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"Summer Wars (UK Edition)": A Love Machine

I remember seeing the initial publicity for Summer Wars some years ago. It looked kind of interesting, but most of the trailers left me fairly bewildered as to what was going on. So when the chance came to get some answers, I eagerly jumped in.

The film is set in what is essentially the not too distant future. The internet has evolved into OZ, a massive advanced network that handles everything from handheld gaming to high government. If it exists in the world, it has a presence in OZ. Japanese high school student Kenji is lured away from his summer job as a low level moderator for the system by female senior student Natsuki. Claiming to need an extra pair of hands for her grandmother’s birthday, Kenji has in fact be conscripted to play Natsuki’s fiancé to please a wish of her ill grandmother. Whilst attempting to adjust to this scenario, he inadvertently becomes involved with an attempt to seize control of the great and powerful OZ.

On paper, it’s very easy to make Summer Wars sound like a teen rom-com or a child friendly sci-fi adventure. These are traps to be avoided, as neither label does the film justice. Whilst you might quickly assume you know where the film is going, the script is well-crafted enough to not slot into Hollywood formulas. The two opposing realities that the story is staged in are given distinct visual styles. The world of OZ essentially looks like the Wii interface if it collided with Little Big Planet: a fantasy world where people appear as any number of fantastical avatars. This is juxtaposed against Granny Sakae’s estate, established in sleepy grass fields and summer heat.

The central theme of the story, as stated by director Mamoru Hosoda, is the idea of meeting your lover’s family for the first time. In being presented as Natsuki’s boyfriend at a family gathering, Kenji encounters a large number of people he’s never met before and must politely interact with them in the role he has been cast into. Hollywood has fallen in love with this idea in recent times, as with shock comedies like Meet The Parents. Whilst the fragile lie that is the two leads’ fake relationship is used for some comedy and drama, it’s not taken to black humour levels. Natsuki’s family contains various quirky personalities, but the film firmly uses them to explore a realistic facet that any young relationship must deal with once the two parties realise they’re ready to take the next step. Prior to this, my only real experience with such a cast was with the residents of Iron Town in Hayao Miyazaki’s famed Princess Mononoke. I couldn’t stand the Iron Town residents, but Natsuki’s family are easily more likeable, and you want to see Kenji win them over in kind. Kenji himself is also easy to warm to, especially for shy guys like myself who like to keep their head down and keep moving forward. I do feel that Natsuki often felt marginalised but in a way that kind of works. Her reduced role serves to balance the fact that the majority of the cast are familiar to her, and it helps with the fact that much like Kenji, they are new to us as well. She does get at least one big moment, and there’s a beautifully handled emotional scene between her and Kenji around halfway through the movie.

Easily one of the strongest characters is Natsuki’s grandmother, whom all the family respect. The idea of the learned old person appears in several stories, but the character is one of the few to do so with integrity. Sakae is not simply a cackling old woman comfortable in retirement or a bigoted, out of touch fossil. Instead she is a strong guiding figure for her family and community, firm in her resolve but open minded enough to actually understand a situation. She reminded me quite a bit of my own late grandmother, a strong woman whose mind was sharp as a knife to the end.

Complicating Kenji’s awkward bluff is being framed for an attempt to hack the OZ computer network. The attempt to hack OZ runs concurrently with the family interactions and is used to partly explore a generational divide. What initially seems to simply be the kind of attack used by common internet trolls proves to be something far more sinister. Our protagonist’s hands are tied, as he lacks any real authority to take command, and a number of the family members dismiss the crisis as a mere game, focusing instead on family politics. As one of the trailers claims, the events in OZ are a new kind of war. Any number of stories involve hackers causing trouble online or things online reaching out to hurt the real world, yet Summer Wars manages to use this angle in a way that feels completely fresh. It’s impressive that a film with little to no violence can have as a major part of its plot one of the most high stake wars imaginable.

One minor criticism is that the antagonist of the story lacks clear characterisation. The rogue ‘Love Machine’ often acts in a way which seems to be more in line with the needs of the plot rather than any clear logic on its part. This is especially true near the end, where for some reason it still feels obliged to honour a request to play a game. Sometimes not giving your antagonist a clear voice helps to make it much more threatening, but I think at least one scene making it clear what the thing’s state of mind is would have helped, even if it just confirmed the thing was psychotically evil. The script can’t seem to decide if it can cut through the rules of the system or is romantically bound to follow them, like the characters in Reboot. It does provide some interesting visuals when we see it tip of key files like dominoes, or a scene that puts a clever spin on the old ‘I can defeat you with the power in just one finger’ boast, but some consistency would have been welcomed.

The bulk of the extras are interviews, averaging 15 to 20 minutes in length. The first of these is an interview with Hosoda at the Locarno film festival, where he discusses the film, the reaction by international audiences, and what he’d like to make next. It’s an interesting piece, especially for anyone intrigued by how a film intended initially for one part of the world is perceived by others, and what’s similar and what’s different.

The next, a stage greeting by the main cast and director at a press screening, is a bit more fluffy. This is basically a PR piece, and whilst it’s cool to see something foreign audiences will rarely be aware of, there’s not really anything to it beyond harmless well wishing of success and back patting of fellow cast. Thankfully, the cast interviews that follow are generally more interesting. These are five short interviews with the actors who played five key characters, explaining roughly how they auditioned for the role and what production was like. This is interesting both for what is said and what isn’t (the voice actress who plays the young boy Kazuma seems clearly a wee bit insulted she was passed over for Natsuki and instead told her voice was perfect to play a boy, something I’m mildly surprise more actresses don’t discuss). There are some interesting nuggets on how the actors read their characters and what this brought to the delivery.

The final extras consist of TV spots, teasers and the theatrical trailer. The trailers are most of the ones I mentioned earlier, and watching them after the fact I can understand why they left me lost. They’re a bit inconsistent in how they choose to promote the movie, and in some places they flat out lie (scenes are linked together in ways they don’t even come close to in the movie for instance).

The film is being released on a choice of Blu-ray or DVD, with the latter being reviewed here. The DVD release has an excellent transfer, with crisp detail and vibrant colours. A choice of Japanese or English tracks is offered, both in 5.1 audio.

Summer Wars is definitely a good movie. It feels solidly paced, running just long enough to tell its story comfortably and elicit the needed emotional responses. A particular credit I feel is that, in an age where most releases have some awkward moments that those ‘not in the know’ may raise an eyebrow at, it’s a film you could happily share with friends and family who don’t see the appeal of animated works. It explores some heavy themes but in a workably light way. With some movies, you can go on an emotional journey and have the fatigue at the end to prove it. Summer Wars is instead a delight that sits easy, exploring the place of family and young love in the 21st century. It’s the latter that stands out in particular. It’s a movie that reminds you of all those years ago when you felt the youthful summers would never end. With so much going on in the world currently, it’s nice to retreat briefly into that comfort zone one more time.

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