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  Summer Wars We Are Family
Year: 2010
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Stars: Nanami Sakubara, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Ayumu Saito, Mitsuki Tanimura, Sumiko Fuji, Chigusa Takaku, Eiko Kanazawa, Hashiya Nakamura, Hinano Minagawa, Ichiro Nagai, Kaori Yamagata, Kiyomi Tanigawa, Mieko Nobusawa, Mitsutaka Itakura
Genre: Comedy, Animated, Science Fiction, Romance, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  10 (from 1 vote)
Review: Kenji (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki) is your typical teenage misfit. Good at math, bad with girls. Like millions of people around the world, he spends all his time hanging out in the all-powerful, online fantasy RPG-cum-social networking site known as OZ. Even online, his weedy alter-ego only watches awestruck while reigning avatar King Kazuma, a kung fu super-rabbit, battles strange beings and robot lobsters. Kenji’s digital life is the only life he has until Natsuki (Nanami Sakubara), the gorgeous girl of his dreams, hijacks him for a starring role as a fake fiancé at her family reunion. Gathered to celebrate Great Grandma Sakae’s (Sumiko Fuji) birthday, this boisterous army of aunts, uncles, cousins and children beguile the lonely Kenji, in spite of their eccentric antics and embarrassingly intrusive questions. Mouthy cousin Shota, a small town cop with a not-so-secret crush on Natsuki, is insanely jealous of the interloper, but Kenji bonds with thirteen year old computer whiz Kazuma (Mitsuki Tanimura), who proves the brains behind a certain famous avatar in OZ. Black sheep of the family, Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) arrives to a frosty reception, although Natsuki adores him.

Things then take a turn for the strange. A late night e-mail brings a cryptic mathematical riddle. By solving it, Kenji unwittingly opens the door for a rogue A.I. known as Love Machine. This virulent virus infiltrates OZ, stealing passwords and personal details and seizing control of every piece of technology on the planet. Overnight, Kenji becomes an internationally sought cyber-criminal. The stock market crashes. Machines go haywire. A military satellite is poised to unleash global Armageddon. Only Natsuki and her unruly family can help Kenji avert the apocalypse and save the world.

Confirming the promise shown by his award-winning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars establishes Mamoru Hosoda as a truly visionary talent. This feel-good romantic comedy science fiction adventure rivals the mighty Studio Ghibli with the sheer breadth of its vision which dazzles from our first eye-popping glimpse of OZ, but stimulates on so many different levels. Its title alone is a clever allusion to the summer movie phenomenon, with their formulaic plots, whiz-bang special effects and rote boy-meets-girl subplots. Hosoda subverts all our expectations of what a summer movies, fusing the hyperkinetic action of Star Wars (1977) and that sense of wonder achieved by The Wizard of Oz (1939) with the penetrating social insight offered in the family dramas of Yasujirô Ozu. It even includes a choice quote from Seven Samurai (1954). Summer Wars exhibits more imagination than a dozen Matrix sequels, not least with its mind-blowing visuals designed by Gainax legend Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (flying pink whales, space trains, dinosaurs, death gods, cartoon squirrels and other wacky cartoon avatars inhabit the digital realm of OZ) to evoke the so-called “Superflat” style practiced by pop artist Takashi Murakami. But it laces them with solid science fiction ideas married to a wealth of subtext and something so many mainstream genre movies lack: engaging characters and compelling human drama.

Inspired by the newlywed Hosoda’s growing affection and fascination with his own in-laws, the film intertwines two major themes: family and social networking media. Hosoda audaciously includes around eighty characters, each vividly drawn from the cutest child to the most crotchety grandparent and every oddball aunt, uncle and cousin in-between. Kenji is someone who is very much a product of a typical twenty-first century Tokyo household. Raised by technology in lieu of his absent parents, seemingly go-getting business types, he is shy, awkward and initially seems more comfortable amidst the digital anonymity of OZ. However, Kenji clearly longs for the kind of honest human interaction the smart, confident Natsuki takes for granted. He is deeply moved by her boisterous family, who may bicker and get on each other's nerves but genuinely care about one another. Amidst all the craziness, we are given a real insight into how Japanese families interact in the twenty-first century, with the focus on communal activities: sharing a meal, texting by smart-phone, or a game of Hanafuda cards. This is a film about being plugged-in to the social network, being connected to a universal core of humanity whether by technology or just a keen understanding of human nature. Whether its web wizards like Kenji and Kazuma or Granny Sakae rallying relatives across the country with just a rotary phone and and a formidable spirit. Gutsy Natsuki, clear inheritor of the family’s samurai spirit, straddles both worlds with relative ease. We can easily see her maturing into a formidable matriarch like Granny Sakae somewhere down the line.

Significantly, the film does not portray gaming as an anti-social activity. Quite the opposite in fact. Rogue technology may unleash the apocalypse, but it takes a combination of techno-savvy, samurai tactics and family togetherness to fight it. Everybody contributes something, from the guy with connections in the Japanese Defense Force to someone who brings stacks of ice to help keep cool the super-computer Kenji, Kazuma and Natsuki use to take on the might of Love Machine. Eventually this communal spirit spreads worldwide. Jumping seamlessly from the analog world to the digital realm, and intercutting a crucial baseball game in which yet another distant relative is playing a part, the film deftly sways from minutely observed character detail to jaw-dropping fantastical set-piece, from a surprisingly tense confrontation between Kenji and his hijacked, Mickey Mouse-eared avatar to a tender romantic moment with the divine Natsuki. It is a movie whose mood can turn on a dime, from funny to terrifying, whilst detailing a death in the family and its subsequent impact in a disarmingly truthful manner. The climactic confrontation, pitting one kooky Japanese family against an all-powerful entity with the whole world at stake, is incredibly gripping. Just when you think it’s all over, Hosoda throws another edge-of-your-seat twist, another jaw-dropping visual or an uplifting message. This is more than a great anime, more than great science fiction, this is great filmmaking.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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