Summer Wars

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April 21, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

“Anime? You mean the Japanese cartoons like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!” or “Anime? You mean the Japanese cartoons full of sex and violence?” are probably the two most common responses by “normal” people when they find out that someone watches anime; I can’t help but find the polar opposite associations rather hilarious. Nobody would ever say “oh, you read poetry, you mean that stuff about flowers?” or “oh, you read poetry, you mean that stuff about wars?” The association stems from the confusion that anime is a genre rather than simply animation from Japan; it’s no more a genre than French films are a genre. Once I’ve explained that to people unfamiliar with anime the next question is inevitably “why do you watch cartoons?”. Indeed, the stigma against animation as something only suited for kids or outrageous satirical comedy is pervasive in most of the West. The simple answer behind why I watch it is that the creative freedom inherent in animation, and frequently expressed through animation, far outweighs that in the vast majority of live-action films, and Momoru Hosada’s Summer Wars is a prime example of that imaginative explosion.

Kenji Koiso is a 17-year-old math whiz who works on the ubiquitous, immense and immersive virtual realm of Oz, until he’s invited by Natsuki Shinohara to accompany her to her family reunion for her great grandmother’s 90th birthday. But Natsuki doesn’t reveal to Kenji until he’s there that she’s actually brought him along to play the role of her fiancé so her grandmother will know she’ll be taken care of. At the reunion, the nervous and confused Kenji also meets Wabisuke Jinnouchi, an estranged uncle, as well as the 13-year-old Kazuma Ikezawa, whose avatar is the legendary fighter King Kazuma in Oz. After Kenji receives a mysterious number code on his phone and solves it, Oz is thrown into chaos as an AI begins eating up avatars and taking control of all the electronics and businesses connected through Oz.

While anime might not be a genre itself, perhaps no medium has more thoroughly explored and subdivided up the realm of fantasy and science fiction. It’s a medium where films as diverse as Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Urotsukidōji, Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Abe’s Haibane Renmei, and Serial Experiment’s Lain all superficially fall under the label of science-fiction and/or fantasy. Summer Wars falls under the label of science fiction too, but such a label hardly expresses the complexity of genre influences upon it. Romantic comedy, Ozu-like family drama, Dragonball-like fighting action/adventure, Yu-Gi-Oh-like card playing game suspense, War Games-like battles with an AI bent on mass destruction, Hoosiers-like “rara go team!” sports film, Lain, Avatar or Matrix-like immersion within a fully realized digital realm all vie for prominent focus within the narrative. The themes are just as liquid and dynamic; it’s at once a film about tradition vs. modernity, analog reality vs. digital reality, technological advancement, the ubiquity of social networking, estrangement, acceptance, self-worth, coming-of-age; after a single viewing it’s easy for all of this to come off as an unfocused, scattershot mess.

It’s telling if we make a rather odd comparison to perhaps the most notable live-action take on social networking in Fincher’s The Social Network. Many Facebook users complained that the film didn’t really represent life on Facebook, missing the entire point of what made the site so massively popular, instead creating fiction out of the facts of how Facebook came to be. It raises an interesting question; how does one represent digital life? It’s not as if you can simply turn a camera on someone sitting at a computer, no more than you can turn a camera on someone reading a book. The internet, like literature, is merely a catalyst for transporting your mind elsewhere, even if that’s amongst other people. In comparison, Summer Wars gets much closer to the reality that life online feels like. You may not physically interact with people online, but the effect that mental mingling has can be just as stimulating. After all, when teenagers are committing suicide over what’s said about them online, there is no longer a barrier between analog reality and a digital world.

The erosion of that barrier between online and reality seems to echo the erosion of genre distinctions. Indeed, if everything from government to businesses to everyday people can co-exist online in a kind of cached oneness, why can’t genres co-exist too? But it’s not just genres that Hosoda pulls into this Borg-like assimilation, as past & present and individuality & collectiveness get thrown in there too. Unlike most artists who see a disconnect between those holding on to the past hopefully out of touch with a modern world where technology has far surpassed them, in Summer Wars the past, from the ancient ties to the Jinnouchi clan to the matriarchal great-grandmother, are inextricably tied up in a world that technology directly affects. When Japan descends into chaos after the AI first cracks Oz’s security, it’s the grandmother who rallies everyone together the old-fashioned way (by actually calling them). Although, not everyone is as quick to realize the real-world implications of life online; the buffoonish Shota chides Kenji, Kazuma and others for “playing a game” after the grandmother’s death, while some of the remaining women remain puzzled about whether or not it’s JUST a game or something real.

In that sense, Hosoda marks a radical departure from the wistfulness of Ozu, who observed the separation of youth from culture and tradition as something to lament. For Ozu, this equally signaled the more Westernized emphasis on the will of the individual over the collective good, but Hosoda presents a world that, even if more Westernized than Ozu’s pre-War Japan, is nonetheless still a tightly knit unit. It’s a unit willing and able to come together when needed, willing and able to utilize the lessons of the past in the present. Both of these are on display in the two means the characters use to defeat the AI. The first involves using the same strategies the Jinnouchi clan utilized to defeat an invading army back in the days of the samurai, and the second involves everyone banding together to challenge the AI in a traditional game of Hanafuda.

The ultimate result is a film that is impressive in its ambition and scale. Summer Wars is almost like William Blake in its omni-incorporation of the past that’s used to invent a new mythology. But just as Blake was ultimately crushed under the weight of his own vision and predecessors, Summer Wars is equally crushed. Of course, if your ambition is doomed to failure, it’s better to “fail” as grandly as William Blake, so at least you still give yourself headroom to still be great, and Summer Wars definitely borders on greatness. The real surprise is that its biggest failure is in its human elements; I say “surprise” because it’s that human element that worked so superbly for Hosoda in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, one of the greatest animated films of the last decade that didn’t have the studios “Ghibli” or “Pixar” attached to it.

In particular, the entire Wabisuke subplot doesn’t work. His story is one of estrangement and attempted redemption that simply needed much more time devoted to its development to work emotionally. Although, none of the other stories are much better developed or three-dimensional. The romance between Kenji and Natsuki that begins the film doesn’t really pick up until the end; Kazuma’s determination to be great at his online “sport” is flippantly dismissed as his reaction to being bullied; the grandmother is little more than a cheap emotional fulcrum, with her death feeling manipulative and lacking in real pathos. I’m almost inclined to say that Hosoda is using shallow, archetypal characters almost in the same way he’s using genres and themes, just throwing them all into a blender to see what comes out. This would be less of a problem if Summer Wars had the sly, winking, cool, metafictional awareness of a Tarantino, but Hosoda seems to be presenting his characters and emotions as attempts at genuine identification and tragedy, making the film’s worst moments all the more corny. After all, if the way you write comedy is to make the characters believe they’re in a tragedy, then the way you write unintentional comedy is to believe you’re writing a tragedy and fail at it.

But the failures of Summer Wars are, thankfully, less frequent and less glaring than its successes. I’ve often remarked that anime soundtracks and composers are superior to the vast majority of their live-action counterparts, and Akihiko Matsumoto’s electric, riveting score has a galvanizing effect when laid over the action sequences. But, really, those images, courtesy of the art, animation and cinematography, are the heart and soul of Summer Wars. Oz is something to behold; everything from the neon arenas to the kaleidoscopic colors bursting through the white backgrounds to the giant blue & pink sentinel whales of John and Yoko, to the design of the AI monster just screams WOW. It has the same sense of scale that Cameron conceived Avatar on, but while Avatar suffered by teetering into the Uncanny Valley, Summer Wars has no such trouble. It reveals that the real strength of animation isn’t in its ability to imitate reality, but in its freedom to abstract reality and create something new but still “real” on a deeper, more experiential level.

It goes back to anime being able to conjure up the world of imagination better than live action film. Even the pervasiveness of CGI in modern science fiction films is a (frequently lame) attempt to incorporate that abstract and creative freedom. But what most Hollywood studios haven’t figured out is that the reality in front of a camera’s lens and the reality created out of a nothing on a blank page will inevitably clash. The more they integrate, the more we fall into that nasty Uncanny Valley. I simply couldn’t imagine the finale, which features an enormous hulking shadow monster of the AI battling against Kazuma, Natsuki and Kenji, ever being replicated in CGI-integrated live-action. Even Avatar with its grand conception seems to pale in comparison to the sense of scale and kinetic action captured in the best of anime, particularly the apocalyptic sci-fi entries like Evangelion, Akira or this film. While I can’t help but lament that Summer Wars falls well shy of its ambition, the visual inventiveness and sheer excitement and energy that pervades the film is something that modern Hollywood could only dream of producing.

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