Summer Wars – Review

by SC

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[AS SPOILER FREE AS POSSIBLE FOR A REVIEW]

[KOI-KOI MOTHER FUCKERS]
(however you play that game…)

If there is one picture that could sum up this film it would be this picture; the typical family, a single unit with its many quirks and personalities, all with unique character traits, imperfections and values that is found every time a large number of people unite. Summer Wars, directed by Mamoru Hosada and animated by Madhouse is one of my favourite animated films, whilst I can hardly be quoted as an authoritative source on Japanese animation, Summer Wars‘ heart warming message and plot ensures an entertaining watch for basically all demographics. If reading long articles is something you struggle with, then let me briefly give you my thoughts on this film; watch it. Watch it if you want a casual tale embedded with genuine warmth and sincerity, watch it if you want to explore a loving family whose connection to each other will touch you deeply.

The film starts with Natsuki asking our typical goofy, socially awkward high school student Kenji to accompany her to her elderly grandmother’s (Sakae Jinnouchi) 90th birthday; Kenji whilst reluctant at first eventually decides to accompany her and that’s when the chaos ensues. When the pair finally arrives, Natsuki informs Kenji that his mission is to pretend to be her boyfriend, Kenji is very hesitant and only after some pleading, does he accept. Following this he’s introduced to Natsuki’s family members, the Jinnouchi family equipped with the family staples… The drunk uncle that tends to discuss ‘taboo’ subjects after six drinks, the motherly aunties and the awkward younger cousin who just began his teenage internet rebellion phase, opting for online over physical communication. Kenji who repeatedly tells the audience that his only skill is mathematics receives an anonymous encryption during the middle of the night… And like any sane person, he decides to spend the next few hours deciphering it. From then on madness accumulates like a rolling snowball, as a mysterious virus ironically and ‘threateningly’ named ‘Love Machine’ begins to destroy the digital world which is heavily intertwined to the physical. Not only does Kenji have to juggle the complicated web of family affairs, his sense of guilt compels him to combat this deadly virus who threatens the social fabric of modern Japan.

Whilst I may of given this away in my previous paragraphs, the most endearing and likable aspect of this film was the family, it felt realistic and fluid and every time I saw little children screaming in unison or the mothers giggling amongst themselves it instantly triggered a deeply buried memory in my head. Audiences may point to the lack of a protagonist as a key flaw within this story and I will admit, I really wanted the story to focus upon the budding relationship between Natsuki and Kenji, especially since the times the film did it was usually executed with heart and passion. Surprising Kazuma, a thirteen year old cousin of Natsuki received a large amount of screen time, especially near the end, despite the fact that his character was largely undeveloped and his icy demeanour made me instantly dislike him. For the most part the box art and introduction of the film gives the impression that Natsuki and Kenji are the protagonist but both fail to develop beyond their stereotypical and cliche constructs. Kenji is the shy and timid ‘nerd’, who lacks confidence in himself and the will to widen his comfort zone, whilst Natsuki fits the ‘pretty face and bold personality’ archetype. Sadly both characters won’t given the necessary screen time to fully expand beyond their initial defining traits.

Whilst these are all legitimate flaws and in most other films I would find myself emotionally disconnected or bored of the story in Summer Wars it is somewhat and strangely forgivable. The main reason was because the entire family felt like a single unit or a single character, Kenji didn’t only need acceptance from Natsuki’s grandmother, he needed to be embraced by the whole family for his relationship with Natsuki to work. In this sense, the overall lack of protagonist or the lack of development to major and minor characters was forgiven because the audience immediately substituted their own experiences and memories into the said family members. I think for the most part Hosada purposely tried to ‘limit’ the unique traits of different family members. The story was never really about individualism, if anything the ending is an example how relationships and the will of a community will always triumph individualistic pursuits or goals. This is why I honestly didn’t mind the fact that the characters excluding the grand mother were rather simplistic they were all pieces to a puzzle, pieces to a single family, Hosada had a purpose in mind with the execution and to a large extent, Summer Wars achieved it.

I can’t talk about the family any longer without mentioning the grand mother or her English voice actor; Pam Dougherty, who simultaneously embedded the character with strength, kindness and a motherly touch. Out of all the characters, she shines the brightest and her resilience and courage serve as the pillar of the proud Jinnouchi family. Honestly watching her was quite sad as my grandmother also had a few of her traits, maybe she wasn’t as strong or clever, but she was the eldest and in an Asian household, she was the most respected for her age and knowledge. Unfortunately Amnesia withered away my grandmother’s independence and personality and her bright talkative spark is now replaced with a quiet, sad obedience. The presence of any strong female character is especially welcome in a genre where females are generally sidelined as weak or unimportant (Naruto, Bleach, Death Note) Descended from a proud samurai family, responsible for moulding her fierce personality, the grandmother’s leadership and enthusiasm is responsible for some heavy moments later on; centred around forgiveness, the importance of family and the joys of simple living.

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Apart from the familiar characteristics of the family members, the attention to detail subtly breathed life into the rather simplistic story, like Kenji lagging behind Natsuki when he first enters the Jinnouchi residence, or the slightly disgruntled family member amongst the wave of smiles, hugs and laughter. The animation created an environment which felt like it was lived in, the walls were stained with age and the character designs were realistic and believable. On top of this the background was vibrant, fluid and alive with characters and objects independently moving, once again drawing the audience into a plausible world which similarly mirrors our own.

You may be wondering why I’ve neglected to mention the digital aspects of this film in particular the world of Oz until half way into this review? I really enjoyed this film and I felt that it was important to start this review off with a positive note because generally the strengths outweighed the negatives (a first impression is a lasting impression). But my main gripe with this story how disconnected I felt from the digital scenes in contrast to the scenes with the family, honestly I didn’t care for Kazuma very much and I cared even less about his presence on the digital world. I will praise Madhouse for giving those scenes a wonderfully unique art style and simultaneously blending a minimalist 3D animation look with the traditional forms of Japanese animation, to exaggerate the barriers between the physical and the cyber world. It was very effective and the actions scenes in Oz were smooth, fluid and was basically sexual intercourse for the eyes. However this doesn’t cover up the fact, I wasn’t fully engaged during those scenes and for the most part I wished the plot had simple followed the ‘dysfunctionally-functional’ Jinnouchi family, the Oz scenes served more as a distraction. It was hard to be emotionally invested in the world wide destruction caused by Love Machine when the story was so localised and the intricate inner family relations were so much more interesting. Ironically the strength of the family unit might of been the weakness of Summer Wars as I would of much rather watched the Jinnouchis eat dinner and reminisce about the past together than a cartoon rabbit defeat a mysterious virus to protect nameless and faceless individuals.

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If Oz becomes a real internet application, I want my avatar to look like that rabbit.

[Some spoilers, though to be honest, the information I will be discussing is really, really obvious, but if you want to avoid all spoilers, I would advise you to skip the next two paragraphs and go straight to my conclusion.]

Apart from the digital aspects of the film, there were only a few other instances which I was disengaged from Summer Wars, now I will admit that most of these issues maybe the result of cultural differences, but regardless I feel like it’s necessary to lightly address them. Animation is a powerful tool allowing the creators to create a ‘realistic’ world where rules can be bent to fit the narrative, that’s why we don’t really question the alchemy in Full Metal Alchemist, nor do we frown when a single punch from Ichigo rivals the power of an atomic bomb. However there were a few times the film’s use of animation served as a detriment, one particular scene jumps to mind which involves Watisube rushing home. However the audience quickly receives flashbacks to World War II at the amount of destruction caused by Watisube parking the car. Whilst this was semi-believable, evoking a humourous atmosphere during such an emotional scene was definitely counter productive.

Likewise the final scene involving Natsuki and Kenji was also quite anti-climatic, though I will once again acknowledge that Japan’s stance on public displays of affection or sex seems rather ‘prudish’ in contrast to my western upbringing. But the fact that Kenji was not comfortable or confident enough to properly and serious confess his feelings for Natsuki was rather disappointing as those two traits were aspects to Kenji’s character that should of developed during Summer Wars. Ironically it did feel like Kenji had grown, his uplifting leadership during the final conflict validated his position within the family and honestly Kenji not returning Natsuki’s kiss was just contradictory to what growth he had experienced. I understand that Kenji was more of a concept (shy, nerdy, introverted) rather than a actual strong character, but that doesn’t erase how disappointed I was, since I honestly wanted the two of them to become a couple, surrounded by such warm family members. If the camera (or animation) had zoomed up on Kenji’s face as he seriously expressed his feelings, it would have fit the themes of communication emphasised by this film and established Kenji as a more memorable character.

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Those pesky aunties… You gotta’ love em’.

Just as I feel it is important to start a review of an entertaining text on a positive note,the same logic can be applied to the conclusion as I want you to leave this review with a desire to watch this film. The music directed Akihiko Matsumoto was superb with certain tracks like Summer Wars, Happy End, 150 Million Miracles and Everyone’s Courage standing out on such a strong album. Despite the obvious Hisaishi influence on Matsumoto’s music which included a lot of uplifting songs with light and bouncy melodies, this is an album I would definitely listen to in my spare time. Honestly describing music is one of the more difficult task, music is a language, one which communicates through feelings, memories and emotions instead of words. So instead of doing Matsumoto’s works a great injustice, I will simply embedded said pieces at the bottom of this review for the audience to personally enjoy.

In many ways, Summer Wars could be classified as a slice of life anime but without the cliche cringe worthy moments and thankfully Hosada executed this project with more soul than most other films could dream about. At its heart, this is a film which highlights the importance of family, of opening communication lines and the responsibility we have to other family members during times of opulence and meagerness. Unlike Inception or Grave of the Fire Flies, this was a film where the story served as a springboard to explore the characters and whilst the plot was rather cliche, this is forgivable as the story was ultimately a tool to unite the Jinnouchi family. During its worst moments, this film can be slightly disengaging, particularly the scenes involving Oz, but at its best, Summer Wars leaves an imprint on the audience, gently reminding the audience to value family without the message being overly intrusive.

A box of tissues is highly recommended for viewing.

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“And you always eat together as a family, even during difficult times, because being hungry and being all alone are the worst things that can happen to anyone.” 

[KOI-KOI MOTHER FUCKERS]

Genre: Anime, Romance Film, Animation, Comedy, Science Fiction, Adventure Film, Drama, Action Film,
Certificate: PG-13
USA Release Date: 1st August 2009
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Mamoru Hosada
Writer: Satoko Okudera
Starring: Michael Sinterniklaas, Brina Palencia, Maxey Whitehead, Pam Dougherty, J Michael Tatum.
Synopsis: Kenji accompanies Natsuki to her grand mother’s birthday party, as chaos beings to affect the physical and cyber world.

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PS: [SPOILER] There was one scene in this film that made me clap out loud with joy, the scene where the Jinnouchi brothers lightly remind the over protective Shota Jinnouchi that he is not Natsuki’s boyfriend. The voice acting combined with the animation created such a memorable moments, the family is truly the best aspect of this film.

PSS: [SPOILER] I have heard many people confirm that Summer Wars is a more sophisticated and enjoyable version of Hosada’s other film; Digimon the Movie (1999). Whilst there are key similarities in plot and animation style, I am not too fused by this because… Firstly I never watched said Digimon film and secondly, it’s not exactly plagiarism since Hosada essentially copied his own ideas, though you could take points away for a lack of creativity.