MOVIE REVIEW: “Summer Wars” (2009)

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Man, what a *nice* movie.

I mean, yeah, I’ve seen better films, I’ve seen worse, I’ve seen ones that made more and less sense, I’ve seen sweeter, more cloying films, and far more brutal ones, but the first impression that really jumped out at me about this flick was just how *nice* it was. If Frank Capra made a science fiction film, this would have been it. The central message is that the Lamb is more than a match for the Lion, which is, of course, what Frankie Boy was all about.


We start off with an extended introduction to an online community called “Oz,” which, we’re told, is the largest and most successful one in the world, with more than a billion people signed up, and untold numbers of corporate and technical accounts as well. This is done something like a long-form commercial, and it sets up the playing field.

We then meet Kenji, a high school kid who’s got a part time job as a low-level sysadmin for some minor subsystems in Oz. It’s summer break, or whatever the Japanese equivalent is, and the boarding school is mostly empty. The Most popular girl in school - Natski - is just about to head home, and she needs a guy to go with her to pretend to be her boyfriend for various reasons of family politics. Kenji is madly in love with her, and she has very limited choices (Basically him and one other geekier guy), so she takes him.

Natski’s the scion of a very old, very rich, very powerful family that is, alas, down on its luck. To put it in American terms, they’re like one of those old Southern Gentry families that have fallen on hard times, left with a big neo-Georgian house, a strong sense of self, and nothing of any material worth. Natski’s family is in that same situation: a huge family (fifteen or so major characters, and another twenty or so minor ones), a beautiful ancient Japanese home/castle/manor thing, a lot of tales of lost glory, and everyone working whatever hum-drum jobs they can find to make ends meet. The family has reunited for Grandma’s 90th birthday. Natski had been told that grammy was dying, and wanted to make her happy, so she’s pretending to be engaged so the old woman won’t have to worry about her great granddaughter’s future. She pretends Kenji is a freshman at Tokyo University (In fact, he’s younger than she is), just got back from a year abroad in the ’States, and blah blah blah.

What Kenji actually is is very shy, very overwhelmed, and very much a math genius, having missed representing Japan in the International Math Olympics by *ONE* point. Unable to sleep, he gets a complicated numerical equation texted to his phone - 2096 numbers! - and he stays up all night cracking it with paper and pencil. 8 hours later, he sends the answer back to whomever sent it, and passes out. When he wakes up the next morning, he finds that Oz has all-but-crashed, and his picture is on every news channel, with the phrase “Cyber-terrorist” underneath it.

He tries to hide this, but is arrested by one of the more annoying members of the family, who’s a cop. The collapse of Oz results in global higgledy piggaldy, including a near-shutdown of all traffic and transit in Japan. Unable to get Kenji to jail, the cop brings him back to the house in the countryside. Using his passwords and friends, Kenji is able to gain limited access for himself and one of Natski’s cousins, who turns out to be a world-famous online fight/combat guy. They meet up with a program called “Love Machine” which cleans their clock and kicks ‘em out. Love Machine is an A.I. developed by a military to be used as basically a behind-the-lines commando, screwing up all E-stuff and causing as much confusion and paralysis as possible. Somehow it got loose. And it turns out to have a connection to Natski’s family.

How does it all come out? Watch the movie. I’m not going to tell you.

What I will say is that this is just a really refreshing film on a lot of levels. Firstly: the voice acting is top-rate. The animation is beautiful, the use of light and shadow is nice, and the contrast between the clean, pure-yet-fun virtual world and the medieval Japanese house is well done. The characters are surprisingly well realized, given that there’s so many of ‘em, and *part* of this is really clever: They’re a family. Characters don’t have to carry their entire backstories and characteristics by themselves. The other members of the family can take up some of the burden.

Yeah, granted, one random family out of all of Japan just *happening* to be the fulcrum about which the crisis is created, turns, and resolves is pretty unlikely, and borderline-hokey, *BUT* if you can accept the whole “Luke, I am your father, and that chick you made out with 3 years back is your sister” crap, then you should be able to suspend your disbelief enough to accept this.

And there’s really a reward in it if you do, too: There’s more than a little to admire in Natski’s family’s notion that “We broke the world, we’ll be the ones to fix it.” The grandmother is great, particularly when systems start breaking down, and she starts organizing friends and neighbors by hand, instructing relief efforts and stuff. This is a woman who’s lived through two world wars, after all. The family taking strength from their history of ancient, possibly somewhat imaginary victories, and fighting when everyone around them isn’t even fully comprehending the problem are great. The fact that they don’t particularly *want* to help anyone out, but they do it anyway, the whole “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends” notion, this is just great stuff. And in the end, Natski and Kenji both end up becoming more than the sum of their parts.


They’d better! It’s weird that you’d have to go to a Japanese movie to find traditional American values, but there you have it.

NOTE: There’s some mild profanity, and one really funny/awkward not-quite-nude scene.