October 3, 2012

Summer Wars (2009)

114m. Japan, 2009. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba and Sumiko Fuji.
Summer Wars is a masterstroke: it is quite possibly the finest Japanese animated feature film since Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It is beautifully designed and animated, genuinely warm and emotional, populated with richly drawn appealing characters and strung together with one of the most original and unexpected narratives in recent years. For general fans of Asian cinema it comes strongly recommended, while for fans of anime it should be seen as an essential purchase.
The film is based around Kenji Koiso (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki in the Japanese version), a gifted mathematics student who also works part time as a moderator for OZ, a massively-multiplayer online (MMO) game through which the people of Japan not only play but also conduct business, banking and even international diplomacy. When classmate Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) asks him to accompany her to her grandmother’s 90th birthday party, Kenji awkwardly agrees – only to discover that she’s already announced to her family that he’s her fiancée.

What begins as a rural romantic comedy rapidly changes gears to incorporate elements of farce, touching family drama and – perhaps most surprisingly of all – a science fiction thriller. It is testament to writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s talent that these multiple balls are juggled perfectly. Summer Wars feels perfectly pitched, unique and extremely satisfying.

The film incorporates two styles of animation: the very loose, almost sketchy feel of the real world sequences, as well as the CGI-enriched, stylised and breakneck aesthetic of the virtual world of OZ. It’s often difficult to make scenes set inside computers and virtual realities interesting, and Summer Wars presents one of the best representations of an online space that I’ve seen. It is both technically exceptional and whimsical.

While Kenji and Natsuki are both very appealing characters, it is Natsuki’s grandmother Sakae (Sumiko Fuji) who steals the show and acts very much as a lynchpin around which the film’s numerous characters revolve. Despite the large cast, each character is very well drawn and performed, making it an easy task to get a handle on who is who.

This film was reviewed from a two-disc DVD set released by Australia’s Madman Entertainment, and it is of the excellent quality that I’ve come to expect from this country’s most exceptional film and DVD distributor. Those who prefer to watch their anime in English are well served with a solid English language dub. 

Summer Wars is one of those rare masterpieces that makes watching cinema so utterly rewarding. Available now on DVD in most countries, it comes with the highest possible recommendation.

This review was first published at Eiga: Asian Cinema on 19 July 2011.

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