Monday, April 11, 2011

Anime review: Summer Wars

Having been well aware of the fact that some of the creative staff behind Summer Wars previously worked on Digimon: The Movie (Digimon: Bokura no War Game), I was comforted to find that the similarities between the two end with the basic premise of a problem within the digital frontier having a direct impact on the outside world. As Summer Wars opens, viewers are given a crash course on Kenji's daily life. He runs maintenance checks on the digital world of Oz with his friend Takashi, and is also a genius at math. Kenji's social skills, however, are not the greatest and he is initially hesitant to help Natsuki with a "problem" she has.

Eventually agreeing to help Natsuki, Kenji is not informed of the fact that she wants him to play the part of her boyfriend until the two arrive at Natsuki's Grandmother's 90th birthday celebration. Kenji wants nothing to do with this, but Natsuki assures him that they can put an end to masquerade after a few days. Kenji agrees, and eventually meets everyone in Natsuki's extended family, most of whom (despite a few notable exceptions) give Kenji a warm welcome to the family. The more time Kenji spends with Natsuki, the more comfortable he feels with the whole scenario.

That night, Kenji's Oz avatar sends him a message via his phone that lists a long series of numbers. Being the math whiz that he is, Kenji decides to solve it, only to find out that it was the security code to Oz and that his avatar has been taken over by an artificial intelligence program known as Love Machine. After some pleading to Natsuki's family of his innocence, Kenji enlists the help of her cousin Kazuma, who is one of the highest ranked competitors in Oz's games. With some additional assistance from the other family members, the two of them spearhead an attempt to take down Love Machine before it can bring its influence from Oz to the real world.

Natsuki's extended family members are nicely varied, if not a bit flat and stereotyped. The creators can't really be blamed for this though, since cramming such a large cast into a two hour film only allows for a certain amount of flexibility with their development. Some play larger roles than others and certainly come across as more entertaining because of this. Every viewer will likely find at least one family member with whom they relate well. While each family member has his or her distinct character model, keeping track of which character comes from which generation can be a bit tricky - not that this is of the utmost importance for each individual.

The film certainly has its predictable points, but the way in which Kenji and Natsuki's family go about their goal of stopping Love Machine are both clever and creative. While the family members have some obvious communication issues, a number of mishaps that stem from this keep the story rolling right along. Any time that the story slows down it is for the sake of elaboration on a character's story or to address more emotionally moving situations. Viewers can be assured that there are practically zero dull moments throughout the film.

There is a bit of a strange shift around the film's halfway point, as the primary focus moves from Kenji to Natsuki's cousin Kazuma. For the sake of the story overall, this is good, as it gives viewers a more in-depth look at how Oz operates and just how devoted some of its users are. But it does take away from the developing relationship between Kenji and Natsuki, and ultimately Kenji's development as a character seems to fall a little bit short of how it could have been explored. Kazuma, on the other hand, becomes a much more rounded out character because of this. There is a good chance that the minor issues with this could have been avoided if the film had been slightly longer.

There is a baseball game that makes recurring appearances over the duration of the film, acting as a parallel to the situation in Oz. It comes across as quite hokey and forced, and seems a rather dull way to try and mirror the severity of the damage Love Machine is causing. All in all, the baseball game seems a rather unnecessary inclusion, and the feudal history of Natsuki's family that is brought up at a few points throughout the film would have probably served as a stronger parallel.

Mad House never ceases to amaze me with their phenomenal animation. Summer Wars is vividly colorful and its digital animations very eye-catching. The mainframe of Oz is admittedly a bit dull with its large white structures, but the separate divisions of the program are incredibly detailed, each having its own distinct style. The soundtrack follows two distinct styles. Catchy techno beats accompany scenes within Oz, while more flowing orchestral pieces playing during the real world scenes. Of the latter, some are more moving and mellow, while others are more akin to fast-paced marches.

While not as heavily character-driven as something like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars is a very well-scripted and entertaining film. There's certain to be some aspect throughout that viewers of all ages can appreciate. The film's pacing is nearly perfect, and while certain story points could have benefitted from minor expansions, overall the final product does as strong a job in delivering its narrative as it does in capturing viewers' sense of imagination.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

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