Sunday, March 3, 2013
I'm writing this review in that warm afterglow you feel after having seen a really lovely movie that just makes you feel happy about all of humanity and your place in the species. So maybe I might just propose my undying love for "Summer Wars", but I don't think that's a bad thing. "Summer Wars" is a 2009 anime feature directed by Mamoru Hosoda, best known for directing parts of "Digimon: the Movie"* and the graceful piece of art known as "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time". That latter movie remains one of my favorite Japanese animated films ever, and probably would be my go-to for favorite romance film... if only "WALL-E" had not happened. So I had pretty high hopes for "Summer Wars" when I discovered it existed just about three hours ago, and it met all of those. Now I'm waiting patiently for the English release of Hosoda's latest film, "Wolf Children Ame and Yuki". If "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" and "Summer Wars" are any indication, Hosoda is the second-best anime film director working today behind only Master Hayao Miyazaki himself.
"Summer Wars" actually has something of a similar plot to "Digimon: the Movie", in that its about an evil Artificial Intelligence conquering a very Japanese interpretation on the Internet and causing a full on "Die Hard 4" attack on Japan. But that's really only the spice to keep you watching, that's only to supply the tension and rev up the Blockbuster excitement. More accurately, "Summer Wars" is the story of a large-extended traditional Japanese family celebrating the ninetieth birthday of their august matriarch, Sakae, and then coming together to fight that evil AI creature. Our main characters are two Japanese teenagers. Natsumi wants to impress her great-grandma by having a fiancée, so she hires Kenji, a mild-mannered part-time programmer, to come to her house and pose as her boyfriend. Awkward but still charming romantic comedy business then results. More pressing to "Summer Wars" though, is the relationship of this huge family, which is large enough that Sakae more or less can run the defense of Japan from her living room, and may or may not be the de facto monarch of her country. Its a mountain of generally likable characters all together for a family reunion, and this kind of idyllically connected family life is probably very rare in modern Japan, if not even non-existent.
So "Summer Wars" is part drama, part comedy, and part cutesy cyberpunk with moments of deep emotional drama and scenes of fantastic unlimited visual magic. Its not quite the masterpiece that "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" was in terms of romance, but this movie is still greatly entertaining and heartwarming. This is one of the few anime films that I would actually consider recommending to all movie fans, no matter who you are**.
The Internet of "Summer Wars" takes place in the not-to-distant future, where the world's Internet has mostly been taken over in a large-scale virtual reality called "OZ". OZ is basically SUPER FACEBOOK, since every government, business, organization, and person can connect to it and interact with it, creating their own silly cartoony avatar and connect to the entire world in a single fantasy land of commerce, communication, and competition. You can link to OZ using everything from a laptop to a little 3DS, and it appears to have become the most dominant cultural institution of all human civilization. And that really sucks when an AI unfortunately cracks the secret mega-code behind the system, thus turning itself into a virtual Buddhist demon and screwing with everything that's connected to the Internet mainly for its own entertainment. This goes from simply messing with traffic patterns and killing your email to grabbing an experimental satellite out of orbit and plotting to throw it at a nuclear power plant. It also absorbs the various accounts of all the users of OZ, eventually growing into a giant CG black cloud of death ruling over the previously wonderful land of OZ like a digital devil in an Internet Inferno.
One thing I rather like about "Summer Wars" is that it accepts without complaint just how reliant human society has become based on the Internet. Every person, even five-year-olds, have accounts on this OZ thing, and its importance is not something that's judged or regretted, its actually presented as an ideal of what the Internet should be. There are whole online fighting game kung-fu matches, which are presented as real sports and the great champions of those fights are online celebrities of great importance. Yet none of the characters are absorbed into their online world, nobody has become dangerously addicted to the information super highway, and generally this OZ thing is shown to simply be a good thing and a great step in human interaction. OZ isn't just for nerds or young people or people without friends, its for everybody.
However, despite all that, Natsumi's family are still having a nice time planning Granny's birthday party. Her family is this clan of former Japanese nobles, who plot their descent all the way back to the Tokugawa era, full of pride over their victory over an increasingly massive army of Tokugawa soldiers. They vary from digital kung-fu masters, Japanese secret police, baseball stars, little children, fat mothers addicted to TV, master programmers, and everything in between. Most of "Summer Wars"' running time is given to the various interactions between these family members, of which there are probably thirty all-in-all, most of which usually only have a single personality trait, but together help give the movie a vastness in scale and charm of family community. Imagine an Anton Checkov play, then do the exact opposite of that, and you'd have this family. Our leads Kenji and Natsumi actually get somewhat thrown out of focus by the vastness of the cast, ultimately appearing merely at the front of an entire civilization made out of this one family.
By far the most awesome character is none other than Granny, who after surviving World War II, seeing her family fortune dwindle down to nothing, and presumably living through several dozen Godzilla attacks, is hardened into the ultimate badass. She declares that the cyber attacks are nothing less than a war, and using her old rotary telephone connected to a land line calls up all the members of her family and every acquaintance she's met over the years, which ultimately adds to her more or less commanding Japan's defense. Sakae judges Kenji immediately with fire: "will you die for my granddaughter?" and somehow he passes, even though at this point in the story he's completely unprepared for his ruse as Natsumi's lover. And she loves a Japanese card game called "Koi-Koi", which later becomes the main strategy by which the heroes defeat the evil AI.
As lighthearted as this all sounds so far, "Summer Wars" actually does test this family in very deep ways and there is some very deep drama that comes long. I really can't spoil what actually happens, but we see this family come together not only just for celebration, but also in great tragedy. And they don't merely deal with the tragedy, they triumph over it. Which is a lot easier to do in a movie than it is in real life.
"Summer Wars" isn't perfect, obviously. Some of the characters are a bit cliched, you'd see similar characters to the two main leads in just about every anime series of the last decade. But its visuals are stunning, and its depiction of a legitimately happy family is overwhelmingly warming to anybody's heart. Its a very sweet movie in its core, that really only wants to make its audience happy, and to that end, "Summer Wars" succeeds. This, like "Ponyo" or like "WALL-E" is a great movie to watch on a day when you're feeling really depressed about life, and like a great friend, will make you feel better about everything.
Now I just gotta wait until "From Up On Poppy Hill" and "Wolf Children" get released in English. 2013 actually looks like a pretty decent year all-in-all for anime films. Anime series lately have been total crap, but I've been discovering plenty of movies that are absolutely sublime. Maybe we'll even get to see an English release of "Evangelion 3.0" this year... though I wouldn't hold my breath too long for that one.
* I say "parts" of "Digimon: the Movie" because the American release of that film is actually a twisted Frankenstein creation made out of two or three separate Japanese Digimon movies. I've actually seen "Digimon: the Movie" and since I've never been a Digimon fan, it was a completely incomprehensible mess, and whatever talent Hosoda poured into it on his side of the Pacific was edited out and torn to pieces over here. If they had edited in Raymond Burr into the original movies, it would have been more faithful.
** Complete list would be something along the lines of: "Macross Plus", "Cowboy Bebop: The Movie", a few Studio Ghibli movies, "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time", and "Royal Space Force".