Sitges 09: SUMMER WARS Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
When director Mamoru Hosoda appeared on the scene with 2006's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time the cries went out immediately hailing him as the heir apparent to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki.  The comparison was an obvious one.  Not only had Girl released head to head with Studio Ghibli's Tales of Earthsea and come out the clear winner in the critical realm but Hosoda and his writing collaborator Satoko Okudera share with Miyazaki the ability to build intimate, personal stories set within radical, high concept worlds.  Well, it is now time to stop describing as Hosoda as the heir.  With his sophomore effort releasing within a year of Miyazaki's own Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea one thing now seems quite obvious: Hosoda is the new king, the best story teller working within the animated medium in Japan and - quite possibly - the world.

Like Girl did before it, Summer Wars functions on two distinct levels simultaneously.  On one level there is the high concept, science fiction layer.  In Girl that layer was the time hopping adventure; in Summer Wars that level is the all purpose, omnipresent, digital world of OZ.  A logical extension of technologies that exist now, OZ is a sort of catch all - an immersive world accessed by cell phone, computer, video game consoles - anything electronic, really - and in which its users - represented by colorful avatars - can socialize, do business, communicate and do just about anything else that involves the transfer of information.  OZ represents the convergence of the internet, cellular systems, television, gaming, etc, a convergence that is already in the process of happening which makes the digital world within Summer Wars absolutely, one hundred percent plausible.  It may be science fiction now, but within the next ten years it could easily become science fact.

On the second level of both films - and this is by far the more important level of Hosoda's storytelling, a factor that makes his work so incredibly powerful - is the story of simple human relationships.  In Girl you had a budding romance between a high school girl and the young man who would turn out to be a time traveler.  In Summer Wars the relationships spread wider - appropriate for a film dominated by themes of communication - but at the core it remains the story of an unlikely romance.

Kenji is a shy and awkward man, his only real gift - at least as far as he's concerned - an aptitude for math, a subject in which he is skilled enough that he was very nearly Japan's representative for the global math Olympics.  With school out of session Kenji has taken a job as low level tech support for OZ, a job he quickly jettisons when Natsuki - the most popular girl in school - asks if anyone needs a job for the summer because she needs someone to accompany her to her family's traditional home to help out preparing for her great grandmother's ninetieth birthday party.  Seeing an opportunity, Kenji jumps at the chance.

And things seem great at first.  Natsuki is beautiful, smart and outgoing - exactly the kind of girl that Kenji would never have a chance with and he has clearly been idolizing her from a distance.  The train ride is great.  But then he finds out what Natsuki is really up to.  With the family matriarch in failing health, Natsuki has promised to bring home her boyfriend to meet the family on this visit.  But the thing is Natsuki doesn't actually have a boyfriend and so she has solved the problem by hiring Kenji under false pretenses.  Once the pair arrive Kenji learns his true job: He must spend the next four days pretending to be Natsuki's boyfriend. But the panic he feels at that is nothing compared to the panic that sets in when what he believed was a math problem emailed to him by an anonymous source turns out to be an identity theft scam that cripples OZ and leaves Kenji framed for the chaos.

Richly detailed and beautifully written, Summer Wars is a film filled with the sprawling chaos of family.  Always ready to pause to capture the small details of daily life, Summer Wars uses its scifi premise to provide some punch to the visuals and energy to the proceedings while - so subtly that you barely notice - Hosoda pulls a bait and switch job and delivers not a ripping scifi adventure so much as he does a truly human story, a story of hope and perseverance and learning to become a man.  It is a charming and funny piece of work, one that has a spot-on understanding of human nature, one blessed with an extensive cast of stunningly detailed and authentic characters.

Make no mistake, Summer Wars is gorgeous to look at.  The surprise success of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time means that Hosoda had far more resources at his disposal for his second film and seemingly every penny was put into spreading lush visuals across the screen.  But while filled with dazzling images - particularly in the OZ sequences - Hosoda never, ever loses sight of what really makes this train go.  He is director fully capable of delivering flash but not particularly enamored of it.  His films may contain sophisticated concepts and thrilling set pieces but they are never about them.  No, Hosoda may generate gorgeous visuals but he never gets lost in them.  The important parts of his films aren't the flashy bits but the quiet ones, the little asides, the subtle nuances of his characters.  And with his sophomore work Hosoda has perfectly balanced the need to entertain via the visuals with the rich and satisfying character work that separates him from the massive pack of quality technicians to establish himself as truly a master story teller.
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