Dir: Mamoru Hosoda
Summer Wars is quite the genre bender, part family drama, part romance, part apocalyptic sci-fi, it ends up working better than any film that seems so scattershot really has a right to. The film focuses on Kenji, a 17 year old high school student. One day the most beautiful girl in school, Natsuki, hires Kenji for a job; posing as her boyfriend at a family reunion. While this is going on, some unknown force hacks into OZ, an online community that seems to combine functions of Facebook, Second Life and Skynet. The hacker could destroy worlds both real and virtual, and Kenji and Natsuki's family may be the only ones who can stop it.
Summer Wars is quite astonishing to look at. The design is stunning, be it the simple but effective real world character design or the frankly jaw dropping complexity of the online world of OZ. OZ begins the film as an expanse of white, filled with a multitude of avatars interacting in endless specialised cells, it's a vision of data in a virtual world that is as developed as that of Tron or Ghost in the Shell, and at least as beautiful. It also bears mentioning that, without actually using the gimmick, Hosoda and his team also give the whole film (which is largely hand drawn) a very 3D feel, especially within the virtual world, where the rules of physics bend. OZ may make most sense to Japanese audiences, as the look of both the world and the avatars that live, play and fight in it seems to be very much based on Japanese pop culture. However, the story is strong enough to paper over any gaps in cultural understanding.
The conflict inside OZ takes up the bulk of the running time, and Hosoda manages to take what initially seems a low stakes conflict and build it into an epic battle with a genuinely menacing villain. The silent 'Love Machine' goes through three separate looks, all individual, but all with a defining jagged mouth to connect them together. The most impressive is perhaps the look that it takes on towards the end of the film; a sort of demonic black cloud made up of hundreds of millions of individual avatars, the detail and character in the animation here is just stunning.
Another highly impressive aspect of Summer Wars is the fine balance between the story within OZ and the comic drama of the story that sees Kenji interacting with Natsuki's family at the reunion (for the 90th birthday of Natsuki's Great Grandmother). Here Hosoda retreats from the action driving the other story and deals in character and interaction. The characterisations are a little broad, given how extended the family is, but the design and acting are strong enough that even the smallest parts are afforded personality. The performances are also strong, with leads Ryûnosuke Kamiki (Kenji), Nanami Sakuraba (Natsuki) forging a connection in very few scenes, as well as being individually engaging, and Sumiko Fuji gives a perfectly pitched performance as Natsuki's stern but caring great grandmother. This is an ensemble piece though, and the cast manage to create an organic feeling family, which considerably raises the stakes in the more action heavy second half of the film.
If I have a complaint of Summer Wars it is perhaps that it could have benefited from spending just a little more time growing the relationship between Kenji and Natsuki, but in an already jam packed narrative it is easy to see why Hosoda might have felt there just wasn't time, and the film works very well as it is. I liked Summer Wars a lot. It's a film that manages to have ideas, that engages on multiple levels, but that never forgets to be entertaining. It's beautiful to look at, and it is a great shame that it is coming out direct to DVD and Blu Ray, rather than having a cinema run, especially given the crap that DOES come out at the multiplexes. Seek this one out, you won't regret it.
All the extras are interview based, talking to the main Japanese voice cast (there is a very cute moment when Nanami Sakuraba, who plays Natsuki, asks how an animated film is made). There is also an extensive interview with director Mamoru Hosoda from the Locarno Film Festival. There are also the expected trailers on the disc.
The HD picture is detail rich, and works especially well in rendering the last incarnation of 'Love Machine'. Colours are vivid without seeming oversaturated and the animation is smoothly rendered. As far as I can tell, this image is near perfect. I can't comment extensively on the True HD soundtrack, but dialogue comes through clearly and the sound effects seem punchy. Certainly the sound seems to serve the film well. My only complaint about the Blu Ray is that the thin yellow subtitles are often quite hard to read, but there is the option of an English dub if they present a real problem.