So, last week we looked at one of Mamoru Hosoda's recent films, The Boy and the Beast, and I actually really enjoyed it - enough so that I thought I'd check out some of his other work, which is how we've ended up at possibly his best known non-Digimon film: Summer Wars. It's often touted as being basically a reworked version of Digimon Adventure: Our War Game, and it's not difficult to see why - the two share a broadly similar concept (the internet is invaded by a rogue AI who wants to cause massive destruction) and an incredibly similar aesthetic.
I think that comparison does both films a bit of a disservice, though. We'll get to that in a moment.
Kenji Koiso is a gifted mathematics prodigy and a part-time moderator of the virtual reality OZ who, after taking a 'part time job' from fellow student Natsuki Shinohara, ends up pretending to be her boyfriend at the four day festivities for her great-grandmother's ninetieth birthday. While there, he meets Kazuma, Natsuki's cousin and the alter-ego of famous OZ fighter King Kazma; Wabisuke, Natsuki's granduncle who has been living in America for the past decade after absconding with the family fortune; and Sakae Jinnouchi, Natsuki's great-grandmother and the family's powerful, well-connected matriarch.
Before long, havoc strikes, though, as a rogue AI, Love Machine, takes control of OZ using Kenji's avatar. As Love Machine accrues more and more avatars (and through them, more and more personal information and authority) it begins to cause worldwide havoc. In the midst of all this, Love Machine's link to the Jinnouchi clan is revealed, and a tragedy strikes, leaving the family divided as they attempt to deal with Love Machine.
|One of a few Love Machine vs Kazuma fights.|
So, touching quickly on the oft-leveled at this film accusation that it's a rehash of Our War Game, I can certainly see why people say that. Apart from the loosely similar plots, Summer Wars has an almost identical aesthetic to Our War Game, both in its online and offline sections - in fact, it resembles Our War Game much more than it resembles Hosoda's later work like Wolf Children or The Boy and the Beast. It even shares some themes, like criticism of America's foreign policy, the power of people working together, and the people's propensity towards ignoring major problems.
But I'd argue that's where the similarities stop. Our War Game is very markedly an action-adventure film, and its plot basically begins and ends at the fight to stop Diablomon - but for Summer Wars, the AI plotline is a conflict meant to facilitate the film's real plotline, which is about the virtues of family, traditionalism, and reconciliation. In Summer Wars, Love Machine is a catalyst for the events of the film (and an outlet for some truly gorgeously animated fight scenes), but the conflict between Wabisuke and his family, between the two different sides of the family and their differing views on how to move forward, and between multiple warring notions of family values, is the real conflict of the film.
(One day, I'll do a proper comparison between Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and The Boy and the Beast, because they all deal with different kinds of family unit, to the point where Hosoda's portfolio could easily be considered an exploration of different types of family.)
|Moments after this he becomes a giant shadow bunny.|
I admit, I didn't enjoy this film quite as much as The Boy and the Beast, and the biggest reasons for that are pacing and animation quality.
While Summer Wars is transfixing once it hits its stride, it takes a ridiculously long time to get there - the first forty minutes feel slow and ponderous, and I had trouble giving it my full attention. Much time is spent establishing the family, and while that's undeniably necessary for the rest of the film to work, it's a tortured, dragging affair, shot through with comic relief moments that only really hit their mark about half the time.
After that forty minute low point, though, the film picks up considerably, and it more than makes up for a slow first act: The remainder of the film is snappy, fast-paced, and engaging. The Love Machine and family plotlines are balanced perfectly, intermingling with each other in interesting ways, and I found myself rapidly being roused from apathy to actually caring about these characters, their plight, and their relationships.
Almost bafflingly, each family member feels like they're more fleshed out from the second act onwards than they are in the first. I learned more about each of them during the 'preparation for the big Love Machine plan' section than I did in the part of the film devoted to showing me what they were like.
|A big high point in the film. So glowy.|
As far as animation goes, it's certainly not bad, in fact it's very good - it's very obviously Hosoda's work, very closely resembling both Miyazaki and Our War Game, but he and Studio Chizu have obviously refined their craft a lot since then. There are a lot more shortcuts and lapses in animation quality than in his later films, the animation is markedly both less detailed and less fluid, and the colour palette feels significantly less vibrant and visually interesting.
The voice-acting is strong, and the script is concise, interesting, and well-structured. While The Boy and the Beast is quite a noisy film, Summer Wars makes a lot more use of long silences and prolonged periods of quiet, and I prefer that, somewhat. Hosoda is very good at switching up moods, and Summer Wars particularly shows how he can switch between 'joyful' and 'depressing' on a dime, often midway through a conversation between several characters, without it feeling jarring.
I enjoyed this film, even if I do prefer some of Hosoda's other work, and I can certainly see why it's probably his most beloved film. I'd recommend it, especially if you've enjoyed any of Hosoda's other work, or if you're a Miyazaki fan - as mentioned before, Hosoda and Miyazaki are fairly similar, both in terms of their animation style and in what they write about.