Thursday, 19 May 2011

Summer Wars

I'm not sure if you'll be aware of this - I certainly wasn't, not having been a fan since I was nine - but the Digimon tv show has had some absurdly good staff involved. For instance, the guy who wrote a recent series, Digimon Tamers, was also responsible for the landmark cyberpunk anime Serial Experiements Lain, a rather creepy, mind-screwy show, which may explain why the big bad of Digimon Tamers was essentially Cthulhu. Seriously - sleeping god who may wake at any time and destroy the world in doing so. That's the plot.

Another example is Mamoru Hosoda. The director of the first and second Digimon movies (released over here as parts one and two of The Digimon Movie, if memory serves), he would later go on to direct a very different anime movie, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. A gorgeous art anime, it details perhaps the smallest, pettiest, most human use of time travel ever committed to film, as a teenage girl both uses her newfound time-travelling ability and learns to live with the consequences. The film drips with a serene nostalgia which Japanese coming-of-age media seems incredibly adept at invoking (What Scott McCloud called "Aspect-to-aspect" shots are probably what does this) - think Haruhi Suzumiya, or the more tranquil moments of  Evangelion or (whips out geek-cred) the original visual novel of Tsukihime. It's also tightly plotted, smart, well characterised an absolutely worth your time, and it won a huge amount of acclaim in film critic circles. For his next movie however, Hosoda took his career backwards. His latest film, Summer Wars, is basically a deeper, artier version of the second Digimon movie.

Here's my point: Summer Wars is the story of a world in which all of humanity's efforts in AI, computing and social networking have been funnelled into one great big online society, OZ. Everything from online games, to shopping, to government infrastructure. Seemingly most modern human communication goes through OZ. Eventually, however, it's taken over by a malevolent AI set on destroying OZ and reducing the world to digital ruin. In the meantime, our heroes have to restore the system from the inside, battling the AI. In the meantime, a satellite falling to earth provides the ticking clock. Digimon: Our War Game...does all those things. Even the art style is the same - the digital world is stark white and everything has a red outline. Yet Summer Wars appears to be something else - a cool idea that Hosoda was unwilling to let be wasted on a Digimon movie.

First off, to get it out of the way, the art here is amazing. Madhouse always was one of the best animation houses, maybe after UFOTable and Ghibli, and while this movie's cartoonier and less extravagant than those two, its simplicity gives it a strange resonance which also showed in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The animation is bizarrely fluid in a rather surreal way, like bodies are a little more formless than in real life, but it still looks good. On top of this, the OZ scenes are gorgeous - bright colours, an excellent aesthetic and deft use of CGI.

The plot and characterisation is also very strong. The main character, Kenji, plays the typical unassuming hero, but this is thrown through some interesting twists and turns, and LOVE MACHINE, the enemy AI, presents an interesting antagonist. Ultimately, this film also includes resonant themes which concern it as a film which is essentially about social networking - about communication, and about what happens when it is cut off. The chaos in both the real world personal lives of the characters and the OZ-based melodrama all comes from isolation of people in an age of digital communication - relying on the internet to connetct them. In the end, however, it is this connection which proves a source of power (Again, EXACTLY like in the old Digimon cartoon), making this a less cynical take than, say, The Social Network. The whole thing comes off as a celebration of the connectedness that internet communication has brought us overall.

As The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was before it, Summer Wars is a great addition to the anime canon. I cannot wait for Hosoda's next film.

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