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1 review, 2 user ratings

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Summer Wars
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by Jay Seaver

"For a family reunion, surprisingly little infighting!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Mamoru Hosoda perhaps didn't make a huge name for himself with "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time", but he made a very good animated film that told a fantastical science fiction story that was also very emotionally grounded. For his follow-up, he does something much the same, albeit on a larger scale.

Kenji Koiso (voice of Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school math wihz, although his summer job is much more mundane, doing online troubleshooting for "OZ", a global virtual community (imagine Facebook as the interface to the entire internet). It's boring work, so when college-bound classmate Natsuki (voice of Nanami Sakuraba) offers him a chance to do something else for a couple weeks, he jumps at it: Come with her to a family reunion in Ueda coinciding with the 90th birthday of her great-grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi (voice of Sumiko Fuji), help set up and ride herd on the dozens of relatives, pretend to be the boyfriend she told Sakae about... Oh, did I not mention that last part back in Tokyo or on the train? Sorry. Anyway, Kenji soon has bigger concerns - a math puzzle he received in an email turns out the key to defeating OZ's supposedly-impregnable security, making Kenji a wanted man, although the Japanese authorities are much more concerned with the infrastructure collapses they soon face, as OZ accounts can serve as authentication to a number of official systems.

I wouldn't be surprised if the screenplay for Summer Wars has been kicking around for a while; while the timeframe is sometimes implied to be the 2010s, other things place the year at around 1998, and OZ does often seem like a very twentieth-century vision of the internet's future, in that it's anthropomorphic, complete with cute avatars navigating three-dimensional virtual space that functions as a very direct analog to the physical world, including avatar battles. Though bits of the underlying concept may have relevance (Facebook and Google have become so ubiquitous and integrated as to be a real security weakness), folks will likely find it a somewhat dated version of the future. Of course, to a certain extent, functionality takes a back seat to looking cool, and the great animators at Madhouse are certainly deliver on that account, giving a virtual world that hangs in white space like something astronomical, with avatars and outposts in orbit. It's a clearly CGI element in a generally cel-based movie, but one that looks like it might exist on the screens of that world.

Said world is a nice-looking one, with a remarkable attention to detail. We're briefly introduced to a couple dozen of Natsuki's relatives, and they never fade into amorphous background blurs - even the ones who are far from essential to the plot maintain their individuality, even though the characters routinely change clothes (I like the aunt who switches between jerseys of Japanese players on American teams). The character designs are a bit exaggerated, but all tend toward the same proportions and sizes. The characters feel real physically, but more importantly, feel like a real family - a loud one that carries on a dozen conversations at once, with some relationships strong and others more contentious.

That believable family situation makes it much easier to accept the thriller plot, because it seems like an entangling of something ordinary and something larger than that. When you stand back and think about it, the screenplay by Satoko Okudera actually seems even more far-fetched - Kenji winds up in the best possible place to help co-ordinate a counterattack on the mysterious hacker, as the Jinnouchi family, while no longer as rich as it once was, has its fingers in a ridiculous number of pies. The villain is tough to believe, really, but the filmmakers keep the stakes high without overdosing on melodrama; Kenji's climactic codebreaking race has a fun "what now?" vibe to it, even as the clock is running out and things are assuming critical importance.

Also played just right - that Kenji has a crush on Natsuki, and the whole thing winds up involving both of them proving their worth, not just to each other, but to themselves. It's a well-done young love story that doesn't need to push harder than just holding hands; we get the point without the chest-beating and yelling that might otherwise accompany it.

Much like the rest of the movie, that's real enough that we can easily overlook the bits of the science-fiction story that may seem a bit silly to an increasingly web-savvy audience. "Summer Wars", after all, is about how a family that can pull together can take on any challenge, even though it's a thing in flux, losing and gaining members in various ways. Hosoda and Okudera don't come right out and say this, just as they didn't spell out what they were saying about youth and missed opportunities in "The Girl Who Leapt through Time", but that's what makes their movies surprisingly rich - there is that universal idea there, whether you're looking for it or not.

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originally posted: 07/29/10 14:29:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.

User Comments

12/31/11 Flipsider Amazing animation, and a great movie! A must see! 5 stars
6/02/11 Bethany Pairitz Outstanding movie. Loved it from beginning to end. The visuals are fantastically stunning. 5 stars
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  DVD: 15-Feb-2011



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