Mamoru Hosoda is probably best known as the director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a film which was fairly popular both critically as well as commercially (despite limited release). The praise was relatively well-deserved – it was a very well-made film, and clearly showed that Hosada possessed real talent for directing. Of course, I did have some of my own criticisms of that film, particularly in regards to the balance of the sci-fi elements in the story in the overall plot. Summer Wars has some similarities with that film as well, not least in its merging of a sci-fi plotline with what I suppose most people would call “slice of life” elements.
Summer Wars, however, is also a very big film (and I mean that in its most basic sense), much bigger than the fairly quaint Girl who Leapt Through Time in regards to its sci-fi scope and set pieces. At first glance, it fits all the preconceptions of what a “summer movie” would be, for better or for worse – bright, dazzling, fun, ambitious, larger-than-life. It starts out with a common romantic-comedy premise – the main character’s secret crush asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend, in this case to satisfy her strict grandmother. However, this storyline is more or less thrown to the side as we pursue an over-the-top plotline involving a virtual world (think Second Life) where something has gone terribly wrong causing the entire world to be in danger. Inevitably, the only hope rests in the main character, math whiz Kenji, and the extended family of Natsuki, the aforementioned crush.
Is the plotline somewhat silly? Yes, and it’s something you will want to avoid if you can’t muster up a heavy dose of suspension of belief – it’s fairly obvious that Hosoda isn’t trying to convince you otherwise. Clearly the biggest motivation behind this film was to entertain, and he throws a lot of different things at the audience to accomplish that beyond the zany plotline. For example, it’s packed with creative and visually impressive action sequences which take place in the stylized virtual social community of Oz. Many people will also have a lot of fun with the large cast of characters who make up Natsuki’s family. Throw in a good share of comedy and a feel-good, though predictable ending, and you have a pleasant 2-hour film that will appeal to people from all over the age and taste spectrum.
It is a fun film, but I wouldn’t call it anything deeper than that. There are a few, simple thematic messages accompanied by some modest character development, and I could certainly point to a few touching scenes throughout (a letter from the grandmother on the topic of family relationships being on them). Yet overall, when it comes to emotional impact or forming an attachment with the characters, what it delivers is competent but not exceptional. This is not to say that Summer Wars is just some vapid blockbuster flick. There is a real heart in this film, it’s just not quite on the same level of say, the best work of Studio Ghibli – and I accept that this is a purely subjective comparison. That being said, Summer Wars does add credit to my belief that Hosoda is one of the anime directors to watch in the future. With several of the current masters of the medium aging (Miyazaki and Takahata), we will need a new generation of directors to take their thrones, and Hosoda clearly has the talent and potential to produce classics of his own, even if I disagree with those who believe he has already done so.
As for the technical qualities, the animation is quite vivid and enjoyable, and I’m sure many people will enjoy the colorful forays into the virtual realm, even if I found the action sequences a tad tiresome after a while. The film also has some very good character designs which resemble the more realistic look of Studio Ghibli’s characters (though the best comparison, obviously, would be with Girl who Leapt Through Time). The musical score was generally a good fit throughout, and I had no complaints regarding the voice acting, either.
When compared to the majority of anime released today, and perhaps the films of the past few years, Summer Wars is probably among the better products to choose from. There are some clever angles to the story, particularly Hosoda’s semi-satirical take on online communities, but I think that it’s important to note Hosoda’s own intentions when making this film, and that was to create a “lively, refreshing, and enjoyable” summer movie. In that regard, he accomplished his goal – it is entertaining, over-the-top, and adventurous, but personally speaking, it isn’t the sort of thing that will stick in my mind for long after watching it. As far as the crownings of him as the next king of anime filmmaking, I think I still need to delay my verdict on that until another film or two.
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