By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2011)
Don’t be misled by the title of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it has drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a bucolic family estate. Maybe- Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the better animes of recent years.
The film opens with echoes of Weird Science, as we are introduced to a couple of nerdy teenagers, geeking out in the virtual world of “Oz”, a global cyber network where all users (from individuals to governments) communicate and conduct business via avatars. Kenji (voiced by Michael Sinterniklass) and his pal have part time jobs working for the network (something techie…it’s all big magic to me).
Anyway, the boys are pretty sharp at what they do; Kenji is also a math whiz. When it comes to relating to the opposite sex, however, they are relatively clueless. Kenji has a crush on of their classmates, Natsuki (Brina Palencia), but has no idea as to where to take it from there. Imagine his surprise when Natsuki invites him along on a visit to see grandma out at her family’s sprawling country estate, where the clan is gathering to celebrate the spry matriarch’s 90th birthday.
Kenji is hit with an even bigger surprise when Natsuki introduces him to her family as her “fiancee”. Flustered at first, Kenji decides (correctly) that he should probably play along. After apologizing for springing this on him, Naksuki begs Kenji to go along with the ruse for the duration of their visit; she just wants to avoid getting hounded by nosy relatives on the subject of matrimony. This actually gives the socially awkward Kenji an instant entree with the eccentric but loving clan. He has some consternation when Natsuki’s “first crush” suddenly shows up-her brooding, James Dean-ish uncle (J. Michael Tatum), who is the long-estranged black sheep of the family.
Late one evening, Kenji receives a cryptic text message, challenging him to crack a complex equation (which is like catnip to a math nerd). After pulling an all-niter, he solves it. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that he has been duped; by solving the math problem, he has unwittingly enabled a malicious AI program to hack into the Oz network-and sees his photo plastered all over the TV news as a wanted cyber-criminal (much to his newly adopted family’s chagrin).
As the virus begins to methodically assimilate the avatars belonging to millions of users, it exponentially gains more control over the grid, wreaking increasingly insidious infrastructural havoc worldwide as its power grows. Soon the stakes become even higher-and in true anime tradition, the mantle of saving the earth falls on upon the diminutive shoulders of our geeky hero and his friends (with unexpected help from grandma, who proves that in times of crisis, it’s those old school social networking skills that really count).
Although a number of the narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s script will feel familiar to anime fans, it’s the humanistic touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the films by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that make this such a worthwhile and satisfying entertainment. Director Hosoda began his career in the genre back in the early 90s, working at Japan’s highly respected Toei Animation studio as an animator. This is only the second feature-length anime he has overseen; his first was the outstanding 2007 fantasy-adventure, The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Judging by these two films, he has a very promising career ahead of him.