Summer Wars: An Example of Anime with a Familiar Ring
Welcome to Oz. Not the city, but a futuristic global protocol for communications used for socializing, schooling and even business transactions. In this concept of a future world the dependence on the multifaceted and multi-functioning virtual reality results in “Oz” holding everyone’s most precious information. Of course, when it comes to anything technologically advanced it is youth that conquers, and sometimes youth that causes catastrophes. In this case it is a high school math genius, Kenji Koiso who inadvertently becomes responsible for activating a potentially devastating collapse of the titan network. And yet, because of a practical joke pulled off by his classmate (Natsuki Shinohara) he becomes familiar with her extensive family who are the very people he turns to for help. When he releases a menace into the digital world that causes mayhem in Oz, and wreaks havoc in the real world, it’s up to Kenji and all of Natsuki’s family to defeat this monster in Summer Wars.
Summer Wars is a production by Studio Madhouse, the same company responsible for animating the anime (Japanese cartoon) series, Death Note. In recent memory, Madhouse is known for fluid animation that doesn’t neglect what’s happening in the background, and Summer Wars is no exception. There’s always a lot going on in the frame, especially in the first half of the film where every plane of action is in full use with children being rambunctious little brats, adults make gestures to match their dialogue, and the television has a baseball game going on throughout. At first all of this can and will be very overwhelming, but no doubt this is what the director planned: to make the audience feel like Kenji where there’s so much for the senses to take in, it’s hard to keep track of everything! Great idea (but it wouldn’t hurt to bring it down a notch or two would it?).
To balance out the insanity of the animation the characters have a simplistic design, which in turn works in the movie’s favor. As a result of this modest scheme, the characters are able to become cartoony for the light-hearted instances, and then pull a complete 180 to express realistic emotions during the more somber scenes. To accompany these expressive character models, the scenery itself is absolute eye candy. This includes a traditional Japanese home nestled into the forested countryside, a bustling metropolis, and of course a digital realm teeming with virtual life. Madhouse uses some CG, however it’s integrated so well that it isn’t an eyesore, and in fact there may be moments where it’s hard to distinguish one animation execution from the other. As for the voice acting, there’s just no way to compare the Japanese version to the English dub. The Japanese used actual children and elderly people to play their respective roles. Meanwhile the English didn’t cast any kids or older folks, but they may as well as there isn’t a voice that sounds out of place. Michael Sinterniklaas delivers a stellar performance as the meek but proactive Kenji, and Brina Palencia expresses the strong-willed but sensitive Natsuki. There are roughly twenty other roles to address here, but to sum it up: all of them have their moments in the spotlight. In addition, the dialogue sounds very natural and the graphics match so well there isn’t a single lip flap out of place, thanks to the ADR director, Mike McFarland.
Notably, the characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; Kenji is soft-spoken but is more than ready to stand his ground when times become dire and doesn’t surrender until he’s exhausted his options. On the other hand, Natsuki is strong-willed like everyone else in her family and yet she can still portray that teenage girl who is easily embarrassed by her family. Speaking of family, the Jinnouchi clan members each have their own little quirk that not only makes them unique but also has characteristics that the audience can identify within their own relatives. From the aunts that try to pry into romantic life to those annoying little nieces and nephews that make you want to bunt them across the backyard, watching all of these people bounce off of each other will no doubt remind everyone of their own families. In contrast to the voice acting, which shines brilliantly on its own, the music hides in the shadows of the production. It doesn’t really stand out so much as it acts complimentary to the movie, and this isn’t a wrong approach. The music features a fascinating juxtaposition between the techno beats used for the scenes set in Oz and the soothing orchestral music used when depicting the real world. To be honest, there are no themes that really stand out on their own, except for the movie’s main theme, Bokura no Natsu no Yume or Our Summer Dream. However what is intriguing to note is not the music, but the silence that is planted most notably in the second half of the movie. It is used to really have the seriousness strike home and show the consequences of what happens in the movie.
Okay, it’s pretty much impossible to talk about the story without mentioning this… For those of you who grew up in the nineties and remember watching Digimon as kids, then there may be some familiarity with the premise of Summer Wars. However, for those who are unaware, Digimon the show was about a group of kids falling into a digital world, partnering up with digital monsters to fight against the enemy of the digital world. During its hype, a movie titled The Digimon Movie was released in North America. There are three distinctive parts in this movie, but what needs to have special attention is the second part called, Four Years Later. In that segment a deadly menace is released onto the Internet and it is left to the protagonists to combat it and take it out before it causes anymore harm. Ring a bell? That’s right ladies and gents: Summer Wars is a re-telling of Four Years Later in The Digimon Movie. Coincidence? Nope! The director for Four Years Later, Mamoru Hasoda is the director and story writer for Summer Wars. And yet it’s the latter that’s better by leaps and bounds, mostly because of the almost-decade difference between them. However, production quality aside, it is the characters and story that truly set them apart.
Because the characters invoke the feeling of family, it’s no shocker to realize there is a powerful theme of families in this movie. The Japanese have been known to hold family closely to cultural traditions, and what better example than the Jinnouchi clan? All these family members who have jobs and live all over Japan gather at the matriarch’s home to celebrate her 90th birthday, and the matriarch leaves the family with these words, “Never turn your back on family . . . Especially when times are rough.” This can’t ring any truer to everyone, after all who else can one turn to when everything seems to go wrong? It may be a touch cliché but it’s a cliché that truly works in this setting.
Over all Summer Wars is a great watch to sit through with a very diverse cast to hold up a very intriguing story and offers stunning visuals as a wonderful bonus. However, it does lose some points for being an almost-exact retelling of a previous movie, even if it was from the same director. But on the other hand its theme and emphasis on family bonds compensates just as much, if not more for that flaw. After compiling together the story, characters, sound, visuals and personal enjoyment, and then having Kenji calculate all together in one over-complicated math formula, Summer Wars earns itself 4.16 out of 5.