Madhouse have made a name for themselves by producing quality animation for TV series, their films have recently been applauded for their story and artwork. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
was a critically acclaimed release and Summer Wars sees a continuation of Science Fiction themes and a little bit of romance.
The film opens with a promo for a virtual online world called "Oz", where users create an Avatar and then play, communicate, even work in a cyber alternate reality, it's a service that Japan has come to rely on as the main source of information, email, and online recreation.
Kenji, a mathematical genius, student and part time programmer for the Oz website is asked by fellow student Natsuki to spend a few days away with her family to the country for a part time job. More than happy to go along he is surprised when he discovers the `job' is to pretend to be her fiancé so that her aging great grandmother can see her fictional husband-to-be while she still has time. It's a friendly family so it's not too hard to fit in, but there are family politics and long personal histories making him feel a little like an outsider. However events following a random email received on his phone are set to make his trip very eventful.
The anonymous email contains a mathematical puzzle Kenji can't resist solving, though he is surprised to find his face on the news the next day when it turns out he has unwittingly aided the hacking of Oz security and rendered the entire website useless. Now wanted by the law and with Natsuki's family less than impressed with him, Kenji is left to reflect on the extent of the Oz collapse - the various accounts on Oz are linked into so many other systems that almost any electronically controlled device is open to outside control.
The film follows the family unit as they deal with the Oz issues, they uncover a revelation concerning the initial cause of Oz being hacked and using all their resources they attempt to defeat the virus and prevent any further cataclysmic events. It really is a matter of life and death on both a national and domestic scale for the Jinnouchis.
An ancient family home in a countryside setting lends an old fashioned charm to the film. There's no doubting that this is set in the modern age though. With a social networking website being at the core of the film and cultural references such as iPhones and light-sabre fights, this is something that a contemporary audience can relate to.
Visually, Summer Wars is incredible. This Blu-Ray release shows an amazing depth of colour and the beautiful landscapes are lush, bright and full of detail. The detailed hand drawn animation contrast well with the less detailed representation of Oz itself which uses more CGI. Particularly towards the end there are some very impressive scenes set in Oz which involve epic collections of objects combining to create a massive figure, they look superb and successfully convey a disconcerting menace.
The Japanese soundtrack is excellent, and for those wanting to watch the English language dub the voices match the characters well. The dub is quite Americanised, but that's to be expected these days. The subtitles thankfully aren't 'dubtitles' so presumably they are closer to the Japanese translation rather than the American dub. There are a few additional features on this disk but not as many as I was expecting. They consist of a few interviews, the most interesting of which is with director Mamoru Hosoda.
Summer Wars is slow paced which may put some viewers off, especially those who were hoping for lots of action scenes taking place in the cyber-world of Oz. I personally enjoyed the pace of the film (but I'm 30 and not 11) but found some flaws which took away from the story a bit. The "Love Machine" virus which is spreading through Oz and having such a big effect on the real world seems to be dealt with a little too easily. I wasn't convinced either by the staggering coincidence that the key players involved in the release of the artificial intelligence (who have never met before) happen to end up together in the same room, it felt like a lazy plot device in a film which had the potential to me much more.
In a nutshell: A film which encourages us to think about our reliance on the internet and the potential for abuse if a system everyone trusts comes under threat. Summer Wars is also a gentle romantic drama about two students straddling years of family history and the age of modern technology.