CAPSULE: SUMMER WARS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Hosoda

FEATURING: Voices of Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba

PLOT: Math and computer whiz Kenji battles a rogue artificial intelligence who is wrecking the virtual world of Oz and seizing corporate and government computer accounts, while simultaneously posing as the boyfriend of a classmate he has a crush on during her family celebration.

Still from Summer Wars (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only during the cyberdream scenes set in the disintegrating virtual world of pixelated mandalas that Summer Wars approaches the fantastical. The light show there inside the Matrix is worth checking out, though.

COMMENTS: The virtual world of “Oz” that makes up the backbone of Summer Wars‘ plot is not that far off. Essentially, it’s the Web 3.0, a 3-D, candy-colored virtual reality mashup of Facebook and Amazon, where everyone gets a cute avatar and all your banking and credit card accounts are merged under one convenient password. (If that sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, just consider what would happen to world commerce if the entire Internet went down for a week). Because Oz was designed by the Japanese, it looks like a constellation of spinning cloud/animal hybrids orbited by blue and pink planetary blobs, with virtual whales floating through the cyberether spouting fireworks from their blowholes. Corporations and government agencies have set up branch offices in Oz, and some folks even work via their avatars at virtual workstations, including our protagonist, high school math whiz Kenji, who has a part-time job as a “code monkey” doing routine programming. Visually, the sequences set in Oz are so psychedelic and startling—including a finale featuring a CGI cousin of the demon from Fantasia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain”—that the regular anime style used to illustrate reality seems thin and weak by comparison. That optical scenario is reminiscent of the Kansas/Oz dichotomy in The Wizard of Oz, and Summer Wars sports a similar “no place like home” moral; Hosoda’s story values the human above the technological, and champions the organic community of families sitting down to dinner together over the virtual community of atomic individuals connecting via keyboards. The movie is intensely conservative in its reverence for traditional Japanese family values. Kenji, an orphan, finds a sense of purpose when he is unofficially adopted into the Jinnouchi clan after posing as his crush Natsuki’s fiance. The clan proudly traces its lineage back to the feudal period, even keeping ceremonial swords from the period; they revere their elders (represented by matriarch Sakae) and band together to defeat the artificial intelligence’s assault on Oz, with dozens of characters each contributing to the effort according to their own skills and resources. They even enlist other local families into the struggle by reminding them of the historical ties between their clans. The emphasis on the family is so strong, in fact, with great-grandma delivering a heavy-handed inspirational speech on the importance of dining together before the final battle set online, that the movie might be accused of being Luddite in its implicit anti-social media stance. Still, much like L. Frank Baum’s Oz, the virtual Oz is so much more stimulating, fun and dangerous than either Kansas or Japan that the praising the virtues of home become a bit of a hard sell. The sentient program wrecking Oz is given a weakness for gaming, which gives Hosoda an excuse to animate sequences of human-manned avatars facing off against the rogue A.I. (who incarnates first as a grinning Hindu demon, then as a gigantic shadow composed of millions of hacked accounts) in a series of virtual duels. Of course, this is completely ridiculous, but this action conceit is a lot more watchable than looking at a couple of guys on keyboards searching for backdoors in the code or trying to crack hashed passwords; these epic spectacles are the most thrilling and memorable parts of the film. The social media/videogaming demographic for Summer Wars skews young, but the movie is thoughtful enough about the interplay of technology and tradition, and the potential disaster of a massive cyber-terrorist strike, that it can suck adults into its scenario as well.

Summer Wars was picked up and distributed by Warner Brothers in Japan, but failed to become a mainstream crossover anime hit, earning less than $100,000 in US theaters. Despite strong marketing and generally good reviews, even in Japan it disappointed, ending 2009 as only the 38th best performer at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An enjoyably trippy Japanese animated feature…”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

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