As I’ve noted before, it is very hard to review a truly great film.
Bad films? Why the review almost writes itself. You have so many things that really bugged you about them that the hardest thing is stopping. The average film isn’t much more difficult, as they provide lots of both good and bad to discuss.
But great films? What makes a film great is often so difficult to pin down that you just can’t seem to find the words.
Summer Wars is a truly great film, one of the best Anime films ever made.
It was, in fact, Mamoru Hosoda’s second theatrical film, although he’d done several TV movies before that. The first of the two, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, was a beautiful and heartfelt take on a much adapted Japanese novel and was good enough that it alone would have guaranteed that he would be remembered as a great director.
But Summer Wars was something even more remarkable, a film both funny and touching, a family comedy and a suspenseful science fiction film, with tradition and modern technology meeting and the warrior spirit of the past rising again to meet the threats of the modern world.
Kenji is a high school student who also does routine clean-up work for OZ, a massive, 3-D online environment which might be compared to the internet on steroids. Everyone uses it to communicate, play games, do their shopping or even as a place to set up businesses. One of his classmates, Natsuki, wants to hire him for the weekend, although she won’t tell him what the job is.
It’s only when he goes home with her to her family’s ancestral home — one of those traditional Japanese castles we see in Samurai epics — that he learns that she wants him to play her boyfriend.
And things only get more complicated when a rogue A.I. named Love Machine attacks OZ and starts a very real panic as it plays games with the programs controlling traffic lights, water mains, electric distribution, fire alarms, and the countless other things Love Machine can control.
Where do we start? Well, there are all the great characters — and let’s face it, there are a lot of them! Most of them are from Natsuki’s extended family. A few are only sketched in, but it is surprising how well developed most of them are. They are descended from an old family of warriors, the Jin’nôchi clan, and the warrior spirit runs deep in them.
By far my favorite character is Natsuki’s Granny, a woman of incredible strength and character whom most of her family find just a little terrifying — and with cause. But she is also a loving mother and grandmother who cares deeply for her family — and feels an equally deep sense of public responsibility. The warrior blood is strong in her and she reacts to the disasters caused by Love Machine by using the weapons at her disposal — her long list of old friends and contacts, her powers of persuasion, and her strong will — which she uses to cajole, persuade and encourage important people at all levels of society.
Kenji also hides unexpected depths, as he seems meek and apologetic, and reluctant to take credit for his impressive mathematical and computer skills, but he has a lot of hidden strength and his own share of the warrior spirit which unexpectedly makes him one of the leaders of the family’s war on Love Machine.
Another great part of the film is the sly character based humor, which can leave us laughing when we see which character uses a squid as his avatar, or when Granny tells an old acquaintance to set aside their differences because of how many years it has been since she hit him!
Then there’s OZ, a fantastic alternate world, filled with color and wild design. The closest thing you are likely to find is the dream worlds of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, although one gets the feeling that OZ is a real and substantial sort of place and not a world of dream logic. It has clear rules and what amount to “natural laws” that govern how it works. It is also filled with incredible images, particularly the many colorful avatars, and the program they use at one point which is a visual copy of the Jin’nôchi family’s castle.
Nor does Mamoru Hosoda ignore the real world, which he portrays with great beauty and a lot of attention to detail. In particular the castle, with its surrounding fields and forests, and endless rows of trellised Morning Glories, is given a great deal of presence and beauty. It is the sort of place a lot of us dream of living in. There’s a very Miyazaki moment when we see the cloud of vapor surrounding a vehicle entering Earth’s atmosphere, and a lot of attention to the fine details like waves, water and clouds, birds and animals and countless other details. Seeing this film again after several years, I was particularly struck by one scene where the camera pans down the length of a long banquet hall, and each silhouetted character tells us a story.
And best of all, it is a wonderfully human story Hosoda tells us, about not giving up, but standing tall and fighting, even when it looks like you can’t possibly win.
What an incredible film!
Mamoru Hosoda has since made several other films since, but he has yet to top Summer Wars. That would be a pretty tall order, I admit. Even making a film as good would be more than most directors ever achieve.
You need to see this film. Now. As soon as possible. It is one of the best Anime films you are ever likely to see — and perhaps the best that’s been made in the last decade or so. Not that you need to be an anime fanatic to love this beautiful and truly heartfelt film.
So what are you waiting for?
There’s even a marvelous dub, for those of you who are allergic to subtitles!
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On a set with all four of Mamoru Hosada’s movies: