Summer Sun, Something’s Begun: Review of Summer Wars

Gentle readers, I’m sure you’ve all been there. You have that anime, that book, that movie that never got huge buzz, but that all the critics and everyone who’s seen it say it’s absolutely amazing, best movie ever, will change your life, and you think to yourself, “Huh, I should really see that movie… someday.”

I have a lot of those sorts of movies and anime in my life, but until recently, one of the ones near the top was Summer Wars. I’d heard some ridiculously glowing reviews of it, but it always sort of fell off my radar to be seen at a later date. But for some reason, this week I was inspired to check it out at last, probably in honor of the fact that it is, in fact, summer (no word on any wars connected to said season).

So, was the hype worth it? Well, it may not change your life… but that’s about the only bit of praise it doesn’t live up to.

 

We’re off to wipe the web, the wonderful web of OZ

The story takes place in roughly present day, with the only difference being the existence of OZ, a network which is basically a souped up version of the Internet that incorporates avatars and accounts that have all the same codes, financial access, and information as their real life users.  Imagine a virtual world which combines Facebook and Paypal with a side order of heavy telecommuting and infrastructure. Kenji, our main hero, is a shy 17 year old boy and mathematical genius who works as a part-time moderator for OZ along with his best friend, Takashi.

As summer approaches, Kenji is approached by a close friend (and secret crush) called Natsuki, who asks him for an initially simple looking favor: accompany her to her family’s home in Ueda for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately, as Kenji soon discovers, her plan is to pass him off as a boyfriend (or even fiancé!) in order to make her great-grandmother happy. Complicating matters is the fact that Natsuki’s extended family, the Jinnouchi, is huge, and the entire clan has descended on the estate in one big, friendly, nosy mass… and they’re all curious about the “new boy.”

Soon, however, the digital world intrudes as someone – or something – manages to gain access to OZ and begins wreaking havoc on the entire network, messing up the entire infrastructure of the country (e.g. no traffic lights work, emergency lines flooded, etc) and devouring the accounts of millions of users (including those with access to nukes or other dangerous weaponry). Through a series of events, however, the entire Jinnouchi family band together and take a stand against the interloper, with Kenji finding his own courage and skills in the process.

 

Feel Good Cyber Family Drama

I’m not going to lie; for the first ten minutes, I was a bit skeptical of this movie. Initially it seemed squarely focused on the whole OZ plotline and on the concepts of connectivity, the internet, and cyberscapes. Then suddenly they get to Ueda and, well, the movie ends up changing into a romantic comedy for all intents and purposes, complete with the OMG ZANY family, the awkward misunderstandings, the fake relationship put on by Natsuki and Kenji… all it needed was the overprotective dad with a shotgun and a cameo from Ben Stiller. Also, I was somewhat disheartened to see that Kenji was displaying all the typical traits of your average anime teenage hero: extreme doormat syndrome, inability to spit it out, awkwardness around people, etc etc etc.

Luckily, by the eleventh minute, I was absolutely hooked. This movie has almost flawless execution; even as you can see the tried-and-true plot elements, they are rendered in such an endearing and compelling way that you don’t even think twice about them after a while. The two plotlines, the family reunion and the whole OZ crisis, initially don’t seem like the types of plots which would belong in the same movie, and yet they’re so carefully tied together, little by little over the course of the movie, that by the end they’ve become intertwined. They provide such interesting counterpoints to each other as well; one minute you’ll be whizzing through the candy-coated world of OZ with adorable avatars beating the crap out of each other, the next you’ll be clustered around the living room table with young members of the family, watching a baseball game and drinking ice tea in a hot Japanese summer. The best way I can describe this movie is that it’s like My Neighbour Totoro somehow met a more family-friendly and comprehensible version of Serial Experiment Lain  (or possibly Ghost in the Shell).

The family in particular is extremely likable. You’ll never be able to remember who all of them are – there’s something like 80 family members, and the one introduction scene is intentionally confusing – but they form an absolutely wonderful collective with some strong standout characters to provide a foil to Kenji (who, despite his awkwardness, is likable and endearing). Family is very much at the heart of the movie, and the Jinnouchi clan are the perfect representative for that ideal of family: nutty, embarrassing, and sometimes full of conflict, yet warm, connected and supportive. Every scene with them is either full of laughter or “d’awww…” One note that particularly hit home with me is the idea of family dinners and how important they are to this family; Kenji at one point comments on how wonderful this experience is in contrast to his own (his parents are always away for dinner), and a particularly poignant moment has the great-grandmother saying that, thanks to this tradition, she has never had to spend a meal lonely or hungry. It’s a beautiful message that manages to avoid being too preachy.

Another issue that could have been preachy but ended up compelling was the whole treatment of the Internet through the OZ crisis (which features some amazing action sequences as well as showcasing the beautiful and exciting virtual world they live in). The movie does serve as a warning against overdependence on computers and the dangers of giving too much of yourself (i.e. your access, your passwords, your private life) to the Internet; the movie shows modern society coming to a screeching halt because no one can connect to anything and none of the infrastructure works. One scene has Kenji whining that he can’t even call OZ customer service because he can’t connect to OZ to find the number… and I felt a twinge of recognition in that moment! Given the nature of the story and the presence of strong older characters (like the great-grandmother), the story could have easily gone for the old, “back in our day, we used our heads and did things ourselves!” routine where the characters (and the author) lament how useless people have become thanks to media/the Internet/etc. But it doesn’t, and while it showcases the dangers of overdependence on the Internet (and, in contrast, highlights the joys of simply spending time with family and friends), it also showcases the wonderful world that OZ and the Internet provides. OZ is a fantastical, fun place filled with character and, more importantly, community. The users of OZ band together and support each other, even cheering on the heroes despite not knowing them at all (though, as always, there are a few trolls…) There was a scene in the last third that actually had me a bit choked up as it really showed that the Internet is far more than a wretched hive of scum and villainy… it’s a place where people connect and support each other. The bonds in the virtual world are not denigrated as somehow less important than those in real life, and one might conclude that, in the end, the idea is not to reject either real life or virtual life but to instead embrace both.

Visuals are great, particularly in the OZ sequences (I love Takashi’s 8 bit 2D avatar!) and the music is minimalist but appropriate. It also features one of the best dubs I’ve heard in recent years with an excellent localization job; there’s possibly one or two “stilted” lines in the whole movie, and everything sounds just like something a real person would say. My only issue (and this may be my idiocy rather than a problem with the disc) is that, for some reason, I could not get the DVD to display subtitles for any onscreen text (e.g. phone messages etc). This was actually a bit of a big deal as there is quite a lot of Japanese text at key moments of the story; luckily, my Japanese was good enough to follow along, but if this is an issue with the subtitles on the disk, this could result in some definite frustration.

Summer Wars: A New Hope

Summer Wars is one of those movies which takes notes from other compelling storylines, characters and themes and manages to bring them all together in a coherent whole. The people are great, the story is great, the world it creates is great… it’s just great, how about that?  If you haven’t checked it out yet, do so. It is summer, after all…

 

Have you seen Summer Wars? What did you think? Tell us about some other anime you like that deals with the Internet and virtual worlds.

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