Summer Wars (2010)

The success of Mamoru Hosoda’s last animated feature, Wolf Children, though completely unremarked on by BoxOfficeMojo, seems to have been enough to give him something of a foothold in America, with his latest feature, The Boy and the Beast having been released last Friday (4 March). OK, it’s a limited release, which means not a lot of theaters—though, one hopes, more than the dribs and drabs for Wolf Children.

The other thing this has done, however, is make it possible to see theatrical presentations of his previous films, in this case Sama Wozu, or Summer Wars. Now, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Japanese word for “summer” isn’t “sama”, nor the Japanese word for “wars”, “wozu”, but I have noticed that Japanese titles coming over here seem to be written like you’d imagine John Belushi’s “Samurai Film Producer” saying them.

It will kill you.
Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.

The kids were so enamored of Wolf Children, it seems possible that Hosoda could be the heir to Miyazaki Studio Ghibli has long been looking for. And rumor has it he was originally attached to direct Miayazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, so some consideration has been given by those worthies. And, if true, the fact that he didn’t direct Howl suggests artistic differences of the sort you’d expect when putting two strong creative visions together.

Anyway, the movie was only playing at 10PM, on a Thursday night—and downtown. The Flower has been trying to achieve more regular sleeping hours. (The kids, being homeschooled, all go through a period where they think it’s the most awesome thing in the world to stay up till 3AM, and then gradually learn that it’s generally not a good trade. The Flower has just come through that.) I used to take The Boy out to 10PM—or even midnight—shows occasionally on weekdays, but he didn’t have a job back then.

At the same time, well, he really loves going to the movies. And if it’s the promise of a good movie, that’s very likely going to win out over ordinary tiredness. So it came to pass that we drove down to the Wilshire district late on Thursday night to see this film.

And, lo, it is good.

Which was odd.
And fun for the whole family. Though there is some swearing.

Not as good as Wolf Children, which was occasionally sublime in the beauty of its narrative and artistry. But still, very, very good indeed.

I was a bit concerned, since part of the story takes place in a virtual reality, and the trailers sort of play that up. Hosoda got his start with Digimon, which is sets the cine-sense tingling, but as it turns out, very little of the story takes place there. It is somewhat alienating, I found, but Hosoda typically sets one important sequence there, then hurries back to the real world—often cutting back to it so we can see the impact on the characters.

The story is this: Super cute and popular girl Natsuki tricks super nerdy Kenji to coming with her to her family’s estate in the country to help out with her (great-?) grandmother’s 90th birthday. It’s a very old and large family, but the patriarch (great-grandfather, we can reasonably guess born around WWI) squandered the inheritance, leaving only the estate. (Though the children and grand-children seem to be reasonably prosperous businessmen.)

The tentacle thing is an honest-to-god Japanese tradition.
Is there a bigger cliché in animé? If so, it probably involves tentacles.

Of course, nerdy guy jumps at the chance, only to find out that Natsuki has an ulterior motive, and that he’s thrust into the family life of this boisterous, opinionated, matriarchy whose non-distaff side passes the time regaling each other with stories of 16th century battles.

Which, frankly, could be movie enough. However, Kenji’s arrival is marked by a crisis in OZ, a virtual reality that is Second Life, Facebook, Twitter, your phone service, GPS, municipal service systems, banking services, email, online gaming and just about everything else you can think of rolled into one. It is the sort of thing that various would-be moguls have tried (and so far failed) to create.

What happens is that an AI of unknown origin has somehow been released into OZ and begins stealing accounts. And on stealing accounts, it gains the powers granted to those accounts. Because administration itself is done via OZ and the first thing “Love Machine” (heh) does is lock out the admin accounts, it cannot be stopped unless defeated in combat—a feat which becomes increasingly difficult as it accrues power, but which may be within the realm of possibility for the mysterious King Kazma, an anthropomorphized rabbit avatar that regularly wins OZ’s combat games.

Those teeth, tho'.
o/~I’m just a love machine. And I won’t for nobody at all…~\o

Of course, this is dumb on every conceivable level, technologically speaking, but it’s actually not much worse than any other AI based film, and it basically works because the movie spends about zero time trying to sell it. Like John Belushi talking about the Nazis bombing Pearl Harbor, they’re on a roll, and the audience just goes with it. (Wow, two Belushi references in one review! What are the odds?) It also works because the movie doesn’t bury itself in the virtual stuff, as mentioned previously.

When things start to go wrong, the matriarch of the clan uses her real world powers—basically, the massive networking capabilities of an old lady from a very distinguished family—to help. Ultimately, everyone (except for that one guy, you know the one) in the family comes together to use their skills to defeat the threat which takes a decidedly physically menacing turn.

It’s just a very nice film. It doesn’t have the mysterious beauty of Wolf Children, which relied more on traditional magic than techno-magic, as the computer based films do, but even with OZ, it’s the sort of film you could take your grandma to see. The Boy and I were very pleased, and didn’t even regret it the next day when we had to go to work.

The Flower also claims not to have regretted her choice to stay home. And she did watch and enjoy the film dubbed later. So there’s that.

This is another Japanese tradition.
Here we see the film’s hero with the brother of his ersatz girlfriend, whom The Boy and I both thought was a girl until about halfway through.

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