Overall verdict: 8.5/10
The Good: Captivating coming-of-age tale, clever underlying themes, realistic voice acting, charming main characters, unique production design for the online OZ world.
The Bad: animation too simplistic at times, overly convenient plot twists, erratic pacing
Current Availability Status: recently completed cinema run. DVD release pending
Who is Mamoru Hosoda? Look up his short resume and the only items of note would be the touching little film "The Girl Who Lept Through Time". Now here comes another surprise hit that deserves every single award it has won, "Summer Wars".
First off, do not let the title fool you. This is not another brainless summer blockbuster even though it has all the earmarks of one. High School student Kenji is a math genius who spends most of his time immersed in the online interactive world of OZ, which is easily a whacked out version of "Second Life" except a whole lot popular. So popular in fact that real life companies and multi national organizations use it to communicate and run businesses. One hot summer, Kenji is coaxed into a "summer job" for his senior, and secret crush, Natsuki. All he has to do is accompany her, and carry her baggage, to her grandmother's countryside estate in Ueda where her entire extended family will be to celebrate her grandmother's birthday. Sounds simple right? Wrong. Natsuki soon reveals that she wants Kenji to pose as her boyfriend in order to impress her grandmother.
Before you think "oh no, another teenage summer romance anime", think again. After his initial run in with Natsuki's extended family, Kenji receives an email asking him to solve a complex number problem. He solves it and, as a result, unwittingly gave a rogue Artificial Intelligence the codes to hack into OZ. The effects of the online disruption is seen in real life as communications and software systems like traffic lights breakdown worldwide. Startling revelations and new friendships are forged as Kenji, Natsuki and the entire Shinohara family clan band together to try and avert a worldwide catastrophe.
Sounds really epic for sure, but the main attraction of this film is not its story or its animation. Rather, it is the colorful array of characters. Every single character, from Natsuki's grandmother to her kid cousins, are given ample development making them very easy to relate to. At its core, Summer wars is about family togetherness and filial piety; a truly heartwarming character drama. Unlike most anime where voice actors tend to over act a lot, the actors in Summer Wars play their roles very realistically; their interactions are so natural, just like a real life Japanese family. Main lead Kenji is himself an extremely endearing boy that you would just grow to like as he over comes each hurdle in this "coming of age" tale, from gaining the trust of the Shinoharas to winning the admiration of Natsuki.
Long time anime fans will realize man parallels between Summer Wars and Mamoru Hosoda's Digimon movie, particularly the "Our War Games" segment. Both films involve a rogue artificial intelligence wrecking havoc on the internet which translates to real work problems, both also involve a genius protagonist, a glimpse at Japanese rural life and the threat of something falling to earth about to obliterate a neighborhood complete with an online countdown clock. The running themes about human's over reliance on technology and the importance of real life ties are seen as the problems in the online world causes society and communications to grind to a halt, throwing the world into chaos. This is cleverly played and is purely an extension of what Mamoru-san hinted at in Digimom.
The only downside of this otherwise great film is the animation itself. While the online world of OZ is intricately designed(even though it does bear some visual resemblance to both the online world in Digimon and the time jumping sequences in Girl Who Lept through Time), the real world scenes are rendered in a style too simplistic for big screen viewing. Though perhaps it had a symbolical meaning, to contrast the simple mundane going-ons of the real world with the colorful escapist fantasy of the virtual world, the art just comes across as lazily drawn with very little detail; even simple shadows are missing in many scenes. It may look great on TV but on a big screen cinema, the animation and art is just too simple and bland, but thank goodness for the amazingly rendered OZ scenes especially in the climatic showdown between avatars worldwide. Also there is the problem with an erratic pacing and some overly convenient plot twists but they do not affect the overall enjoyment much. No spoilers but my only hints to the overly convenient plot twists are "fighting rabbit" and the origin of the rogue A.I. Wayyyy to convenient.
Action, drama, romance, comedy, you name it, this movie has got it; something for the whole family to enjoy. Any why not since the main theme is the importance of family ties? In an era where anime has been largely dependent on adapting pre-existing popular manga(like Naruto and Bleach), the original anime screenplay of Summer wars is a breath of fresh air. Summer Wars shows the true power of original anime stories to win over an audience on its own merits without tagging on to the popularity of any pre-existing manga or light novel. It is is a rich character driven tale with the potential to become a timeless classic. If anything, it deserves a place among the great anime movies like Ghost in the Shell and Sprited Away. Not entirely fitting for a theatrical release due to sub-OVA standard animation, but a definite keeper for any anime DVD/Blu-ray enthusiast.
Go For it: if you like a a fun filled character centered animated adventure story that is truly epic in scale without sacrificing the little things that really matter, like the heart
Avoid it: if you would prefer the more "style over substance" standard anime offerings like Naruto and Bleach and would not appreciate an anime if it was not based on a popular manga/video game/light novel.
Voice work (japanese): A
Replay Value: B
ZOMG! WTF iz dat I C! Is dat a haxors A.I going lol, messin wit teh HTML?!?!
Example of the OZ online world's unique avatar designs.
Koi Koi. Koi koi! KOI KOI!!!!!!
Meet the family(no the "Koi Koi" aint no joke. Its an actual quote from the movie)
Aren't you kids a little young to be watching this kinda thing?
Sadly, the overly simplistic and brightly colored 2D characters clash a lot with the intricately designed background.