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Friday, Aug. 7, 2009
The future king of Japanese animation may be with us
"Revenge," George Orwell once wrote, "is bitter," but it can also be sweet, can't it?
When Studio Ghibli asked Mamoru Hosoda, an up-and-coming animator at Toei Animation, to direct a new feature, "Howl no Ugoku Shiro" ("Howl's Moving Castle," 2004), it was as if the Imperial family had allowed a commoner to marry one of its members. Then, when Hayao Miyazaki — Ghibli's emperor — decided to take over the film, Hosoda was cast outside of the palace gates.
Rather than cry in his futon over the injustice of it all, Hosoda directed the SF anime "Toki o Kakeru Shojo" ("The Girl Who Leapt Through Time," 2006) for the Madhouse studio. Featuring a sensitive teenage heroine and a time-traveling storyline, with animation that vividly expressed both emotional nuances and imaginative flights, "Toki" was a surprise hit, as well as a winner of many prizes and festival invitations. Meanwhile, its Ghibli box-office rival, "Gedo Senki" ("Tales from Earthsea," 2006), directed by Miyazaki's son Goro, was bashed by critics (including this one, who found it a compendium of cliches) and did, for a Ghibli film, mediocre business.
Hosoda's new followup is "Summer Wars," an animation again made with Madhouse and scriptwriter Satoko Okudera, but with a bigger budget and wider distribution by Warner Japan. Focusing on an epic computer game battle, "Summer Wars" is an ambitious step forward for Hosoda — and a marvelously sure-footed one it is.
It also points out the conservatism of so much feature anime, which either endlessly repurpose popular manga, TV anime and game franchises (e.g., the products of Hosoda's old boss Toei Animation) or rework familiar tropes (e.g., Ghibli's spunky underage heroines and evergreen theme of environmental destruction) over and over. "Summer Wars" may contain familiar elements, beginning with its bashful, moonstruck young hero, but it combines them in ways fresh, contemporary and dazzlingly imaginative.
Unlike most mass audience anime that look back nostalgically to a historical or folkloric past or ahead to various futuristic fantasies, dark and otherwise, "Summer Wars" is totally of the current, postmillennium moment. Watching it, I felt quite the print-and-ink dinosaur, but also more hopeful about the digital culture that has connected nearly everyone in the country. Instead of surrendering their souls to the Internet data stream — the theme of several postapocalyptic anime — the folks fighting the online "wars" of the title retain their individuality and humanity, in every variation from the cute to the obnoxious.
The aforementioned hero is Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a teenage math prodigy who, together with his equally nerdy best friend, lives almost completely in an online world called Oz. Then, one fine summer day, a pretty sempai (senior), Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba), asks him if he would like to help her with the big birthday celebration being planned for her soon-to-be 90-year-old grandmother (Sumiko Fuji).
Though not sure what "help" means, Kenji agrees — and finds himself at the grandmother's huge, rambling house in Ueda, Nagano Prefecture, being introduced to Natsuki's large, rowdy family as her "fiance." Kenji is horrified — and secretly thrilled — but he is soon overshadowed by another arrival: the handsome, sardonic Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito), a computer whizz and the deceased grandfather's illegitimate son.
Natsuki flies into Wabisuke's arms — he is her "first love" — and Kenji feels the first pangs of jealousy.
The plot engine begins to rev when Kenji receives a mysterious e-mail filled with an eye-blurring numeric code. He cracks it, sends his solution to the hacker and, the next day, is shocked to see himself on the news, the prime suspect in a criminal hack that has turned Oz into a wasteland. Using an avatar that morphs into a grinning demon god, the real hacker, who has invaded Oz by stealing Kenji's account, starts wreaking real-world havoc as well. Car navigation systems go on the blink, snarling traffic nationwide. Then the hacker seizes control of a weather satellite — and threatens to send it hurling to Earth like a guided missile.
Kenji, together with Wabisuke and Kazuma (Mitsuki Tanimura), a young game warrior, mount a challenge to the hacker — a rogue AI (artificial intelligence) program. Soon, the various aunts, uncles and cousins are also involved, appearing in Oz as a small swarm of avatars. Their opponent, though, is not only inhuman, but clever, relentless and power-mad.
Despite the dozens of characters — including the 27 members of Natsuki's extended family — a surprisingly large number emerge as individuals, not just cartoony faces in the crowd. And even though plot turns come thick, fast and fantastic, the story focuses more on its human characters than the heroics of its cyberbattle. Some of the developments, such as the revelation of Wabisuke's parentage, are standards of Japanese melodrama and comedy, but they are so sharply detailed and observed and so charged with living energy, emotional and physical, that the "cliche" label doesn't apply.
Hosoda and his team, including animation director Hiroyuki Aoyama, action animation director Tatsuzo Nishida and character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, have produced scenes of animated spectacle that, in their dazzling fluency of motion and untethered brilliance of invention, makes the usual SF/fantasy anime look childish and dull. At the same time, the film's universe is thoroughly grounded in reality, with all its fantasy confined to the online sphere (though some of the wackier visual gags push the boundaries of the possible).
Besides being a family-friendly entertainment, "Summer Wars" is an incisive commentary on the ongoing transition from the grandmother's analog world of handwritten cards and letters to her heirs realm of digital devices, in which the human touch is attenuated — or nonexistent. Will we succumb to our gadgets and machines? The film's "wars" are no fiction — and our victory is not yet certain.