Summer Wars

For most of us, the Internet is a toy. We read our email, we browse our favorite sites, we order music and movies and books, all by way of the Web. Yet there is danger there as well. Films as early as WarGames warned us of the perils of networked computers; The Matrix and The Terminator gave us dystopias where when the machines started thinking together, humanity became imperiled. But most films that envision a computer system run amuck are dark and dreary and typically violent...not family fare.

That's where Summer Wars comes in. A movie about relational dysfunction as much as computers going berserk, it is nevertheless a sunny, cheery film that most kids in upper elementary and beyond - and their families - will really enjoy. Mamoru Hosada, director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, has delivered an engaging film that makes the most of both its virtual world and the reality behind it.

In Summer Wars, the virtual world is named Oz. Oz is not so much an Internet site as it is the Internet as a whole. However, whereas our modern networking is primarily text-based with pictures thrown in to liven things up, Oz is a visual wonderland. It's as if somebody combined the massive multiplayer worlds of The Sims or WoW with shopping, relationships, you name it. There are hundreds of millions of people on Oz...everyone from peasants to governments.

Kenji is a high school student who's brilliant with mathematics; he also works part-time for Oz as a low-level programmer. He's kind and sweet, but rather shy, much smarter with numbers than with people, so it's a surprise when his friend Natsuki invites him to come with her to celebrate her grandmother Sakae's 90th birthday. It's an even greater shock, then, when she introduces him as her fiance! Her extended family welcomes him, however, and he warms up quickly.

That's when the world of Oz hits the virtual fan. Kenji received a mysterious email with an incredibly complex numeric riddle to solve. He figures it out in a few hours and sends back a response...only to find out that his calculations were actually the key to crack the encryption to Oz. Now the prime suspect in a massive takeover of the system, Kenji not only has to prove his innocence, he has to help defeat the AI called Love Machine that's taken over and messed with everything from traffic lights to GPS systems. With the help of Natsuki's cousin Kazuma, a world-class gamer, and other family members in the computing business, Kenji is perhaps the only hope the world has of restoring order ever again. Oh, and all that while he's seriously falling for Natsuki...

Summer Wars is a delight for the eyes. The contrast between the clean, lily white world of Oz and the warmth of real-life Japan is an artistic choice that pays considerable dividends. I often comment about the animation quality of a film, but here there's no need -- it's simply perfect for the environs Mamoru Hosada has created. It's fantastic, yet not terribly flashy or showy; it's just what's needed to draw the viewer into both worlds without even thinking about the animation itself. The dub is highly enjoyable, even if it includes a few minor profanities that would be questionable for young children in America that wouldn't be as harshly understood in Japan. If there are quibbles to be had with the film -- and there are a couple I'll mention in a minute -- they shouldn't be found in the beautifully exquisite worlds Hosada has made for us to enjoy.

As with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosada's work shines in his characters. Both with dialogue and subtle non-verbal cues, Hosada brings life to his leads in such a way that you could believe they really exist. While every player has his or her quirks, they add dimension and depth; no one here is a blatant anime stereotype or defined exclusively by their eccentricity. It would be wonderful to sit down with Sakae and learn about Japan's history or to become buddies with Kenji. Most slice-of-life anime try really hard to do this; Hosada does it effortlessly.

And unfortunately, it does mean that the same quibble I had with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is true here. Simply put, the world of Oz is fascinating and exciting, yet I was far more interested in the people than the plot. If anything, Hosada seems to want to make slice-of-life movies where extraordinary things happen, and they don't quite mesh. That said, the combo here was very close to peanut butter and chocolate. The two sides are different but taste great together. There are simply times when the plot gets in the way. In particular, Natsuki nearly gets lost in the plot-heavy middle of the film. I liked her too much for her to get sidelined, so that bothered me. Had she played more of a central role throughout the picture, I think Hosada would have been closer to a full-on masterpiece.

While I liked the film enough to overlook that problem, there's also a plot contrivance that pulled me out of the film a bit. As it turns out, the three persons central to the core problems and solutions going on within Oz all coincidentally happen to be under one roof for the majority of the film. The whole point of the Internet is that you can chat, work, and play with people around the globe as if they were in your living room. Though cinematically it's much easier to have all your key figures in one physical location, it defies all logic (and the very nature of virtual reality) for the characters to share the same locale in the real world. It was a little much for me to believe, but not so much that I couldn't thoroughly enjoy the film.

But moving back to things I enjoyed...although some may not appreciate this, I loved the fact that Summer Wars is very much a Japanese film. That might seem redundant to say on a website dedicated to anime. Yet anime today is created with a global audience in mind, and it shows. Where once AnimEigo filled up recipe cards with cultural notes that made in-jokes and references understandable, now many anime are quite Westernized. Yes, we still get Japanese honorifics and certain societal oddities, but anime doesn't feel foreign much anymore. That's actually a bad thing, as cultural uniqueness is something that has made anime special for most of its history.

The relationships in Summer Wars are understandable to anyone around the world, but a key element within the movie is a card game called koi-koi. It's never translated, probably due to the fact that a literal translation ("fish fish" or "carp carp") might make it look like it is "go fish," which it isn't. For something so important to the storyline of the film to be a game unknown outside of the East is a brave move. And yet it's not off-putting; even though we don't know the game, we root for the heroes and get drawn in. This is a credit to Hosada's ability as a director, of course, but I am also glad to see that he isn't willing to abandon his culture to more easily sell his films abroad. Because let there be no doubt: this film could have easily become a blockbuster in America. It's just that good.

To be honest, I've been hitting a rut lately in anime. After the disappointment of FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I was running out of steam. Summer Wars restored a bit of my faith that good anime features are still being made, and I'll be eager to see what Mamoru Hosada has in store next. He's not the next Miyazaki, in my opinion...he's the next Isao Takahata, and that's a very good thing too.

Summer Wars -- mild profanity, very brief nondescript nudity, mild innuendo -- A