collection]
Quiet and lonely Kenji finds himself utterly out of his element when his upperclassman Natsuki hires him to be her fake fiancé at a family gathering for her great-grandmother's ninetieth birthday. The family is huge, loud, and in each other's faces at all times, which is foreign to Kenji's experience with family. However, he soon learns just how helpful a strong family network can be when he unwittingly ends up becoming involved in the mass hacking of the international social media network, Oz. With such a massive system compromised, everyday details of life become threatened, and soon, the fate of the world. Kenji and the Jinnouchi clan must now work together within their own family network to save the virtual one.
Time is the greatest test of any work. Poems written by Heian era women over a thousand years ago are still intimately relatable to modern readers, novels by men in the 19th century still have a lot to say about social systems and services, and good storytelling in all forms has the power to touch us no matter how much time has passed. Sadly, Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars has lost some of its storytelling glory six years after its debut, and although it remains a good film with some excellent themes, other elements have not held up as less well over time.
The basic story of the film follows high school second-year Kenji, who is suddenly invited (or hired) by his upperclassman Natsuki to come with her to the family enclave in Ueno as her fake fiancé. Her great-grandmother is about to celebrate her 90th birthday, and since Granny's health is failing, Natsuki is desperate to fulfill a promise she made to present her fiancé for approval. She figures that a fake is better than nothing with time running out. This is juxtaposed with a second storyline about Kenji's abilities as a math savant and a savage AI attacking a virtual network known as Oz. Oz is like a mega-Facebook – everyone has it, including major corporations, and much of the world's data is stored in its users' individual accounts. (Perhaps the better analogy would be Google Docs or One Cloud.) When a malicious AI, created by a member of Natsuki's extended family and put into use by the US Army, gains control of Oz, infrastructure all over the world is compromised. Kenji and Natsuki's loner thirteen-year-old cousin Kazuma fights back, but each attempt at destroying the AI, known as Love Machine, only makes it angrier. Eventually, the entire Jinnouchi clan must be mobilized to deal with the threat.
If you see a parallel between the Jinnouchi family network and the virtual network of Oz, that's precisely what Hosoda wants. In the included booklet, Hosoda writes that “family ties forming a stronger ‘network’ than any social networks, no matter how high-tech,” was his baseline for the film. In part this does come across, particularly in how we see Granny mobilizing her vast array of contacts when the severity of the problem becomes apparent. We also see the emotional toll that being disconnected from your family can take, through both Kenji and Natsuki's uncle Wabisuke, the black sheep of the clan. Unfortunately, the finale undermines this point, with the power of the Oz network's users ultimately being a greater saving grace in the fight against Love Machine than the Jinnouchi clan alone.
This is not the only place where the film undercuts itself. Natsuki, who takes center stage on the poster and kicks off the story by roping Kenji into her scheme, becomes a non-entity after the introductory moments, and even her role in saving the internet feels much more passive than it should. That she's largely disconnected from both Kenji and the family group (her parents are not present) is also an issue, making her feel more like a plot device than a person. Kazuma is likewise a bit too convenient, both in his uber-tier Oz combat skills and his prominent role in the story before we fully know who he is. A bizarre number of members in the clan also have ties to public service jobs (police, fire, rescue) and the JSDF. While the latter could be attributed to the fact that they are proud of their feudal lord past, it still adds up to a stretch in the long run.
Otherwise, the family itself is a major saving grace of this movie. It functions in a way that will be familiar to anyone who comes from an enormous, multi-generational family, with figures like “that one uncle who asks inappropriate questions,” “the aunt who can't take her eyes off her kid,” and “totally embarrassing older female relative.” The family's ease with one another and their willingness to just accept Kenji into the fold is, if not immediately heartwarming, at least one of the most real-feeling depictions of a large family in recent memory. That's why it becomes disappointing when their roles in the denouement are so segregated by gender – the men sit around gabbing and later set out to fix the Love Machine problem while the women cook and fuss over Granny's birthday details. There's almost no interactions between the men and the women during the actual plot of the story, and while that is the way some families operate, it also feels like the women don't have as much of a role to play. Yes, Natsuki is the avatar who has to take down Love Machine and Granny is the heart of the family, but ultimately it is Kenji, Kazuma, and the men of the group who all play the active roles within the story.
Luckily, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. When the pacing drags, particularly in the middle, the art is evocative, especially scenes of the ancient home the family maintains. The art for Oz lands somewhere on the frightening side of whimsical, which works very well for the plot, and people move with their own gaits, paces, and rhythms. Faces are so mobile that you can read each passing thought in the constant subtle changes of eyes, mouths, and eyebrows. You could almost watch this with the sound off, just to better experience the beauty of its artwork and prowess of its animation.
This special edition of the film comes with the aforementioned booklet, which contains a lot of interesting information about Hosoda's process and thoughts while creating the movie. There are also comments by the main (Japanese) voice cast, character and place designers, composer, and directors, which definitely gives more insight into how the film was conceived. Some of these are replicated in the on-disc extras, although most of those interviews are with the Japanese voice actors. One of the most interesting aspects of the video interviews is watching the body language of the actors, most of whom are film or stage performers, who were recruited for the movie – the woman who voices Granny, Sumiko Fuji, never looks directly at the camera or interviewer, keeping her eyes modestly downward, while the younger women and all of the men meet the camera's gaze directly.
Summer Wars may not have withstood the test of time as well as it could have. Its languid pacing doesn't work especially well with a cyber-crime subplot, and the film itself is too long to hold everyone's interest simply as a meditation on family. This is still a good movie, although not, perhaps, a great one.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B-
+ Booklet is thoroughly informative, art and animation are exquisite, family feels very real, strong vocal casts in both languages
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