Summer Wars (GKIDS, PG)

I liked Hosoda’s last film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars fulfills the potential that Girl showed.

Despite having a built-in audience, anime is still at the point where, if a movie is given a decent theatrical push, then you know it’s probably at least a pretty good one. As if distributors still haven’t quite learned how to market anime films theatrically in America, they only even try with the best of the best. Think about it—how much anime do you remember playing in theaters, especially here in St. Louis, in the past decade or so? There’s Hayao Miyazaki’s oeuvre as well as Satoshi Kon’s, and that’s about all that comes immediately to mind. And of course both Miyazaki and Kon are masters of the format.
Now GKIDS is releasing Mamoru Hodosa’s Summer Wars theatrically and really standing behind it to boot (they are opening it with the same awards consideration release pattern they successfully used last year on the overrated The Secret of Kells), and if you’re assuming that this means it’s a good one, you’re right. I liked Hosoda’s last film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars fulfills the potential that Girl showed.
Here we have a nerdy high school boy named Kenji who is a mathematical genius but a social derelict. Kenji spends most of his time as a part-time “code monkey” for a massive online community called “Oz,” which is pretty much what it would be like if you combined Facebook with Second Life and then multiplied it by 100. (Summer Wars is set in the near future, and Oz seems like a logical extension of where we’re going with our online communities now.) For no other apparent reason than typical anime-style wish fulfillment, Kenji is enlisted by the most popular, prettiest girl in his school, Natsuki, to pose as her boyfriend when she goes to visit her dying grandmother and the rest of her family. It seems like for a while that Summer Wars is going to become one of those movies, but while Kenji is embedded with Natsuki’s family the shit hits the fan with Oz—a supercomputer hacks the system (possibly with Kenji’s help), accesses everyone’s personal information and wreaks havoc on absolutely everything in the world: emergency services, GPS devices, cell phones, nuclear warheads, etc. And of course, the person best equipped to fix the problem is our hero Kenji.
Summer Wars wears its influences on its sleeve, which is kind of refreshing in this age of plagiarism-as-original-idea. You’ve probably already spotted the two most obvious sources of inspiration from the above description; the title sounds a lot like “Star Wars,” doesn’t it (the film’s Japanese title is actually the Japanese approximation of the English “Summer Wars,” “Samâ Wôzu”)? And “Oz” sounds like a magical kingdom from another popular classic, doesn’t it? It doesn’t help that the world of Oz is a lot more colorful (natch) and prettier than the “real” world depicted in Summer Wars—Oz is primarily computer animated and the real world is primarily hand-drawn.
When it comes to the film’s climax Summer Wars falls a little short, but I’m willing to forgive this flaw. The rest of the film is so filled with ideas it is understandable that they had trouble maintaining throughout the film’s 113-minute duration. A final quibble is that depending on where you are in the country you can see Summer Wars theatrically either dubbed into English or subtitled with its original Japanese language track in place (or in some major cities you can choose between the two), but here in St. Louis we’re only getting the dubbed version. I feel like this film’s target audience would prefer the subtitled one, though the English dubbing is perfectly serviceable. Regardless, I’m happy to have the opportunity to see good anime feature films on the big screen, and hope that there are lots more to come. | Pete Timmermann

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