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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Even though I’ve attended Anime Central in Rosemont, IL for the past eight years, I really wouldn’t consider myself an anime fan. There are a few things I genuinely love, a few I really like, and about a million I downright loathe. I find anime to be by and large a pretty horrible entity. For every Megazone 23 or Patlabor, there are a boatload of awful things like Strike Witches or Wedding Peach. I don’t really consider myself an anime fan, and I wouldn’t even want to admit to being one in public, lest I find myself ripe for a public shaming.
Having said that, there are aspects of anime that can be very cool and have even been influential in American pop culture, and I tend to love these kinds of things. Feature length films like Ghost in the Shell and the aforementioned Megazone 23 have been highly influential in American movie blockbusters. Look no further than the Matrix trilogy for proof of that. It’s pretty clear that the works of the late Satoshi Kon held influence over filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (especially apparent in 2010’s Black Swan). Even though I’m not a fan, it’s obvious that Firefly was considerably influenced by Japanese works like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star. In short, I like influential, mature anime deeply and I’d like to see more of it.
I attended Anime Central (shortened as ACEN) just last weekend, and I ended up going to a screening of the 2009 animated film Summer Wars. Directed by Mamoru Hosada (who cut his teeth working for Hayao Miyazaki), Summer Wars is just the kind of anime property that interests me. Incorporating everything from video games to social networking to extended family to summer vacation to high school baseball, Summer Wars is the story of Kenji Koiso, a rather unassuming high school student who is invited to spend summer vacation with popular girl Natsuki Shinohara and her extended family. Upon arrival, Kenji finds out he’ll be playing the role of Natsuki’s boyfriend, which catches him completely off-guard. Hi-jinks ensue, but not of the variety you might initially think of.
Kenji is a brilliant young math student, nearly gaining a spot on the Japanese Math Olympics team. He has great skill in solving complicated algorithms and seems to understand computers and computer programming skills. He works part time for social networking website OZ, a Facebook-like entity that people basically use in all facets of their life. City water, power, traffic lights, etc are all controlled by users on the OZ network. When Kenji receives a mysterious math problem in an email, he never imagines solving it would set off a chain reaction that would bring down OZ, plunge Japan into chaos, and maybe even threaten to crash a rogue satellite in space. It’s now up to Kenji, as well as Natsuki and her extended family (including OZ videogamer and Natsuki’s cousin Kazuma, among other interesting characters) to put a stop to this rogue program in the system and cease the spread of social upheaval and chaos.
Released in 2009, Summer Wars gained significant critical acclaim and was nominated for many awards throughout the world. It is the kind of movie with the potential to change people’s preconceived notions about just what anime is. It’s also a visually gorgeous spectacle, with the incredibly cartoony, videogame-looking segments in OZ contrasting with the striking countryside of Ueda (an actual city in Japan). Art and character design work extremely well together to form a beautiful partnership here. Animated by famed studio Madhouse, Summer Wars is probably the best looking anime of its generation (I still have not seen Redline, which may have surpassed it). I can’t sell the way this film works high enough. It must be seen to be believed; it is absolutely beautiful.
The story is quite simple, but effective. On the surface, it’s kind of a War Games-type of movie (those never get old anyway) mixed with a quirky family drama (think Little Miss Sunshine or something, though not as sickeningly indie). It’s clear the Hosoda is a Miyazaki-disciple, because his character interactions feel very Ghibli-esque. I have read about others criticizing the story for lack of originality. I won’t knock it for that, because despite its lack of outward originality it is still incredibly unique. I’ve seen other movies attempt to blend the real world with the digital world in the way Summer Wars does, but few have been as effective and as accessible, which is incredibly important to note. If I had one criticism, I would say the movie is a bit long. There are many places where the film could have ended (and I thought it would) but then did not.
I mentioned a moment ago that Summer Wars is an accessible animated movie. I think that really helps the movie out a lot. Anime needs a massive mainstream hit, and movies like Summer Wars (and also probably Red Line, but again I haven’t seen it) are important to have around. Anime needs more movies like this in order to sustain and extend the shelf-life of this dying hobby. I was incredibly pleased with the film and glad I attended the free screening at ACEN. I’m considering picking up the BluRay as well, because I imagine it would look even better in that format. I highly recommend checking out Summer Wars, even if you can’t stand anime. It may not change your mind about the genre, but it might give you a slightly altered perspective toward the positive.