Summer Wars – Review
by Miguel Douglas on February 06, 2010
In the near future, the creation of a virtual city of OZ has changed the way people live. Through this service, people can be represented anywhere in the world through the use of their avatars—digital representations of themselves, which can take any shape and identity—exploring the city of OZ and as their needs see fit. We then enter Kenji, a normal high school student who works part time as a programmer to help develop OZ further. He is then suddenly approached by Natsuki—the girl of his dreams—and unexpectedly gets invited to attend a family celebration, where he is to pose as her fiancé. If that wasn’t strange enough, things begin to get even more bizarre when OZ is suddenly hacked into while at the celebration, and with Kenji becoming the prime suspect, the house—and eventually the world—is turned upside down.
Summer Wars sees the return of director Mamoru Hosoda, more famously known for his previous project, the 2006 animated film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Hosoda is back again to direct perhaps his biggest film to date—considering the unexpected success of his previous film, his next film project would undoubtedly be highly anticipated by viewers alike. With such an avid response towards The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda has reached a platform that very few Japanese animation directors ever attain within their artistic careers—having two subsequent films being nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year award. With his follow-up being the amply titled Summer Wars, we see Hosoda returning to an aspect viewed in his previous films—that of creating wholesome and entertaining cinematic experiences.
Summer Wars is the kind of film that reminds us of the strong family experiences of yesteryear—while still allowing space for the digitize aspects of our current world to shine through. With a solid script written by Satoko Okudera—scriptwriter for Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time—the film offers a great examination of family values, virtues and traditions. Somewhat ironically—but obviously warranted—the film utilizes the strength of family against the backdrop of the digital era; while all are connected to the ever-encompassing OZ Internet network, the aspect of family bonding within the film is always highlighted as a truer source of connection than any internet network could ever be—a juxtaposition not fairly explored within the realm of individuality and internet. It’s interesting to see this, mainly because most films tend to view the Internet as the separation of the individual state for example. While this can be viewed equally as a true statement, Summer Wars decides for once to embrace technology, while still embracing the importance of family—and the individual—at its core. It’s this combination of old and new that provides a contemporary element to the film, presenting a relatable connection to the viewer.
And since Summer Wars is a film centered mostly on family bearings, its cast of characters is abundantly huge as they are enjoyable to watch. There are well over a dozen characters—an astonishing task for any animated film—but it’s surprising to see Hosoda and company not convey them as one massive and indistinguishable community. Each character has some trait or mannerism to distinguish them amongst the enormous family structure presented, never doing away with any of them for the sake of time. Each character makes a part of the family function, and each character has a history and relationship with other family members to accompany him or her. It’s this thoughtful and deliberate approach that really steps up Summer Wars a notch in terms of characterization and how Hosoda and company really strive to make such an important element of the film a success.
And while Summer Wars doesn’t tread much new ground in terms of premise—it contains many familiar elements that have been done before—it re-imagines them in such a way that is refreshing and creative. The film does allow ample time for plot development—roughly the first hour or so is dedicated entirely towards it—but the plot becomes somewhat stunted by its own formulaic approach as it nears its conclusion, resulting in yet another save-the-world scenario all too reminiscent to other films. Considering this, the film does become somewhat conventional towards its latter half, but does it in such a way that is still enjoyable to watch, especially since it playfully reworks these concepts to its advantage. But for what it lacks in narrative progress, it makes up for with visual attentiveness and creativity.
Which brings me to my next point, the animation of Summer Wars. when you have practically the same people on board that worked on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, it would be hard to miss. Studio Madhouse takes the helm once again, and with character designs by none other that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, you have a very similar visual flair to Hosoda’s previous film. In fact, Summer Wars looks very much the same, except for one new addition—the use of CGI. With the heavy inclusion of it, it broadens the film and actually complements the material; most usage of the CG takes place within the realm of the OZ Internet network, an obvious choice to dictate what a digitize world would visually look like. This is probably one of the few cases where you would expect to see CGI utilized to showcase a digital world. Besides representing the digital aspects, the lushly animated real world shown in the film is just as impressive. The countryside location where the majority of the films takes place look fantastic, as do the characters. The production values have been upped since the Hosoda’s last film, and it definitely shows through its realistic portrayal—putting the OZ network aside—that could almost be visualized as a live-action film, it’s executed to that well of a degree.
Overall, Summer Wars is a rambunctious and enjoyable film for all ages. While not entirely original in its premise, it does enough right in providing the creative elements it needs to standout as a visual and imaginative experience. Perhaps its best to say that Mamoru Hosoda will garner even more fans and followers with this film, but I believe it would better suited to say that with Summer Wars, he has cemented his name as a considerable and talented director within the field of Japanese animation. The man knows how to entertain, not only on an individual basis, but also on creating wholesome entertainment that works on practically every demographic level. He has showcased a talent very few animation directors ever dream of succeeding in—a talent to be both an effective director and creative storyteller. With a great story, superb animation and an entertaining cast, Summer Wars is also a film that effectively strives to remind us of the important things that matter—family, tradition, honor—just to name a few. And these are things that we should all appreciate, with Summer Wars being a film that does this quite successfully.