During the month of December this year, Cartoon Network's revived Toonami block has been broadcasting a different anime movie each week for their Month of Movies, the first being the critically-acclaimed , based on a manga series of the same name. Following Akira is another, similarly acclaimed feature, this one being a movie originally released in 2009 titled Summer Wars, the subject of this review. While I had not heard of this movie before, an ad I saw for it while watching Akira made the premise sound intriguing, so I became more interested in watching it, even after having already recorded it. While it is certainly a much different type of movie than Akira, I ended up actually liking Summer Wars, even though it has a few issues regarding the use of technology.
In the future, online communication has advanced to the point where a service called OZ was created, which handles nearly everything in everyday life. Kenji Koiso (Michael Sinterniklaas) and his friend Takashi Sakuma (Todd Haberkorn) are a couple of students who work part-time jobs as OZ moderators. As the two guys are working, a friend of theirs, a girl named Natsuki Shinohara (Brina Palencia), walks in and, while initially jealous of their jobs, wants to invite one of them on a trip to celebrate the 90th birthday of her great-grandmother; Kenji ends up being the one to go. On the way over there, Kenji, when asked, reveals that he almost represented Japan in a math competition, which surprises Natsuki. Once the two arrive at their destination, Natsuki lies to her great-grandmother, Sakae Jinnouchi (Pam Dougherty), that she and Kenji are in a relationship, which is something Kenji is forced to go along with. That night, after meeting the rest of Natsuki's family that showed up, Kenji receives an e-mail through OZ, revealed to be a long string of numbers. Unaware of its purpose, Kenji cracks the code, getting a foreboding response from the sender. The next day, OZ has been hacked and malfunctioning, putting the entire world at risk. Realizing what he had just done and the news branding him as a criminal, Kenji must now figure out who was behind hacking OZ and put a stop to it before things get really out of hand.
The plot of Summer Wars is actually really interesting. The film has a handful of sub-plots that nicely feed into each other without one taking up too much focus, all of them neatly coming together in the end. While there is a fake-romance angle present in the movie, a lot of the OZ plot can get really suspenseful, especially towards the end. The story also moves along at a fairly decent pace, with a good amount of character development given to the main cast, including some to many members of Natsuki's family. There is plenty of drama to go around in this story without making the atmosphere thick with it, but that doesn't mean the movie doesn't know when to lighten up, and at times a given scene can become very funny to help soften the mood. Overall, the story has a more light-hearted atmosphere than plenty of other animated movies, Akira included.
The land of OZ (no, not ).
However, there were some things that bugged me about the premise, mainly the setup of OZ. Why would any internet user want to link everything personal to a single account, let alone handheld devices and sensitive tech such as medical equipment and, apparently, nuclear weaponry? From what I know, it takes much more than just simply typing in a passcode to launch a nuclear weapon, and you'd think special emergency equipment would be unconnected to the internet. Granted, I went along with the idea of OZ, since the movie goes out of its way to establish this hypothetical scenario in the opening minutes, but as the movie went on there were certain things linked to OZ that I felt had no business being connected to it, especially since much of the world's turmoil in the movie comes from the network getting hacked. While I hope something like this doesn't happen (I try to keep things separated as much as possible, including my choice of handheld devices), I can't help but feel that perhaps Summer Wars acts as a sort of commentary on the state of today's internet usage, especially a few years after the movie premiered, what with sites like Facebook and Google, more so the latter, slowly transforming into a real-life version of the fictional OZ network. Though some parts of the movie have ended up accidentally becoming true in real life, one can only hope the rest of it doesn't end up becoming reenacted as well. This is not to say the story of Summer Wars is garbage, it's just that some of the smaller details related to OZ made me scratch my head a little.
That aside, there are some other aspects of the movie that I would give praise to, one of them being the voice acting in the English dub. The English voice cast was chosen very well, coming from Funimation's pool of voice actors, and I don't think it could have worked out as well any other way. Michael Sinterniklaas does a good job portraying the math whiz Kenji, while Brina Palencia pulls off a solid performance portraying the female lead Natsuki, both of them displaying a good chemistry between their respective characters. Maxey Whitehead, who I recognize as the voice of Alphonse Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, does a good job with the important side character Kazuma Ikezawa, who displays a great knowledge of computers as he helps Kenji try to fix OZ's hacking problem. There are other recognizable voice actors in this film from other Funimation dubs, among them Chuck Huber (Dr. Franken Stein in Soul Eater), Christopher Sabat (Vegeta and Piccolo in Dragon Ball, Roronoa Zoro in One Piece) and Eric Vale (Trunks in Dragon Ball, Sanji in One Piece) to name but a few, who all in general give off great performances in their supporting roles.
Kenji (left) using Kazuma's (right) computer in an attempt to fix OZ.
The animation is also handled well, with evidence that some amount of care was given to ensure that everything flowed smoothly. Interestingly, the real world and the world of OZ, while having a sort of uniform look, have somewhat differing art styles, which helps each one to stand out from the other. Though there is surprisingly little CG work when displaying OZ, there is just enough to help sell the idea, with whatever CG there is blending in nicely with the traditional animation on display, and while the real world does not look like your average stereotypical anime world, everything is stylized enough that it does not step into any uncanny valley territory (although admittedly some shots of specific objects, such as a suit of armor on display, look uncomfortably photorealistic when against an animated backdrop). I also enjoyed the music used in the movie, at times having a nice subtle electronic sound that really does well complimenting more serious moments of the story, especially around the climax.
One thing I've learned from watching a lot of movies is that not even animated films, Japanese anime included, are safe from product placement (there's a good reason fans of the show Code Geass have the phrase "Pizza Hut supports the Rebellion"). As such, Summer Wars features some rather blatant product placement for Apple's iPhone (I couldn't tell you which model) and Nintendo's (now outdated) DSi handheld. While the characters using them don't go out of their way to discuss these products' features, it's still rather obvious since they are animated so accurately, especially in regards to the iPhone, and both are shown to connect to OZ. This, however, doesn't really take much away from the movie, but it is nevertheless very overt.
Overall, Summer Wars is a very interesting movie. It tells a good story while also providing some rather intriguing commentary on how people use the internet, topped off with some good animation and voice acting. The product placement may be blatant and some technological stuff a little head-scratching, but otherwise Summer Wars is an anime movie I would recommend, mainly to fans of slice of life and/or sci-fi material, although it's not something I would recommend showing to a child, reasons including mild instances of nudity and swearing among other things. In any case, Summer Wars can be taken as a (sort of over-the-top) cautionary tale of what would happen in a truly unified online world.