Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review - Summer Wars

Original Release: August 9, 2009
USA Blu-ray release: March 15, 2011
Length: 114 minutes
Directed by: Mamoru Osoda
Animation Studio: Madhouse
USA Publisher: Funimation
Rating: PG

Following the critical and financial success of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosada embarked on making Summer Wars. It is a family friendly film that explores first loves, the power of family, and our dependence on the internet to communicate. The anime film of summer wars has it all, a great cast of characters, interesting themes, amazing production values, a great screenplay, and an interesting story to pull it all together.

Summer wars is an anime movie where the people in the real world go about their daily lives, but they use this virtual world called OZ. This virtual world is important since people use it to communicate, banks use it to do finance, and governments use it for efficient service. The lead character is Kenji Koso, a person who moderates OZ and a math genius who claims that it is his only strong point. The female lead is Natsuki Shinohara, who asks her friend Kenji to come back home with her for a part time job. When they go back to her home town to celebrate her great grandma's 90th birthday, she introduces Kenji as her boyfriend and her fiance that comes from a well-known family and is attending Tokyo University. The matriarch of the family, Sakae Jinnouchi grills Kenji to see if he is worthy of her great granddaughter and accepts him. He gets a text message in the middle of the night and it is a bunch of numbers. Kenji thinks that it is a math problem and he solves the riddle and texts back his response. The next morning he wakes up to find that he is implicated in the hacking of OZ. This artificial intelligence hacks Kenji's avatar and causes havok all over the world. It starts a chain of events that will change Kenji's life.

The first thing you will notice is the incredible production values for the movie. There are two different ways the story is told, the two dimensional real world and the three dimensional computer-generated world of OZ. The animation for the two dimensional is very realistic and even the smallest details are animated. An example of seeing the detail is during the sequences where they eat. There are multiple conversations going on at the same time and the table is full of detail. As the two characters are eating and conversing, the kids drop their food in the background. The settings are vibrant and full of life, full of bright colors and sunshine. The three dimensional world of OZ is also very interesting. Every person in the world use a unique animal-based avatar in what looks like a visual representation of our own internet. It definitely has a strong Japanese feel to it, using Japanese architecture and using traditional Japanese design of foxes, rabbits, and many other animals.

The cast of characters that populate the world of Summer Wars are very memorable and extremely likable. The Kenji Koso is an introverted guy who is not used to being around big families. Like many standard lead characters he starts off as a shy guy, but he breaks out of his shell. Natsuki Shinohara is a very down to earth girl who is extremely popular in her school, and for reasons we don't know is good friends with Kenji already (I say this with some sense of disbelief because back when I was in high school the most popular girls stayed away from shy guys.). She is extroverted and extremely likable, the perfect foil for Kenji. Natsuki has a very large family, so I will focus on a small number of cast members that stick out to me. Sakae Jinnouchi is Natsuki's great-grandmother. I will admit, Sakae is one of my favorite characters. She holds her family together with her strong and charismatic personality. The matriarch of the Jinnouchi clan also has lots of political and financial connections she has built over the years. Her adopted son is Wabisuke Jinnouchi, a sardonic professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Wabisuke is the illegitimate child of Natsuki's great-grandfather, but was loved and cared for by Sakae. Kenji also meets Kazama, a young boy whose avatar is well-known in OZ. The way that the family interacts and develops gives the movie a strong sense of connection with the cast.

A good story need a great script to keep it all together, and Summer Wars has an amazing script. The interplay between the characters are very well done. The dialog at the family dinner table is very realistic and is something that anyone can relate to on some level. There aren't many instances of dialog sequences that are vapid or insipid. It doesn't go into esoteric details to bore the user or to disengage a certain audience.

The story has a couple of great themes that I can take away. The first main theme is always having close ties with friends and family. This internet service that everyone depends on makes life easier, but more important than internet is the closeness that everyone has together. One of the most touching moments in the story was a letter that Sanae writes to her family where she said that she loves her adopted son, and families must always be together. She gives a powerful statement to the audience when she says that family should always eat together, especially more so in times of trouble. Another moment was when Kenji talks to Natsuki's family and he mentions how his parents are not always there, so being together with a large family meant so much to him. The second main theme is the power of our own personal networks. As OZ fails and the whole world is in disarray, Sanae starts using all her connections to put the country of Japan back in order. She gets in contact with people she hasn't seen for a while, and even those she met for a short time. It teaches a lesson to the audience that everybody we meet, no matter how long or short the contact was is an important connection. The third main theme is how love happens. Kenji and Natsuki are close friends, but nothing more. As events unfold in the world of Summer Wars, they get closer to each other and realize that maybe just below the friendship was a common love they had for each other. For them to move past friendship to love, they had to gather up courage from within and they also throw away the remnants of the old loves they had. It is a cute and universal lesson that we all can learn from. The last theme is humanity's over-dependence on  the internet. When OZ crashes the world goes haywire, people's lives are disrupted, and communication breaks down all over the world. When people get to dependent on something, their lives are thrown askew once it breaks down. Summer wars has many great themes that the audience will take away from the experience.

Summer wars is an excellent film, but it is not without its flaws. There are some pacing issues in the beginning. The opening sequence where they explain the importance of OZ in the world could have been cut in half without taking important information away. There are other sequences like Kenji's arrest that should have been paced better with the storyline. On the other hand, the sequences with the Jinnouchi clan was criminally short. The family is very likable and provides the foundation of the storyline, they should have had more sequences to flesh out the family and develop them further. Another complaint that I have is the soundtrack. While it isn't a bad soundtrack by any stretch of the imagination, it didn't stick out too much. The opening piece was great, but the rest of the soundtrack was not as strong. There were instances where a soundtrack would have made the sequence more powerful, but in its stead there was dead silence.

Summer Wars is an excellent movie and should have a place on any anime fan's collection. It is very well done and I am looking forward to see what Mamoru Osoda has next. I haven't seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but if Summer Wars is any indication, he is a talented director who will be a force in the Anime Industry in the future.

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