Back from vacation, during which I had the opportunity (among otherwise non-anime-related activities) to watch the large-ish budget Madhouse film Summer Wars.
I bought this movie mostly on the marketing stuff RightStuf kept sending me, something I rarely do—the synopsis didn’t tell me anything one way or the other, and the box didn’t, either. Having actually watched it, it turned out to be solidly entertaining—a bit like a lighthearted mix of Omoide Poroporo and WarGames (and yes, about as weird as that sounds). It actually reminded me a bit of the late, great Satoshi Kon’s more upbeat films—it has a somewhat similar sense of offhanded humor, and lots of fast-moving, fluid, natural banter.
Almost the whole film takes place in a beautifully rendered countryside estate filled with a lively family of colorful, chatty folks who get along in that believably argumentative way that anyone who has a family with large numbers of cousins and aunts will probably recognize. The dynamics of the group are what the whole movie is built on, and where it’s at its best—they’re well acted, well animated, well written, and fun to watch.
The nominal protagonist—a shy math geek—is a bit spineless, but it’s actually more of an ensemble piece than I was expecting—he provides us the uninitiate’s window into this chaotic family dynamic, but isn’t in the spotlight unnecessarily, and the film is happy to let other people share the screen through much of the second half. He also doesn’t spend an undue amount of time whining or being a wimp, which was welcome. The girl who drug him into the situation is colorful and fun while seeming quite real, and doesn’t actually get much more screen time than the rest of the family, which was sort of nice—the romantic angle is there, but not really a major component of the plot. It’s really about family, and sticks to its guns well.
It also has a possible global disaster resulting from a massive virtual world (Second Life meets Facebook meets the internet in general) getting hacked that the unexpectedly-well-connected family ends up working together to fight back against. That angle was fun as well, and provided some nice external conflict and almost as much humor as drama. It also let the animators do some flashy battle scenes with the digital avatars duking it out.
What’s amusing is that the action looks good—it’s Madhouse after all—but to me I was far more interested in watching the wonderful character animation on the normal people walking around the house than the flashy digital rabbit-samurai flying around doing improbable super-martial-arts. A bit was fine, but honestly I didn’t care much about watching the outcome; I’m not sure if it was more to do with the fact that the style didn’t do much for my head, or just that I was more attached to the human characters, so the avatars meant nothing to me emotionally. Only the result of the battle meant anything, so basically watching the person at the keyboard sweat was more dramatic than the avatar getting beaten up.
The other problem was that it went kind of overboard with a big, flashy virtual reality hanafuda match at the end. A bit was fine, and of course having seen video mahjong I’m sure that’s what it would look like, but it really wasn’t necessary and broke the mood and momentum. I suppose the animators figured that, being a theatrical movie, they wanted to give people something big and flashy to justify paying for tickets, and maybe I’m just not the type that appreciates it, but I think it would have been better left to a minimum or if we’d just seen her sitting in front of the computer rather than from the flashy VR avatar perspective. After all, WarGames managed to pull off its big finale with Matthew Broderick talking to a disembodied voice with nothing but a giant checkerboard for a visual aid.
I could complain about a handful of cartoony bits of character animation in the non-virtual parts, but those were forgivable. I will complain a bit about the voice cast, which is almost entirely made up of novices or live-action actors. The main guy, Kenji, is voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki, the same actor as Sho in The Secret World of Arietty, and while the casting is fine he just comes across as a bit underpowered in this film—there’s so much energy onscreen he doesn’t quite have enough personality to keep up. His love interest is better, at least, and most of the rest of the cast is colorful, memorable, realistic, and lively. Kazuma, the 13-year-old online gamer nut, however, is unfortunately voiced by Mitsuki Tanimura, who would have been doing a perfectly fine job if she’d been playing a 16-year-old girl, but just plain does not sound like a boy at all, which kind of blows that character. On the positive side, the two that stuck out to me were aging fishmonger Mansuke, who’s voiced by the always-reconizable Ichiro Nagai (Cherry from Urusei Yatsura, Happosai from Ranma 1/2, D’s hand, and the doctor, professor, or weird old guy in just about everything you can think of) and Shouta, the hotheaded policeman, who I would have sworn I recognized the voice of but turned out was voiced by Yutaka Shimizu, who has only ever done live action work apart from this.
Overall the movie felt like it was shorter than it actually was, which is almost always a complement—it was paced well, fun, had a good sense of humor, and plenty of subtly beautiful background and nice character animation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but I had fun, and even Akemi, who’s brutally picky, didn’t mind it.