“Please tell me you didn’t break the internet.”
From appropriately named animation studio Madhouse comes Summer Wars, the latest big thing in the world of anime, which has received numerous awards and accolades all over the globe. Now the masses get to see what all the fuss is about with this two-disc set. The movie has a lot to say about the nature of families as well as the ways technology has and hasn’t changed families. Also, there’s a giant rabbit that knows kung fu.
It’s the near future. Oz is an online world, combining information, commerce and gaming into one massive network. Everyone in the world has an Oz account with their own personalized avatar, and Oz’s interactions are a part of daily life. College student Kenji is a math genius, who gets a job offer for the summer from Natsuki, the hottest girl in school. After arriving at her family’s summer home and meeting her many relatives, Kenji learns that Natsuki has not hired him for his skills with numbers. To impress her grandmother and not bring shame to her family, Natsuki has hired Kenji to pretend they are engaged. Romantic comedy high jinks ensue. One night, Kenji gets an e-mail on his phone with a complex math problem on it. He solves it, only to discover the next morning that by doing so, he helped a highly advanced and very sinister AI gain unprecedented access to Oz. Now, the AI is stealing millions of identities, wreaking havoc with computerized systems all over the globe, and even threatening nuclear meltdowns. Can Natsuki’s family, with Kenji’s help, be the ones to save Oz and the world?
If I had to describe this movie in a single word, it’d be “packed.” There is so much going on and so much happening at once, I don’t know where to begin. The movie is information overload in its first minutes, telling us all about Oz and its importance to the world. Then, it radically shifts gears and goes into romcom shtick, with Kenji navigating the ups and downs of staying under the same roof with Natsuki’s many quirky relatives. Then, it goes into far-out sci-fi territory with an outrageous “anything goes” virtual world to explore and a monstrous villain threatening the entire planet. During the movie’s final third, it ping-pongs back and forth from high-stakes cyber battles to scenes of down-home family togetherness. At one second, there’s a giant rabbit locked in a life-or-death kung fu battle with a giant Aztec god, and in the next second a mother and her daughters are in the kitchen, chatting while making some snacks for the rest of the family. Then, it’s right back to the explosive rabbit battle. By the time the movie ended, I was exhausted. There’s about five hours’ worth of movie crammed into this 115 minutes.
The filmmakers deserve applause for their ambition, but the downside to such an ambitious film is that no one element, idea, or character stands out. For one thing, the family is huge, with way too many main characters to keep track of. At one point, the family gathered on screen, and I counted twenty-one characters on screen at the same time (twenty-two if you count the dog), all reacting to what was happening. I know there’s some realism to this, and the movie nicely captures that feeling of being at a big family get-together, but I still think half of these characters could have been removed and it would have been the same movie—or perhaps a better one. Similarly, with so many characters running around and so much plot to cover, Natsuki practically disappears for the whole middle of the movie. She’s supposed to be one of the protagonists, but when she showed up during the finale, I thought “Oh, she’s still here?” The romantic comedy stuff, where Kenji has to pretend he and Natsuki are a couple, is resolved somewhat clumsily as the sci-fi plot kicks into high gear, but then that plot takes a back seat as there are more emotional twists and turns the family goes through, and then suddenly we’re back into the sci-fi virtual reality stuff and then…you can see how this movie is exhausting.
For all the problems I had with the bloated script, there’s no problem at all with the eye candy, which is off the freakin’ charts. The online world Oz is all candy-coated psychedelics. Take The Matrix, add Ratchet & Clank, combine it with the infamous ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, throw in about three tons of Hello Kitty products, and then multiply the whole thing by about 10,000 and you’ll maybe begin to get the idea of how beyond crazy the visuals are. Near the end of the film, there are hundreds (Thousands? Hundreds of thousands?) of Oz avatars on screen at once. Although they’re tiny on screen, you can tell each one is unique, and it just takes the breath away. The “real world” scenes are just as impressive visually, but for different reasons. The human characters are all naturalistic, with believable, normal-looking movements, acting and behaving just like real folks do. Even there are a ton of people in the movie, the look and act like real people, far more than human characters in animation usually do. Even if the story is too “out there” for you, you’ve got to give this one a spin at least once, just to be amazed by the sights on screen.
For such a visually powerful movie, it’s good that the DVD’s tech specs are up to the task, rendering everything is jaw-dropping clarity and detail. The sound is also good, in 5.1 surround in both English and Japanese, satisfying both sides of the endless “sub vs. dub” debate. The second disc contains the extras, mostly a bunch of interviews with director Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and the Japanese voice cast. There are also a number of trailers and TV spots, and the set comes with four art cards with drawings of the characters’ Oz avatars. Also, check out how the cardboard slipcase depicts the characters’ avatars, and underneath it, the box art shows the same characters in the real world, which is a neat little detail.
Although the movie is more accessible to viewers than a lot of the other, more incomprehensible anime movies and shows out there, there’s still plenty of weirdness and ludicrousness to be found in Summer Wars. Isn’t it a stretch that this one family in the entire world finds itself at the center of a global crisis, in more than one way? Why do they need that boat with all the lamps on it? What do the two flying whales have to do with anything? And so on.
I can see why Summer Wars has been so wildly popular overseas and at film festivals. It’s a great “crossover appeal” anime, in that it can be easily enjoyed by folks who don’t normally watch anime but are curious about the anime experience. Kind of like how Akira, Cowboy Bebop or Miyazaki’s films found wider audiences than just the anime faithful, attracting mainstream viewers not ready to handle the really weird-ass anime crap like Gantz. It’s hardly perfect—the movie is too busy for its own good and the tone jumps all over the place—but the visuals will blow your mind and once it’s all over, you’ll have experienced one hell of a ride.