Ah, summertime. A golden period of sunshine, vacations, baseball games, and for many of today’s youth, a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of gaming. Among adults gaming has acquired a reputation mostly associated with bad grades, lack of self-discipline, and guns. Many of you who are reading this are probably grounded right now. Solution? Watch Summer Wars with your parents, and not only will you convince them of how this bastion of electronic entertainment will someday save the world, but you will also treat them to a heartwarming reminder on the importance of family values (which just might induce them to buy you that new Starcraft you’ve been eyeing).
Okay, maybe not the Starcraft. But Summer Wars blends cold technology with a warm family reunion to create a cinematically brilliant oxymoron. Battles rage on the computer screen, but lush green fields lie a head-turn away. Men are breaking into sweat and blood at their keyboards and just in the next room lunch is being made. It’s a juxtaposition that highlights the wonders of both worlds. How lovely the rolling mountains and cotton clouds look next to the chaos swirling inside the cesspool that is called the Internet! At the same time, lunchtime sounds laughable when compared to the vast ecosystem blaring within a fifteen-square-inch surface area. It’s clear: Summer Wars lives up to its name admirably. It is a summer flick almost at war with itself.
For a movie of about two hours, the time flies by, just like a summer vacation. At the end, you’re left thinking, “Aww, it’s over?” and yet you feel satisfied. The story exemplifies the good old beauty of linear storytelling, intertwining two parallel narratives into a durable, multi-colored piece of fabric. The substance of one adventure strengthens the other.
You will be hard-pressed to encounter a more relentless enemy than the one found online. Cyber-villainy is bad enough, but once the helpless outside world gets sucked in here, the sense of urgency skyrockets (or in the case of Summer Wars, it plummets down to earth). The conflicts broiling within a virtual space appeal to all senses of the viewer’s imagination; the battleground suddenly loses its limits. It’s equally epic to witness a high-octane fistfight, a high-stakes card game, or a high-IQ mathematical problem. When the virtual begins mixing with the real, the suspense becomes a veritable psychological melee; during the last third of the film, I was a mess of frayed nerves. Even when scenes cut back to the tranquility of rural Japan, the movie never loses its intensity. The motor underneath everything never seems to slow down.
What sticks with you in the end, however, are images from the film that flank the credits, drifting in and out of the black as if one were shuffling through photographs. Not one of them features the sterile white abyss of a technological utopia. The song “Summer Dream” strums out serenely and bittersweetly, and the photos could almost recall an altogether different era. It’s as if the Internet had never existed. All that remains are the tenderness of a loving family, a hearty meal, and the crooked-tooth smile of your grandma.
Like its older sister The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars boasts incredibly rich background art that render dusty bookshelves or kitchen pots and pans as the most beautiful things in the world. The level of detail is extraordinary, and the color choices perfectly embody the blooming sumptuousness and solidity of summer. Character designs have slightly improved, and while the nuance is still lacking, Summer Wars takes on a decidedly more slapstick approach to their characters’ expressions, keeping the tone lively and heightening comedic effect. The film’s handling of its characters transcends mere facial expressions, however; the animators fiddle with every scene to the deepest detail. In general anime works somewhat like a portrait, where a central figure dominates and minimal effort is applied to other items. Summer Wars, on the other hand, more closely resembles Renoir’s Le dejeuner des canotiers. Each item in the painting is a microcosm of its own. Especially in Summer Wars’ huge-family scenes, ten conversations are firing off at once; twenty people – scratching their heads, rummaging through their plate of food, rubbing their pregnant bellies, spitting over the table – they all move at once, but never at the same time.
As with the plot, the soundtrack holds in its hands two different kinds of fruit -- one being the sweet, lyrical summer strawberry and the other being the tangy, clean-cut lime. Summer Wars switches between the broad sweeps of a symphony to the mercurial compression of electronic music with the ease of biting out of the right hand or the left.
The voice acting gains its strength from its numbers; it reaches its most complex harmonies when multiple voices blend and clash. However, the renowned film seiyu Ryunosuke Kamiki gives a standout performance with his endearing, tempered rendition of Kenji. Sumiko Fuji’s interpretation of the grandmother also shines with its subtle mixture of strength and heart. I’ll admit that for Natsuki the rookie voice actress Nanami Sakuraba sounds like a rookie, but I cannot deny her integrity; the performance is not creative, but it fits the character well.
A film, as opposed to a series, is forced to craft its characters with the utmost efficiency, like the sushi chef who cannot cook his creation but garnishes it instead. Summer Wars, then, presents a palatable dish. It is important to remember that this anime is not a tone poem or character piece. There’s a reason the movie’s promotional posters feature not just two or three of its protagonists, but a motley crew of men, women, and children alike whose sheer body mass covers up most of the mountains in the back. Each family member serves his or her part with the utmost conviction; cast prevails over character. While none of us get to know Kenji, Natsuki, or the rest of the family particularly well, we are treated to delicious samples of their personalities, which combine to form the overall flavor.
If there does exist one ingredient that defines the plate, it takes the form of Grandmother Sakae, the family matriarch and a fearsome creature to behold. She serves as the flour in the bread, the thematic material that makes coherent the heap of relatives assaulting our senses. Rarely have I seen a character sculpted so excellently in so short a time.
Summer Wars revels in its paradoxical glory. I didn’t know it was possible for me, as I was watching, to be wringing my hands in nervous curiosity yet at the same time feel such a sense of warmth. If I could choose any anime work that could be more appropriate for the twenty-first century, it would be this one: The film is at once both pertinent to the times and resplendently nostalgic.
In the future, all facets of society are tied into OZ, a virtual world inhabited by millions of users. Kenji, one of OZ’s moderators, was set to begin another typical summer when the lovely Natsuki asked him to accompany her to her hometown as a job. However, little did Kenji know that the 'job' entailed pretending to be Natsuki’s fiancé in front of her eccentric family! Now on display and feeling like a fish out of water, Kenji tries his best to fit in with Natsuki and her relatives, until one day he receives a mysterious math problem through a text message. As an avid math fanatic Kenji can’t help but try to solve it, unaware that his actions may jeopardize not only OZ, but also the entire world...
When I first stumbled upon the anime scene, I demanded only slice-of-life high school romance and Naruto (Weird combination!). I've opened up a little bit since then, but I suppose the high school shoujo type will always be my "comfort zone."