The imagination available to filmmakers who create worlds with the tools of animation is practically limitless now with the advent of ever improving technology. Whilst the availability of steadily growing animation studios has become more apparent in recent years, steadily garnering much needed critical awareness over time, no such other country better leaves the viewer fully immersed in the world of animated storytelling than Japan. Although director Mamoru Hosoda may live under the shadow of animation legends such as Hayao Miyazaki and Kenji Kamiyama, Summer Wars proves that production company Madhouse can pull above its weight without copying the works of the better-known and often more iconic Studio Ghibli.
Set in modern-day Japan, Wars follows the story of Kenji Koiso, a computer programmer and ‘Math Olympic’ champion who works for the online world of Oz. A quasi Google meets Facebook meets everything else online service in which the entire world’s population has an account. Whilst beginning what he hopes will be an uneventful summer eighteen-year old Natsuki proposes that he pretend to be her boyfriend during her grandmothers ninetieth birthday at their resident fortress in Ueda. However simple planning takes a turn for the worse when Kenji accidentally becomes involved with a newly created and viciously clever A.I. which successfully hacks Oz’s accounts system causing global chaos and threatening the lives of Natsuki’s family.
Hosoda’s direction of Wars has an amusingly light approach when dealing with the important Japanese traditions and values likened to the family unit. Thematic qualities of commitment, love and loyalty are never completely illuminated but act as a support column for the structuring of the narrative. Kenji as a character has no concept of such family get-togethers as his own parents must leave him alone in order to work. The main setting for the plot, a luxurious palace from the age of the Samurai is a joy to discover as we watch Kenji explore and interact with many of the family members, often nearly all containing larger than life personalities. His own internal battle with holding back his feelings for Natsuki is developed slowly whilst being made all the more believable as events unfold.
Oz itself however is a completely different beast in its own right. Highlighting the best of what Japanese animation is capable of in today’s world we are treated as an audience to an incredible work of art whenever we enter the online world. Although parallels to “The Matrix” are unavoidable the interaction shared between users and their online avatars, particularly whilst fighting the deadly A.I. ‘Love Machine’ are astounding to witness. Several moments in Wars become mini-films in themselves as more of Oz’s capabilities are revealed to us in such beautifully exquisite detail. Fortunately for us, the importance of the human side of the narrative is never forgotten and ties up the many threads weaved in and out of both realities. Kenji’s online conflict with Love Machine is no more resolved than his struggles with supporting Natsuki, particularly after a very well crafted emotional event that deeply effects the family. Although Summer Wars is essentially a re-telling of Hosoda’s short film that he directed for the Digimon Animated Movie in 2000 you would be hard-pressed not to find a more fun, inventive and dramatically engaging story to get wrapped up in. Much like Kenji’s realization about the importance of family, Summer Wars leaves you emotionally satisfied whilst yearning for more, from the work of a director who clearly appears to have never given in to style over story.