2009, PG, 114 min. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Voices by Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 7, 2011
Arriving in America festooned with international awards and drawing immediate comparisons to the work of Japan's longtime king of animation, Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro), Summer Wars is every bit as good as anime fans have been hoping it would be. (All two of them who haven't BitTorrent'd the movie already; it's been available online and as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray for some time now.) Potential audience members who aren't necessarily fans of the ever-expanding world of global J-culture will also recognize the more traditional narrative tropes that underlie Summer Wars’ the-future-is-now story. Family loyalty, friendship, self-sacrifice, and puppy love are all at the heart of Hododa's sprawlingly humanistic film. Kenji (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is a mathematics whiz who doubles as a moderator in the (very Second Life-like) virtual world of OZ. Shy, lanky, and virginal, Kenji lucks out when comely co-worker Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba) invites him to come celebrate her great-grandmother's 90th birthday at her family's country home. Unfortunately, this requires Kenji to masquerade as Natsuki's fiancé. More unfortunate still, Kenji cracks a numeric code sent to his cell phone by forces unknown and thereby unleashes an artificial intelligence (code-named Love Machine) into the virtual OZ, which then causes a domino effect in which chaos spills out into the "real" world. I know, it sounds vaguely like every other anime you've never quite gotten around to watching, but trust me, Summer Wars is a magnificently manufactured piece of film entertainment that goes beyond the obvious and manages to comment, often obliquely, on everything from Facebook to virtual war and/or terrorism without ever seeming heavy-handed or strident. Hosoda, Miyazaki's heir apparent, directs with a wealth of subtlety – rarely anime's strong suit – and an eye for detail, all while switching between two separate and distinct worlds within the same storyline. No mean feat, that, but what really makes Summer Wars unique is the conflict at its heart, namely analog life vs. digital life. Okay, maybe that's not so unique after Ghost in the Machine, Akira, and their uncountable anime offspring (not to mention nearly the entire J-horror genre) tapped into and made all the world familiar with Japanese culture's uneasy relationship with cutting-edge technology. What is unique is the extent to which characters in Hosoda's "real" and virtual worlds work together to achieve a common goal. Technology is never specifically the enemy here, although, as with Godzilla – the great-grandaddy of Japanese nuclear metaphors – it's definitely something no one wants falling into the wrong hands. Add to this Yôji Takeshige's whimsical art direction (pop artist Takashi Murakami's "superflat" style was obviously a tremendous influence) and a sweepingly bipolar (in a good way) score by Akihiko Matsumoto and you might possibly have the first “summer blockbuster” of the year, anime-style. (The Alamo South Lamar will screen a print dubbed in English, and the Alamo Ritz will screen a subtitled print, Monday-Wednesday only. The subtitled version was provided by the distributor for review purposes.)