Animation Confabulation isn’t just about new animation releases, but seeks to look at older animated films as well. There’s a whole raft of animated goodness out there, and I aim to find some of the best of them that are available. Whilst Summer Wars is only a few years old now, I was so impressed with Wolf Children by the same director that I knew I had to check it out as soon as possible. As such, this had to be the first of our retrospectives. All of my articles on older films may contain mild spoilers. There is nothing in here that will wreck the film for you, but you might want to watch it first.
Chances are, if you are reading this article you were linked to it via Facebook or Twitter (if you weren’t, you are no less welcome), and of course it would be great for the site if you were then to share it again on social media. When on these sites, you may also be linked to some online shopping, you may play games, you could even perhaps earn some money from these sites. Such websites are now at a remarkable stage of connectivity, where everything seems to be orchestrated through them and society seems to be almost inconceivable without them. Mamoru Hosoda’s dizzying, dazzling sci-fi family drama (sci-fam-fi?) is set in a not unbelievable future (or just an alternative present) where reliance on social media has reached a whole new level, and asks what might happen when it all starts to go wrong. It’s not a horror film but it is, to be quite frank, terrifying.
OZ is a kind of über-Facebook, which apparently the whole world is on and can be accessed by just about any device. All technology is routed through OZ, from the banal such as traffic signals and GPS, to the ever-so-slightly ridiculous like satellites and, well, nukes. When an AI avatar goes out of control and starts messing with the system, people are understandably worried. Meanwhile, one maths-genius/code monkey, Kenji, has to survive a weekend with the crazy family of his friend Natsuki who is pretending he is her boyfriend. As the rogue AI begins to cause increasing chaos in Tokyo, Kenji has to get the fiercely proud, talkative family on his side and fighting this AI together. The melodrama of Kenji trying to make sense of his feelings for Natsuki clashes violently with their (literally) out of this world quest to save… just about everything.
Once more, Hosoda displays his ability to balance the mundane and the extraordinary, the real and the surreal. Just as how in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time getting through high school proved just as challenging as getting to grips with the ramifications of time travel, so in Summer Wars Kenji’s journey is as much about the importance of family as it is battling digital monsters. He is more successful here, however, in bringing the two strands together as he nicely shifts the threat from a worldwide catastrophe to merely threatening the family and their historic home. The plot is, at times, full on insane, but it’s his ability to connect with the characters in his films that makes the high concepts work. The fiercely proud matriarch of the sprawling family, for instance, makes more of an impact than any sci-fi shenanigans.
Yet the action elements really do work, too. Because the threat in Summer Wars exists entirely within a digital world, the divide between the two strands is realised with a wonderful difference in aesthetics. Hosoda clearly has a lot of fun in creating OZ, bringing it to life with a variety of avatars filling a vast computer generated world. By initially placing the danger outside of reality, Hosoda can be wildly creative, with an Aztec god villain that swallows the avatars of users round the world, and occasionally taking on their characteristics. As he becomes bigger and stronger, he transforms into something more and more terrifying, and every single user of OZ becomes part of the dramatic conclusion.
There is a risk, at times, of Summer Wars becoming Maths and Computing: The Movie, as several scenes pass by with scrawling meaningless numbers onto paper, or typing furiously at a laptop. As a result, the digital violence loses some of its impact and the threat only begins to feel real at all in the final scenes. It is difficult to sympathise when an entirely digital creation gets beaten up when the people behind them are obviously quite alright. But such is the invention with which Hosoda creates this digital world, it ultimately doesn’t fail to be an absorbing, compelling universe to explore. Summer Wars is a strange, often beautiful animation with one truly heartbreaking scene that gives the whole piece a powerful emotional resonance. With this, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda is proving himself to be something of a genius of the medium, making the bizarre believable, and rooting even the most outlandish of plots in a world that it is impossible not to care about. I can’t wait to see what he does next.