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Anime Reviews: Summer Wars
Summer Wars is a rewarding and entertaining film with great animation and vivid characters, but the story is bogged down by way too much deus ex machina.
Title: Summer Wars
Production: Studio Madhouse / Warner Bros. Pictures
Film Length: 114 minutes
Air Dates: 8/1/2009
Age Rating: 7+ (dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: Kenji prides himself on his mathematical abilities, but that's the only thing he's good at. After school, both he and his friend Takashi work as part-time moderators for the online system "OZ," which has become the dominant internet provider and internet hub worldwide. By making an account and an avatar, you gain access to OZ's many, many applications--all of which Kenji and Takashi must moderate. One day, however, Kenji is invited by fellow classmate and crush Natsuki to visit the Jinnouchi estate for her grandmother's 90th birthday (while posing has her fiancé). After a rocky first impression, Kenji receives an email containing a math puzzle, which he easily solves. At first, this puzzle seems to just be a meaningless piece of spam, but when OZ's networks are hacked into and Kenji's photo is circulated around the globe as the perpetrator, it's up to Kenji to both maintain his innocence and put a stop to this menace.
The Good: Mamoru Hosoda's typical nuanced direction and animation; OZ is really, really interesting; large variety of likable characters
The Bad: Story relies too much on deus ex machina; starts off a little too quickly; takes itself way too seriously
The Ugly: No seriously, there are way too many farfetched coincidences in this movie
I'm actually quite surprised at how popular this movie is. I mean, yeah, it's definitely good, and even borderline great at times, but I've always found The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to be the superior Mamoru Hosoda film. But despite that, Summer Wars gets way, way more love and attention. Is it because it's more accessible? Is it because it's not about high school? Is it because of its title? Well, for each of those questions, I have no idea, but what I can do is take another look at the film and see what all this international fuss is about.
Firstly, Mamoru Hosoda. He's awesome. That explains much of this film's popularity already! But while TokiKake's animation was very nice to look at, the film was still much more restrained in its use of animation (it focused on a handful of characters and featured mostly mundane environments). Summer Wars, on the other hand, features many more characters and flips back and forth between the normality of real life and the visual spectacle that is OZ, sparing no expense in portraying both worlds. Hosoda knows how to not only make his works wondrous to look at, but also varied and lifelike. The avatars in OZ look almost exactly like what real people would use for their online personas, using everything from anthropomorphic rabbit brawlers to 8-bit floating faces and stylized samurai warriors, and even the villain's Thunder God/Raijin avatar looks like something a real person would consider a badass piece of work.
The ubiquitous nature of OZ leads me to my next point: OZ is a very cool concept. A unified internet super-app that requires only one login to do everything I need to do on a daily basis? How much more useful could anything possibly be?! And the fact that you can make your avatar from scratch and apparently randomly receive special cosmetic items from the admins to soup up your avatar even more? And it includes an auto-translator so you can legitimately speak with people around the world without forcing them to speak your own language?! And it has games that utilize your avatar and provide incentive to soup it up?! WHY DO WE NOT YET HAVE THIS BECAUSE I WOULD PUT MY HEART AND SOUL INTO IT--oh right, we see why we don't have this in the movie. It makes it easier to become a cataclysm-inciting cyber terrorist. Curse you, fatal design flaws! Even in escapist fiction, OZ is too good to be true. Sadface.
But awesome aesthetics and concepts aside, what truly makes this movie work is its characters. More specifically, it establishes strong connections between the audience and characters whose names you'll never remember whose importance in the story is minimal, but that doesn't matter; you like these people not because they're important, but because they feal real! Our main characters are, of course, given proper development and our emotional investments with them are paid off nicely, but it's rare for a movie to give us the same level of payoff with practically-unnamed side characters. And even though characters go through major changes, they're still recognizable as the people they started off as--you know, just like real people do. That's part of the magic of good writing. But, let's be perfectly honest here: not everything in Summer Wars shares in the same high-quality of writing...
For example, let's look at the plot! There are so many farfetched coincidences and contrived conveniences that even Tokyo Godfathers (more on that later) would tell this movie that it's being ridiculous. I really want to avoid spoilers, so I can't go into too much detail on how much deus ex machina this movie gets away with, but I'll give this much away: the identity of the OZ hacker is an artificial intelligence named Love Machine, which has a programmed instinct that predisposes it to learning. The guy who designed Love Machine just so happens to be a member of the Jinnouchi family, and he just so happens to be selling it to the U.S. Military, who just so happen to feel it's a good idea to unleash this technological horror on the entire internet, which just so happens to cause the crisis that the movie is centered around, which just so frickin' happens to be a crisis our characters can handle, because the Jinnouchi family JUST SO HAPPENS to have members of the police, the fire department, the Defense Force, and every conceivable organization in its fold. As well as the guy who designed the thing. Oh, and Kenji's math skills JUST SO HAPPEN to be the key to solving this crisis. Gee, movie, it's almost like it's all just a big coincidence that everything in the story happens by coincidence! I was about to launch into a caps-lock fury of keyboard-smashing gibberish, but I've since gotten away from the keyboard, ate some comfort food, and found my happy place before returning. This movie made me a little bit angry. And the torrent of contrived coincidences is chiefly the reason why.
The other problems with Summer Wars are a lot more nitpicky and minor. Among these, I feel like the movie just starts off way too quickly. We're given a brief introduction of OZ, we meet Kenji, his friend Takashi, and his crush/pretend fiancé Natsuki, and before you even have a chance to absorb it all, the story kicks off and never looks back. If the first 5 minutes of the movie don't give you whiplash, you're a real trooper.
Another issue I have with the movie is that it takes itself way too seriously at times. Sure, sometimes its solemness is warranted (you'll immediately know when), and sometimes the movie's serious tone just feels silly (HYPER-DRAMATIC INTERNET HANAFUDA MATCH YEEEAAAHHHH). While I wouldn't say it's enough to ruin the movie, you'll definitely have a hard time taking the movie's climax very seriously. And come on now, practicing shaolin martial arts for an online avatar cage match? Really, Summer Wars? Really?
But despite all that--despite my relentless griping and groaning--go see Summer Wars. Even though its story is ridiculous as all hell, I've only scratched the surface of this movie's greatness (including a spectacular soundtrack and one of the best English dubs I've heard). And to sweeten the pot, this is a great-looking Blu-Ray release for your home's big screen, making it a great choice for a movie night with the family. Just be warned that applying even a single brain cell to the story may cause uncontrollable fury.
Final Score: 7.5 out of 10. Summer Wars is a very strong and very solid entry in the anime film industry with spectacular visuals and memorable characters, but the sheer absurdity of the story and its twists may ruin the experience for many.