An online war threatens to end all humanity in the brilliant Summer Wars (2009)
Stop me if I sound like a broken record, but sometimes I'm baffled and appalled by UK distribution. Last weekend Mars Needs Moms (Wells, 2011) opened in US cinemas and became one of the most disastrous mega-flops Disney have ever encountered (it may be breaking records at this point). No wonder - it looks banal, broad and borderline condescending. See, kids are smarter than we think, and often films don't do them justice - a recent example of one that did would be Coraline (Selick, 2009), a terrifying and macabre slice of coming-of-age horror, with spindly character animation and foreboding sound design. It's a film which embraces its medium to deliver smarts, thrills and adventure to its young audience, as well as being aesthetically beautiful. Well, you can count Summer Wars in that category tenfold and rank it among the best animations of the last ten years - so how is it that the film is going straight to DVD whereas Mars Needs Moms opens in UK cinemas next month?
It's criminal frankly, that such a unique and visionary cinematic experience should be landing directly in your living room. Hosoda has created two worlds of such depth and beauty that they deserve to be seen on the big screen, but Summer Wars is not just a film of style. It's a film of true heart and humour, presenting a family dynamic and budding romance with all the tenderness and observation of an Ozu picture. The comparison isn't too broad either as most scenes involving the family are shot at floor level around a table of food, recalling many scenes from the master filmmakers oeuvre. There is also something of a twist halfway through - a loss, without wishing to give too much away - which is handled with much care and poignancy, without ever slipping into cliché or sentiment, an appraisal that can be leveled at the other aspects of production. But forgive me - we haven't even established the plot yet...
There is a cyber-universe called OZ at the centre of Summer Wars - an online network that connects everyone in the world from lawyers and doctors to students and teachers. Over half the world has an avatar in OZ including the young Kenji, who has been recruited as the beautiful Natsuki's boyfriend for a family reunion and the 90th birthday of its matriarch. The first forty-five minutes flit between domestic drama, awkward teen romance and a comedy of manners. Kenji - a shy computer geek with low self esteem - struggles to keep Natsuki's lie from the family and fights with his own feelings for her, especially when he embarrasses himself by walking in on her after a bath (he then trembles at the idea of bathing in the same water). The film takes a long time establishing character relations, introducing the rogue element in the form of an adopted son who has been in America for ten years and may have something to do with the A.I. monster 'Love Machine' which has taken over OZ. At first Kenji is framed for the online invasion which has also sent the real world into chaos - traffic jams, fire alerts, train timetables - and could ultimately end in nuclear disaster. This countdown to destruction is what makes up the thrilling second half of the film, and provides some of the most visually stunning animation I have seen in a long time. When 'Love Machine' steals over four million avatars it becomes like a huge version of the smoke monster from Lost, but made up of pixels and with a jaggedly defined mouth, giving it a greater sense of menace.
Also central to the film is a classical vs. contemporary debate, which casts a nostalgic eye over past tradition and a wary one over the rapid advancements in technology, our dependence on it and the fear of nuclear crisis (which, given Japan's current and saddening situation drew a more powerful parallel than was perhaps intended by the filmmakers). This is best exemplified by the men of the family, who speak of the honour and pride in battle. A suit of armour and spears sit as antique tokens in the household and tales are recounted over dinner of armies of 2000 facing off against an opponent of 7000. The house itself is very classically built too, looking more like a preserved fortification. Made entirely of wood, its sliding doors are a reminder of classical Japan - at one point a character even quotes Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954). But ultimately the sensei and his student must fight their battle online, through an avatar, in order to save the world from destruction. It could seem like Hosoda is condemning our reliance on the press of a button to complete a physical action, and in some ways he definitely is, but he also highlights the uniting power that global communication can have. When Kenji and Natsuki's family are at the end of the line and near defeat the rest of the world jumps online to help them - 150,000,000 people. Together, Hosoda is saying, we can do anything. And given that 24-hour news channels, online donation funds and updated twitter feeds are currently informing us and helping us to change the future of a devastated Japan for the better, that has an even greater resonance too.
Summer Wars is a very special film. It's visually accomplished, exciting, dramatic, romantic and funny, but none of these elements feel crowded. You'll care a lot about these characters and will want to see good prevail - if anything you'll want to spend more time with them. It's a beautiful film and in years to come will surely be seen as something of a classic.
Extras: A fine selection including an interview with director Hosoda at Locarno, a stage greeting, cast interviews and all of the original trailers, teasers and TV spots.
Summer Wars is released on DVD and Blu Ray on March 28th.