February 21, 2011

Justify My Netflix: Summer Wars

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Summer Wars

Today's movie: Summer Wars, 2009 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because as regular readers know, for the last several years I've been using my Netflix account as an excuse to become conversant in the subject of anime (of which I knew almost nothing before opening CCLaP); and this latest by wunderkind Mamoru Hosoda sounded right up my alley, a sprawling epic and festival darling that has caused many to declare Hosoda the spiritual heir of revered manga legends Satoshi Kon and Hayao Miyazaki.

The reality: Pretty damn entertaining, I have to say! And for that to make better sense, let me make it clear that I have a low tolerance for the usual overdone tropes found in this genre (God, if I had a nickel for every post-apocalyptic cyborg warrior housed in the body of a naked 14-year-old girl that the Japanese film industry has now seen...), which means that I instead tend to gravitate to the projects in that field with unusual and striking storylines, things like Paprika and Spirited Away that at their heart use cutting-edge animation to tell fascinating tales. And in that respect, Summer Wars is a real stunner, a film that layers in all kinds of interesting settings and details in order to tell its complex story -- in a nutshell, the story of a malevolent piece of artificial intelligence injected into a "Second Life" style virtual world, only in this case a virtual world literally the size and scope of the internet itself, and with our teenage hacker hero battling the bot from the confines of a grandiose medieval-era rural mansion owned by a tightly-knit former aristocratic family, originally convinced to travel there on a weekend trip in the first place by the prettiest girl in his high school in order to pretend to be her boyfriend, which provides plenty of warm comedy to balance out the epic battles taking place in cyberspace.

Summer Wars screenshot

Summer Wars screenshot

Yeah, I know, it sound awfully schizophrenic when distilled into a one-paragraph synopsis, but trust me when I say that it becomes highly engaging when played out over two hours, a beautiful mix of character-based dramedy and science-fiction actioner that remains smart and avant-garde while still being family-friendly, exactly the goal that the usually experimental Hosoda had when first envisioning it, or at least according to the numerous interviews he's given a starstruck European press in the last year. (And in fact, this film ended up breaking the "anime barrier" that many European film festivals used to have, as well as becoming Japan's official entry into last year's foreign-language Oscar.) But of course, as is the case with most anime projects, the real reason to watch Summer Wars is for the mind-blowing visuals; and it's here where you really see why so many comparisons are made to such contemporary artists as Satoshi Kon and Takashi Murakami, in that Hosoda manages to mix together the fluffy cuteness of Hello Kitty with the terror of American first-person-shooter videogames, creating a virtual universe that like I said is clearly modeled off the structure of a place like Second Life but that looks utterly unlike it, not a recreation of reality but instead a much more abstract and magical place, where rings of orbiting houses spin around planet-sized clowns in the midst of an unending white-sky universe, the exact kind of jaw-dropping imagery that is making 21st-century anime so globally loved these days in the first place. (And this is to say nothing of the luscious renderings of the ancient feudal estate where the real-world portions of our story take place, a gorgeously traditional counterpart to all the cutting-edge weirdness of the virtual "OZ.") It's easy to see why it's become such a trailblazer among the snooty art-film festival crowd in the last year, and it comes highly recommended to both veterans and strangers to the anime genre.

Strangest pice of trivia: The former aristocratic family whose members make up the heroes of this film is based on the real-life Sanada clan, in charge of keeping the peace in Japan's Matsushiro Domain until literally the late 1800s.

Worth your time? Absolutely

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:50 PM, February 21, 2011. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |