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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Summer Wars: A Review

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After an exhausting week teaching, and an even more exhausting Friday night drunkenly falling into rice fields,

Saturday was my designated Duvet Day. Japan's such an awesome country and I love getting out and exploring, but sometimes you just need a day curled up on the sofa, eating junk and watching films. So that's exactly what I did.

Summer Wars:

Summer Wars is an animated feature set in modern-day Japan. Central to the story is the digital world of Oz: a kind of omnipresent, social-networking site more akin to Second Life than Facebook. That is, Oz isn't just a place where you can chat and play games, but a fully-fledged virtual society with its own shopping centres, business districts and more. What's more, Oz is also the motherboard from which modern society itself is able to function. Traffic signals, sewage maintenance, even space exploration - every walk of society is controlled by local governments through Oz. So, when the American military chooses Oz as the arena in which to test LoveMachine: billed as the world's first form of A.I. with an inbuilt desire to know, all kinds of shit starts going down. As LoveMachine invades government infrastructures on Oz, the effects in the real world start to materialise. Phone lines go down, traffic signals fail and sewage systems start to overflow. And when LoveMachine redirects an orbiting satellite onto a collision course with a nuclear power plant, it becomes clear that what happens in the virtual Oz has the potential to cause a lot of very real damage in the outside world.

Amongst all of this, hero of the story Kenji finds himself drawn into the escalating catastrophe after he is mistakenly blamed for the security breach which allowed LoveMachine entry to Oz. In a bid to clear his name and reverse the impending disaster, Kenji, with the help of faux-girlfriend Natsuki and her extended family, resolves to eradicate LoveMachine and restore the world to its former state. The decision to include the American military in the story certainly has echoes of Hiroshima in 1945 (the Americans choosing to "experiment" with their uncertain, new technology regardless of the consequences for human life): a parallel which the addition of a nuclear threat in the latter half of the story only strengthens.

Hero of the story: Kenji
All in all, it's a great story, expertly told, with the same high drama and epic scale which made Princess Mononoke such a personal favourite. Director Mamoru Hosoda also takes the opportunity to show real progress from his previous work, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Whereas the former was noticeably bottom-heavy in its delivery (it felt like 90% of the film's story came in the last quarter), the plot here remains consistently tense and exciting throughout. Kenji, too, is certainly a likeable protagonist (if sometimes edging towards the status of stock lead character with his bashful denseness) and is supported by a colourful cast of allies, not all of whom make it to the story's conclusion.

If there's a criticism that could be levied against Summer Wars, it's that, although Hosoda has certainly delivered a fast-paced, eventful film, it occasionally feels that, in doing so, he has sacrificed the kind of tightness of plot that characterises the work of say, Hayao Miyazaki. The comparison is an obvious one, perhaps, but if Hosoda is really to step into Miyazaki's shoes as the father of Japanese animation (which he is certainly capable of), then his plotlines need a greater attention to subtlety so that we, the audience, don't have to try so hard to suspend our disbelief. It's confusing to see Kenji enthusiastically break a code he receives by text message from an unnamed enigma, only to discover that enigma was in fact LoveMachine... are we really to believe that any hero, no matter how bashful, would be that reckless? And then there's the fact that, when Natsuki's family declare war on LoveMachine, they have, within minutes, inexplicably assembled a fleet of ships, planes and trucks to assist their grand plan. Of course, a little hyperbole is to be expected in the anime medium, but when Hosoda runs away into the world of the ridiculous so patently as this, the legitimacy of his storytelling suffers.

A colourful arrary of avatars in the world of Oz.
Nevertheless, Hosoda's anime is, as a category, much more adult than Miyazaki's. Miyazaki's films have their own beauty, but, being targeted primarily at children, are not characterised by the same complex plot work (with, perhaps, the exception of Mononoke) that keeps Summer Wars so engaging throughout. Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro, in particular, are two Miyazaki films almost devoid of plot entirely. That is not to say that their classic status is undeserved - indeed, their simple, unpretentious storytelling is what has made them so popular with child audiences in the first place - but that they can sometimes seem not to fully satisfy the appetite of an adult viewer. Hosoda, on the other hand, is able to deliver the best of both worlds: a sophisticated feature which adults can enjoy, with a simple enough message (of the need for unity in times of a crisis), such that children will not find themselves lost in the unfolding chaos.

To say Hosoda is the "next Miyazaki", then, is a statement of perceived status, rather than substance. That is, the substance of the two directors' works is, in a sense, incomparable... but, if Hasoda is able to tighten his craft, then he may just one day acquire the same status which has made Miyazaki a household name in Japan. Summer Wars is certainly evidence of his potential.

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