Review: SUMMER WARS
Four years ago, animation studio Madhouse quietly released a little film called THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, 2006). Directed by Mamoru Hosoda, the film went on to become a critical success around the world as audiences were captivated by its well-told tale. Before working on THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME, Hosoda directed several film extensions of anime television series, such as DIGIMON and ONE PIECE. In particular, his work on the ONE PIECE film, BARON OMATSURI AND THE SECRET ISLAND (Omatsuri Danshaku to Himitsu no Shima, 2005) received a lot of praise for its creative take on the well beloved franchise. But really, it was his Madhouse debut in 2006 that truly put him in the eyes of the film world.
Hosoda’s SUMMER WARS (Sama Wozu, 2009) was announced in 2008 at the Tokyo International Anime Fair to a large amount of interest. Hosoda had already built quite the reputation for himself after his seemingly out of nowhere success with THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME. Fans and critics were eager to see what he would do next.
To say that SUMMER WARS is a success is to grossly understate just how excellent the film really is. No one element of the feature is entirely original, taking familiar elements from movies past and present. However it is in the way that Hosoda presents it that truly dazzles and captures the imagination. The amount of love and polish put into every frame of animation, every line of voice acting and every note of music is mind blowing. I can attest to the fact that there were times I would simply pause the film just so I could look at the way a frame had been composed and gawk in awe at the artistry of it all. As always people will compare Hosoda to Miyazaki, claiming that he’s the next heir. I think this is a great disservice to Hosoda and his team however. He tells vastly different stories than Miyazaki and I see no reason why there isn’t room for the both of them in the world of international cinema.
SUMMER WARS follows 17-year-old high school student Kenji Koiso (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a math wiz who works part time on the virtual world OZ. Shy and not so skilled with working with people, older classmate Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) approaches him with a proposition for the Summer. She wants him to work for her and her family for a few days to help with preparations for her 90-year-old great grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi’s (Sumiko Fuji) birthday. Little does she know of course that Kenji has a large crush on her. He of course accepts with glee, only to find that the actual job she wants him to do, is to fake being her boyfriend for the duration of the party.
On the first night, he receives a strange email on his phone from an unknown address, with a series of numbers that seem to form a pattern. Kenji spends the night trying to decode it and eventually succeeds. The next day on the news, reporters announce that the virtual world OZ is in turmoil as a strange being wreaks havoc on the internal economy and cities, causing problems in the real world to arise as well due to how closely linked the two worlds are. An image of Kenji is flashed onscreen as the supposed culprit, and madness ensues. By the end of the film, countless lives are on the line as Kenji and the Jinnouchi family must race against the clock and a vicious program named Love Machine in order to save Japan and maybe even the world.
In all honesty a two paragraph synopsis really does no justice to SUMMER WARS’ narrative. In the interest of following along however, I felt that it would be best to have some kind of basic background on the story.
Kenji is an interesting character in many ways. He lacks physical presence, but he’s hardly a coward in the typical underdog fashion. In fact most of the major plot points in the film are driven forward by his decisions. He’s not an inactive main character simply along for the ride. Kenji actively makes the decision to go with Natsuki to her home, decode the message and eventually save the world from a nuclear holocaust as well. His character growth has a very clear arc from beginning to end. Again, his character isn’t inherently original or anything we as the viewers have not seen before. It is through the execution of the character and his arc that the writing really shines. Kenji is immediately likable and you find yourself cheering for him until the credits start to roll.
The heroine Natsuki is just as likable. Despite her initial usage of Kenji, she means well at heart and is only going through with it to make her great grandmother happy. Like a real human being, she has her own set of insecurities. Unlike a lot of anime heroines she’s also not so quick to misunderstand or misread the various situations Kenji finds himself in. Her feelings for Kenji develop clearly and concisely over the approximately two hour run time and by the end, you believe that these two make a good couple. A stand-out sequence in my mind occurs at around the hour mark when one of the characters permanently leaves the film. It’s a quiet moment and tender moment shared between Natsuki and Kenji that goes a long way toward cementing their relationship. She is also an active character as well. The final showdown of the film belongs to her and it’s both a tense and exciting match that goes beyond standard hand-to-hand combat.
Sakae Jinnouchi, Natsuki’s 90-year-old great grandmother is written as an incredibly wise older woman with connections throughout the city. Her love for her family is constantly exemplified through her actions rather than through dialogue we are expected to simply believe. Every action she takes, subtle comment she makes and expression on her face tells us everything we need to know about how she runs her family. The moments in which we see her use her connections to help the people in the city during a pivotal moment of crisis are revealing and emotionally satisfying as well. She is not only a stunningly written older character, but a fantastic female character to boot.
Special mention goes to Kazuma Ikezawa (Mitsuki Tanimura), also known as King Kazma in the virtual world of OZ. Natsuki’s thirteen year old cousin, the film is as much his as it is the above three characters. His growth through the film is tremendous and appropriate to his age. It’s easy to see why he ended up getting multiple manga and novel spinoffs following the success of the film.
Finally the rest of the Jinnouchi family, while not being quite as fleshed out as the primary cast, is a group of colorful and interesting people. Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito), the illegitimate son of Natsuki’s great grandfather plays a prominent role and his reasons for being present at the birthday party run deeper than they appear. Kazuma’s father is a hilarious older man who knows much about the family’s history. The list of characters go on, but the short of it is that the cast of characters in SUMMER WARS is fantastic and well written.
There’s one more character I’ve gone without talking about, and it is the virtual world of OZ. Set up like both a social network and an MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), OZ is different in that companies have set up legitimate branches in the world making it a huge economic force. Electronics are governed by the systems in OZ, so when the vicious AI program Love Machine begins to run wild, the repercussions in the real world are severe. Vibrant and filled with movement, OZ serves as a fantastic juxtaposition to the Jinnouchi family’s house; the traditional versus the inherently new. The avatars used in OZ are equally creative, employing visuals familiar to those who play social games and yet stylistically quite different.
Talking about OZ leads me to my next point: the quality of animation. Studio Madhouse has certainly produced beautiful animation before, but SUMMER WARS is in a league all its own. Hiroyuki Aoyama served as animation director with Tatsuzo Nishida serving as action animation director. Every shot is a marvel to behold with some level of subtle movement occurring in the background. Every sequence in OZ is filled with color and insane amounts of action. The combat sequences between King Kazma and Love Machine are some of the best one-on-one fights I’ve seen animated in film, with debris and characters flying all over the screen. The animation never becomes overbearing.
The score for the film was written and composed by Akihiko Matsumoto. Perhaps the best thing that I can say is that the soundtrack perfectly compliments the action onscreen. The music never dominates the scene nor is it overly suggestive of how the viewers should feel. All too often a soundtrack tries to force artificial emotion that doesn’t work because the scene itself doesn’t. Here however, I never felt as though SUMMER WARS was trying to make me feel something I wasn’t already feeling from the writing; the music simply served to support that emotion rather than shoulder the burden on its own. The score is also good enough to listen to on your own as I find myself frequently switching over to my SUMMER WARS play-list.
It goes without saying, but the quality of the voice acting here is extremely high and the story would fall flat without a competent cast to deliver the lines believably. A good script means nothing without the people to voice it. Hosoda’s direction is impeccable here as it was in THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME, handling multiple plot threads and a great deal of characters with seemingly no problems. The fact that he’s hit such a homerun with SUMMER WARS leaves me greatly looking forward to his next film.
For those interested, there is a light novel series spinoff that follows King Kazma’s adventures in OZ as well as a manga adaptation. The derivative works are all entertaining in their own right, and if you find yourself wanting more after watching the film they certainly scratch the right itch. Unfortunately the manga and novel series are currently only available in Japan as far as I am aware.
SUMMER WARS was recently picked up for distribution in North America by Funimation Entertainment and in the United Kingdom by Manga Entertainment. Funimation will premiere the English dubbed version of SUMMER WARS with a screening on November 20, 2010 at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. DVD and Blu-ray releases are planned for the US and UK in early 2011.
I can only hope that both companies really pushes this title, as it is another exemplary animated film that deserves international success. I struggled long and hard to think of things that I felt didn’t work in the film, but having watched it over five times to date, there simply isn’t anything to say. SUMMER WARS is one of the best films I’ve seen in the past decade and I highly urge everyone to pick it up as soon as it’s released in your territory. You won’t regret it.
For more information on SUMMER WARS please see the previous coverage here on SciFi Japan: