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"Summer Wars" (FUNi release): Enlist Today!

I went into Summer Wars pretty much blind. With a vague title like that, I really didn’t know what to expect. What I got was an interesting combination of plausible (yet fantastical) tech thriller, slice-of-life comedy/drama, and above all, an emphasis on the importance of the family unit. And, unusual for reviewing purposes, I actually watched this movie twice in short order, not only to catch the little details I missed before, but because it’s just a fun, well-done movie.

In the near future, the internet has evolved into an online hub called “Oz”, where users create an avatar and interact with other avatars in various niche communities. It’s like if you put Facebook and the Nintendo Miis in a blender. The biggest draw to Oz is that it’s supposedly extremely secure. That is, until the main character of the story, a teen boy named Kenji, a math whiz and low-level moderator on Oz, solves what he thinks is an innocent, complicated number riddle sent to him via cell phone. Little does he realize, until it’s too late, that by solving and sending it, he has decrypted the tight security on Oz.

Soon, all hell breaks loose. With Oz ripe for any hacker to exploit, the whole world experiences severe gridlock as fire engines, ambulances, and police cars frantically drive around to alarms set off by computer bugs falsely calling in emergencies, and stoplights are screwed up. Adding to this madness, it’s revealed that the same Oz bugs are causing a satellite to divert off its intended path and touch down in Japan. So Kenji is in a race against time to defeat the hacker causing this pandemonium (who has stolen so many accounts it has become a gigantic entity inside Oz which can engulf anything in its path) and save not only the large extended family with which Kenji is staying, but Japan itself.

Oh yes, I didn’t elaborate: the family. Kenji was convinced by fellow classmate Natsuki to accompany her to a large estate in the Japanese countryside for a few days, where Natsuki’s great-grandmother is turning ninety, and where the whole extended family is residing. It’s there that Kenji, who isn’t used to such large crowds and who has never had much of a family life to begin with, gradually warms up to everyone and fights to protect the people he’s grown close to. That’s a big theme of this film, in fact: family unity, even amidst trying times. There’s also a major tragedy that occurs about halfway through the film; I won’t give it away, of course, but this is the catalyst for a number of character motivations.

Summer Wars offers a relevant social commentary on how dependent we are on technology and the trouble we experience when it malfunctions. So the premise carries some built-in tension. At the same time, all the problems from the Oz downtime is juxtaposed with the simple pleasures (and problems) of face-to-face communication, perhaps saying that while technology is important in our daily lives, it doesn’t take the place of the real thing. I also enjoyed the way the film balances the far-reaching consequences of such computer exploits with the smaller, interpersonal ones, such as the strained relationship between Wabisuke, an illegitimate son, and his great-grandmother Sakae.

If there are nitpicks I have with the film, it’s the rather well-worn rom-com trope where two people (in this case, Kenji and Natsuki) pretend to be a couple to impress the family. But in fairness, that doesn’t take up a huge part of the film and actually factors into the family’s, and especially Sakae’s, opinion of him, which is necessary for later when he essentially becomes part of the clan while fighting for them. Also, I’m not sure giving a young teenage boy named Mitsuki (who uses his advanced computing/gaming skills to battle the Oz monster) more screen time was such a good idea. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that he’s an annoying character or anything. But to me, Kenji is the focus of the story (being the outsider and all), so to see him become a mere spectator for the virtual fights in certain scenes made the film feel a tad uneven in who it was presenting as the “hero”. Luckily, Kenji heavily factors into the climax so at least the movie doesn’t completely forget this aspect.

The animation by Madhouse is at its best during the Oz battle sequences. There, we see the high amount of in-betweens, dazzling special effects, and kinetic fight sequences we come to expect from a feature film. I almost wish more time was spent in Oz, since that virtual world is inhabited by more unique designs and abstract backgrounds. The non-Oz stuff is usually full animation as well, with some expressive poses and even a bit of squash and stretch. However, the trade-off is that the character designs are simplified as a result. There are also occasional lanky movements here and there. Still, as a whole, the film looks quite good; my favorite comedic bit of animation is when Kenji frantically hides his file photo, displayed on the TV as a suspect in the Oz decryption, from the family. And Summer Wars automatically gains points for not utilizing the typical settings you often see in anime.

The 2-disc DVD set features an entire second disc of special material. The bulk of the features are interviews with some of the Japanese VAs, which run between two and six minutes in length. They’re worth a watch, and it was interesting to see they recorded this movie as a group, rather than individually. It reminded me of Godannar in that sense. There’s also an interview with the director, Mamoru Hosoda, that runs 12 minutes. In addition, there are teasers, trailers, and commercials for Summer Wars. On disc 1, the only special features are some FUNi trailers.

As for the language tracks, I listened to the English dub the first time and the Japanese original the second time. Both worked in their own way. I must say, it was great to hear more of Brina Palencia (who played Natsuki); she just has a natural “lead character” voice.

It is refreshing to watch Summer Wars, as it offers something different from the usual fare. Yes, the overall theme of togetherness isn’t anything new when you get right down to it, but wrapping it in the technology overtones was executed quite well, and I have a feeling Summer Wars will only get more relevant with each passing year, due to our reliance on the internet. It’s also a film hard to conveniently categorize; it has elements of comedy, drama, action, fantasy, cyberpunk, and even a touch of romance, yet doesn’t feel bloated. The film also has a certain accessibility that some other anime lack. As such, Summer War‘s recommended.

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