Summer Wars: Masterful Fun, or Overrated Mediocrity?

Summer Wars is a 2009 anime film directed by Mamoru Hosoda. The 2nd of his 4 major films, and the 5th of his films in general, it’s garnered mostly-positive reviews. It holds a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 63 on Metacritic and a 7.6/10 on IMDb. Nevertheless, it’s also received its fair share of criticism from fans and detractors alike. Which begs the question: is it good?



Those of you who follow my ramblings off-site know this, but for everyone else…I have a shaky relationship with Summer Wars. Much like Doug Walker and Jurassic Park, there’s too much silliness for me to ignore. And with Hosoda’s newest film, The Boy and the Beast, in theatres in a few shorts months as of writing this, I figured now was the time to discuss his most-divisive work. Are you ready? Because I am!

FYI, like my Howl’s Moving Castle dissection, there’ll be spoilers here. You’ve been warned.

What Works?

Summer Wars is unusual, as its biggest strengths and weaknesses often are one-in-the-same. But let’s start with the positives:

Firstly, this film looks gorgeous. I guess it’s moot to state that, since most anime films of note are, but it still needs to be pointed out because of its animation style. To quote JesuOtaku:
“…[I]t doesn’t look JUST like everything else. It may be Studio Madhouse, but it doesn’t look like a Satoshi Kon movie just because they share a studio, for example. Director Mamoru Hosoda has very active, fidgety style to his characterization. People are constantly moving, even if they’re not really doing anything…”
Being a major fan of Hosoda, and having written a piece on his style, I whole-heartedly agree. Hosoda’s of the “ADHD” class of animating, as his characters are in constant movement. When Kenji’s getting backstory on the Jinnouchi family while on the bus to Natuski’s grandmother’s house, for example, none of the background characters are completely still: they sway with the bus’s movement, a few of the kids are playing on their handheld game consoles, the people in front of them are even staring out the window or reading a book. Conversely, when the Jinnouchi clan is mourning their matriarch’s death, a pan shot shows each family member in a unique pose. It’s refreshing to see attention to detail in an industry where it’s normally lacking, yet it’s par for the course with Hosoda.

This ties in wonderfully to the intricacies of real-world Japan and OZ. In the former’s case, you see subtle plugs to Sony VAIO computers, Coca-Cola cans, Nintendo DS consoles, iPhones and various brands of trucks. You also see the elaborate intricacies of the Jinnouchi house, and it’s clear the animators had mapped every nook and cranny of the mansion in their heads before drawing. And OZ? It’s about as real as you can get for a digital world, complete with sports arenas, business stations and outer ports to the real world. It’s incredibly detailed and multi-faceted, and you feel like this world could exist in a parallel reality.

The music is amazing. It’s composed by Akihiko Matsumoto, and it could easily pass-off for a Hollywood composition with its variety of fast, upbeat orchestrations and quiet, somber tunes. Have a listen:


Overture of the Summer Wars


King Kazma


Letter


Everyone’s Courage


150 Million Miracles

The sound design is also awesome. Summer Wars, like Howl’s Moving Castle, has the unfortunate disposition of being tricky to make sound effects for without it feeling hokey or cartoony, particularly in OZ. Fortunately, it doesn’t. It borders there on a few occasions, but it, thankfully, never quite reaches that level. I respect it highly for that.

I love the characters. I love Kenji and his mathematics nerdyness. I love Natsuki and her peppy naïveté. I love how take-charge Granny is. I pretty much love every character…save one, but I’ll cover him eventually. And they all behave like a real family.

Speaking of which, the voice acting in the dub is excellent! It’s a Mike McFarland-FUNimation effort, so it’s gonna sound good regardless, but it’s definitely one of his best. The characters all sound appropriate for their ages and archetypes, and not a single flat line exists. Even the actors voicing child characters, of which there are a few, are great at that, which isn’t easy given that adults voicing kids is tough to do properly. And, of course, kudos for bringing in Mike Sinterniklaas to voice what’s, arguably, his best role to-date: Kenji Koiso.

The fight scenes in OZ are amazing. They not only look good, but they flow perfectly. There’s no cheating or time-saving going on in the slightest, everything is paced excellently. Even the CGI is used thoughtfully and to enhance the story, as opposed to overtaking everything else. The fights are also a ton of fun to watch and genuinely suspenseful.

But it’s the real-world drama that makes this movie. Aside from some great jokes, the weighty themes of family are as profound and touching as possible. After all, this is a movie about the importance of your loved-ones, as emphasized through Granny’s letter. It’s something we take for granted, when we really shouldn’t. Family matters, especially in times of need, and Summer Wars reminds us of that.

Finally, this movie excellently balances seriousness and fun. When it wants to be serious, like when Granny passes away, it is. When it wants it characters to bawl their eyes out, it doesn’t hold back. But for the most part it’s pretty light-hearted and entertaining. I like movies that can pull that off.

Now for the bad.

What DOESN’T Work?

The flaws of Summer Wars are pretty obvious. For one, there’s not a lot of creativity with its premise. If you’ve seen any “virtual reality gone wrong” movie since the 80’s, chances are you know what to expect. It’s pretty rote and predictable, right down to who created L.O.V.E. Machine and why. For such a high-profile film from such a high-profile director, that’s kinda disappointing.

On that note, the movie is a remake of Hosoda’s earlier short-film Our War Games. The only difference is that any references to the Digimon name are gone. But that doesn’t change the similarities. As in, the plot beats are practically identical, right down to the “everyone in the world bands together to fight off the enemy” climax. It’s not a deal-breaker, especially when this movie does it so much better, but it’s worth pointing out.

Speaking of a climax, there are two. The first one’s an elaborate spectacle, showcasing the power of global unity in a heartfelt way. Then there’s as brief lull, followed by another climax that’s more a race to the finish between Kenji and L.O.V.E. Machine (who, by the way, is pretty intimidating despite being one-note.) I enjoy both climaxes, but it’s a bit much. It’s something to keep in mind.

Moving on to more serious problems, the film uses some pretty tiring clichés. The most-egregious is “The Liar Revealed”. For those unaware, that’s when characters fabricate a story about themselves, only to be found out, leave the group after an embarrassing outing and return for the climax. Summer Wars does this out early on, and it’s tackled more tastefully than most, but it’s still pretty bad. It also raises the question of how no one was the tiniest bit suspicious of Kenji and Natsuki’s “engagement”.

There’s also a bad misunderstanding during the reveal. It comes right after Kenji’s falsely accused of hacking into OZ. No one ends up listening to Kenji, everyone suddenly acts overly-suspicious, some really dumb exchanges are had, it's painful. That, when coupled with The Liar Revealed, almost brings the movie to a halt. Seriously, why was this included again?

The final cliché is the pointless love triangle. Natsuki having an open crush on her uncle is kinda weird. And really, why? Is it because Wabisuke’s an oddball? Is it because he’s so elusive? You never know why, which isn’t helped by her using his credentials as a template for Kenji’s fake backstory.

Speaking of characters, I hate Shota. A lot. His shtick is that he’s overprotective of Natsuki for…reasons, and it’s unbearable. He’s whiney, miserable, accusatory, aggressive and never shuts up. And he’s an idiot. The only time he does anything helpful is when he takes ice from the computer room to keep Granny’s body cool…thereby almost jeopardizing the fight in OZ. Yeah, even his “helpful” moments are unhelpful, a fact not helped by him being unapologetic. If only I could watch Kazuma punch him in the face on repeat…

As for the animation, while really detailed, it has Manga Iconography going on. And it’s distracting. It’s not overly-frequent, but tell me Kenji’s body turning red when Natsuki tries guilting him into accepting her lie, or Kenji making a duck-face when he accidentally sees Natsuki naked, isn’t uncomfortable. It’s one of the reasons why the final scene sucks so much too. Essentially, it’s unpleasant.

And while we’re on the subject, that’s exactly what the final scene is. It’s basically Kenji consummating his relationship with Natsuki via a kiss, and it’s the most-awful ending I’ve seen in an anime movie to-date. For one, the Manga Iconography is everywhere, right down to Shota’s freaky face. Two, Shota’s distracting. Three, the goading on by the Jinnouchi family is embarrassing. And four, when Kenji passes out from a nosebleed, everyone laughs instead of calling an ambulance. Which is also where it ends. This is played up for laughs, but it’s not funny.

Additionally, Summer Wars doesn’t get the internet. At all. Which is fine for me personally, since I don’t either, but that might turn some viewers off. The sheer amount of nonsense in OZ, while cool, is mind-boggling, and internet aficionados will have a field day explaining why water valves don’t work that way, or why that fight scene was ridiculous. It might actually add to the fun, come to think of it. Or it might ruin the immersion, I don’t know.

Lastly, there are details that don’t add anything, like the whole baseball side-plot, and mini plot-holes, such as how OZ was hacked so easily, but that’s nitpicking.

The Verdict?

Summer Wars is an interesting movie. Like I said, it is to me what Jurassic Park is to Doug Walker: fun, but also really silly. Its flaws are numerous, and while they don’t hurt the experience, they certainly drag it down a little. I’ve seen the film roughly 5 or 6 times, and each time its strengths and weaknesses clash. To quote Rob Walker, “Its stupid parts get stupider, but its great parts get greater.” It really is an oddity.

I’ve heard plenty of criticism lobbed at me by fans over the years, much of which leaves me baffled. Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher was when someone called my perfectly-valid criticism “Whitpicking”. Another one called it “Whitly-centric nitpicking”. I don’t get it: am I supposed to appease you? Am I supposed to pretend that a flawed movie is perfect?

I’ve also been accused of hating the film. To this, I say the following: I don’t hate Summer Wars at all. On the contrary, I think it’s awesome! I simply recognize that it’s flawed. Why can’t other people do the same?

In the end, it all comes back to the big question: is Summer Wars worth its praise and/or criticism? To that, I answer “yes”: “yes” to its praise, and “yes” to its criticism. Is it flawed? Absolutely. Is it fun in spite of that? Again, absolutely. But, above all, it’s important to remember that this is a Mamoru Hosoda film, and it was gonna be good regardless. I simply think that he’s made better movies before and since.

Comments

  1. This review sums it up pretty good. This movie has alot of moments that COULD'VE lead to something great, but they just don't mesh together. That's one of the reasons I disagree with the assessment that it works better than in Digimon.

    This sort of plot was MADE for Digimon, the main reason being the whole concept of Oz feels right at home with it, whilst here its an odd bit that doesn't gel with the real-world going-ons.

    But again, great review.

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    Replies
    1. I guess we won't agree with the Digimon part, huh?

      I still like this movie, but I stand by what I said: it's definitely Hosoda's weakest of his big four. I watch it regularly, but it's no masterpiece (especially compared to his next film, which IS a masterpiece...)

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