Summer Wars

summer2When high school student Kenji Koiso said yes to doing a favor for his cute friend Natsuki Shinohara he really didn’t know what he was getting into. Kenji is a math whiz who is a part time moderator for OZ with his friend Takashi Sakuma. OZ can be described as literally everything on the internet. It’s part Amazon, part Facebook, and part MMO video game like World of Warcraft. In Summer Wars, OZ is both a setting for the action as well as being a driving force behind the story. Within the world of the movie, everyone’s lives are intricately tied to OZ. People use it to pay bills and governments use it for things like traffic management and even monitoring nuclear weapons.

Not that Kenji is really paying attention to all that at the time he’s helping out Natsuki. She asks him to accompany her to a family gathering for her grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi’s ninetieth birthday. He finds himself not only having to adjust to her huge and slightly crazy family, but also is surprised when she introduces him to her imposing grandmother as her fiancé. Being meek and nice, Kenji agrees to play along.

The fun thing about this movie is that it’s more than a just family comedy, though it is definitely that. During his first night with Natsuki’s family, Kenji receives an email with a very hard math problem. After he solves it and sends it back, he wakes up the next day to find out that someone has hacked into OZ using his solution and now has control over the entire network. As traffic comes to a stop and emergency services are overwhelmed, a newscast reports that Kenji is not the perfect fiancé, but possibly a cyber terrorist. And with his unwitting help, OZ is slowly being taken over by an artificial intelligence program known only as Love Machine, which could have disastrous real-world effects.

Trying to describe the movie beyond this is a chore, but the resources of Natsuki’s large clan, especially of her grandmother, are amazingly up to the challenge of saving the world. Summer Wars cuts quickly back and forth between eye-popping virtual-world action scenes and intense family drama, all without losing the heart at its core. Director Hosoda manages a difficult balancing act and, without his clear characterization of each family member, the frenetic plot could easily be a muddled mess. But it’s not, as each member has a place in the storyline, whether it’s a video-game addicted kid, a distrustful cop, a black sheep computer programmer, a mother obsessing over her son’s baseball games, or even a loud and brash fisherman. And that’s only a small sampling of the over twenty quirky family characters in this immense cast.

Even if the characters and the storyline weren’t superior, the visuals of the movie alone would be worth a watch. Led by the Japanese studio Madhouse, the digital animation of OZ as various characters battle with Love Machine is a colorful treat. Just as many of today’s games and websites allow users to create custom avatars, OZ is populated by pixelated smiling faces, more realistically-rendered martial artist bunnies, cute panda girls, and Kenji’s silly back-up avatar, a jaded-looking squirrel. Literally thousands of avatars are in some scenes, as OZ seems endless, and Love Machine exudes just the right aloof sort of calculating menace as it transforms from the hacked Kenji’s cute avatar with Mickey Mouse ears into something resembling a Hindu god. And back in the real world of Natsuki’s family, each family member is as lovingly detailed, their physicality matching their attitudes and emotions.

Summer Wars is an ambitious piece of filmmaking. It is one of those movies that tries to be everything at once, a sort of action-thriller-comedy-family-drama-romance. The amazing thing is that for the most part it succeeds. For a movie that has a lot of action and special effects, it also has some well-realized and effective emotional moments, and an incredible amount of heart. Rated PG, it would be fine on the young adult shelves, where anime fans find most of their favorites. But its appeal should be broader than that, making it perfect for a family movie night for most anyone.

Summer Wars
FUNimation, 2011
directed by Mamoru Hosoda
120 minutes, Number of Discs: 2, Single disc/DVD
Company Age Rating: PG