Friday, July 15, 2011

Summer Wars - Blu-ray Review


Blu-ray/DVD Release Date: February, 15 2011

It took me a while to get around to seeing this one. I have had it in my pile of unseen Blu-rays for quite some time now and just never found myself in the right mood for it. Then the other day I woke up in the mood for a little anime and promptly but the disc in the player, sat back and reveled in one of Japan's greatest art forms for the next two hours.

Review Vital Stats:
Format: Blu-ray
Player: Playstation 3
Monitor: Samsung 40' LCD Series 5
Picture Quality: 1080p
Sound Quality: True HD - English

Loves: Anime, glorious 2D animation, Japanese culture
Likes: Stories dealing with technology and how it effects us
Neutral: Subtitles in my anime (anime purists be warned)
Hates: Nothing
Winner: Of numerous best animated feature awards from all over the world

Note to anime fans, I watched this film using the English Dub. If that is a deal breaker for you then so be it. Just thought I would be up front about it in case that is an issue for you (which it most likely is).

I have noticed over my many years of being an anime fan that there is almost always an underlying sense of a fear of technology embedded deep within most of the titles I have seen. Either it is giant mech suits, space travel, cyborgs or computers in general  where almost all anime deals with what happens when these types of technology go berserk or are misused in some way. It is sort of ironic to think that a nation compelled to push the limits of technology also has a deep seeded fear of it as well. Summer Wars is in the same vain as most other anime in this regard but it tells it's story in a much more straight forward and real world relevant way by infusing its story with a deep sense of family and the ties that bind. While it still has all the complexities, drama and excitement that only anime can deliver, Summer Wars uniqueness in how it constructs its world and characters mixed with spectacular animation captivated me from beginning to end.

Kenji Koiso is an eleventh grade math genius who also just so happens to be one of the many lucky people in the world to be a part of the OZ network, a virtual representation of the online community where people all over the world are joined on this one gigantic server. His summer looks to be filled with programming and network maintenance until fate comes knocking at his door...literally. Natsuki Nagano, a fellow student of his that he also has quite the crush on, needs to hire someone to do some work out at her family summer home where her great grandmother lives and Kenji couldn't be any happier to ditch his work on OZ to help her out. Little did he know though that Natsuki's job she needed him for was to act as her boyfriend while also dealing with her entire family clan. However while he is away from his job strange things start to occur within OZ that quickly begin to spiral out of control so bad that the real world finds itself at the mercy of a rogue computer virus. Can Kenji act the part of Natsuki's loyal boyfriend and get along with her large family while also trying to put OZ back together again before for the computer apocalypse happens?

OZ is quite a sight to behold.

Part of what makes OZ such a wonder to behold are all the crazy things that make up it's online community and how it relates to things happening in the real world. Like most online communities now days everyone in the OZ network has an online avatar to represent them and the film opens in an almost tutorial like way with us the audience being walked through the process of making one of these avatars where we see first hand just how vast and alive this artificial reality is. These avatars mostly consist of things that only the wonderful minds of the Japanese culture could conjure up with a unique mixture of cute and cool. The main hub for OZ itself is in the shape of a giant cat head which is surrounded by creatures that defy description in most cases but you still have your typical big eyed rabbit/human hybrids and chibi (small) animal like creations. You also see houses, apartment complexes, businesses and all sorts of real world structures stacked and placed on book shelves circling the main hub in order to keep their locations in the real world indexed properly. I can honestly say I have never seen the online world depicted in such an abstract, structured and yet stunningly beautiful way as this before.

Now the idea of giving us a visual representation of the online world is not only overdone any more but also something that isn't very necessary at this point in time regardless of the visual assault on the senses that OZ is. We as a world wide culture have the Internet so ingrained into our everyday lives that having someone try to show us their own version of it is kind of pointless. But yet somehow Summer Wars sidesteps that feeling of been-there-done-that simply by the making OZ not only a joy to look at but also by having it in the background for most of the film. When going into this movie for the first time I thought I was going to be sitting through a story revolving around an online community with the human characters used mostly as ciphers but much to my surprise it is the complete opposite. The characters in the real world take center stage while OZ and the troubles that eventually occur within it are used as a catalyst to motivate the actions of this robust family.

Kenji accepts Natsuki's proposal without hesitation.

What this impeccable set up does is it makes everything that comes later actually feel like it matters. When things start to go haywire inside the OZ network it starts to effect the outside world and the Nagano family in particular. The OZ network is the central hub for the entire world and is tied into everything from people's personal information to the basic tools that run our world such as water, power and even our worldwide defense systems. It is never said or even mentioned who exactly runs it but that is of little importance. As a matter of fact it appears to run itself with only the help of people like Kenji who do maintenance on the system from all over the globe. So when this virus enters the network it not only is able to take control of OZ but use it to take direct control of  everything that makes our world tick by absorbing the personal accounts of people in high places to gain access.

Once this virus takes control it doesn't take long before things start to go crazy. Traffic jams become stand stills, geysers of water shoot out of the streets, false alarms and emergencies are triggered all over and the only person that seems to have any idea what is going on is Kenji who may or may not be the cause of everything that is happening who is oblivious to his part in this online Armageddon. When he realizes that he is a wanted man for hacking the OZ network things really start to take a turn for the worst for him. As mentioned earlier Kenji is a math guru and for fun he likes to solve math problems and/or puzzles related to math, one of which just so happened to be a code to unlock OZ that this particularly nasty virus uses to gain entrance. When the Nagano family realizes they might have a cyber-terrorist in their midst it doesn't take long for things to go from tense to crazy for Kenji and the Nagano family.

King Kazma is the avatar fighting for the human race.

All the mayhem that transpires due to Kenji's involvement with OZ, his relationship with Natsuki and how he navigates each dire situation that arises is compelling enough but what keeps the narrative moving forward and what really hooked me (beyond the gorgeous animation) had to do in large part with the assortment of characters we get introduced to at Natsuki's family summer home. I come from a fairly medium sized family tree myself but I do realize there are some pretty large family clans out there and the Nagano clan is not only large but full of all these distinct and likable personalities. Their relation to one another is only as complex as their wide range of careers. You have a police officer (who is a second cousin to Natsuki and has a thing for her), a fireman, a paramedic, a professional baseball player (who just so happens to be playing in the finals on television), a computer hardware salesman and a fisherman who owns his own business. And that only covers the men in the family, you have their wives as well and their children who range in age from teen on down and number in the double digits somewhere. Then you have the one person they all came to see, Sakae the family matriarch who is celebrating her 90th birthday.

What I found so endearing about this family were all the simple and familiar nuances they each had. They are all unique in subtle ways but you get the sense that they are all very close despite their differences which is how most families are. I know what you might be thinking at this point, why or how would an animated film about a family get together be compelling? My answer to that is simple, family dynamics is something we deal with every day in our own lives and it is the rare instance when ANY film hits the nail on the head like Summer Wars does. It gets all the little things just right that help you relate to Kenji's plight, the one older kid that hides out in his room playing on his computer, the loud and obnoxious older uncle, the new additions to the family such as wives and boyfriends who must get acquainted with how things work in the family and even the black sheep of the family who shows up unannounced and despite bringing up old demons is welcomed by a few family members who still love them.

Kenji can't handle the stress of everthing that is happening.

The film does a fantastic job at balancing the goofy slapstick comedy with some unexpected and rather dramatic moments that are usually the results to what is happening in OZ as well as the basic Nagano family problems. Some of my favorite moments dealt with Kenji teaming up with certain members of the family to help enter the OZ mainframe and take it down before it has a chance to destroy the world. How each of the Nagano family members are able to contribute is not readily apparent at first and can also be seen as slightly far fetched but it didn't stop me from getting wrapped up in all the excitement generated by the film's final moments. Indeed the finale of Summer Wars is not really unexpected or original but the way in which it all goes down is downright impressive from both a story point of view and visually. I guess what made it all work for me was how well the idea of family working together was implied and mixed into the often times manic situations they get into.

Suffice to say that the way the two worlds and their upcoming apocalypse's intertwine becomes a highly elaborate set of events that transpire where we see how the power of family can over come just about all odds if they can work together as well as people in general, even strangers. This may sound a little odd but I found Summer Wars to be inspiring in way. I brought up the fact that many anime features deal with a certain fear of technology and that is most certainly true in the case of Summer Wars. But it was one of the few times that I can recall when that message had an abnormal amount of positivity to it. Normally I would have a feeling of dread or a fearful enlightenment but I actually found myself feeling pleasantly uplifted by what transpired.

Natsuki's avatar is ready to shine.

Summer Wars is a marvelous film in just about every way possible. It has excitement mixed with drama, fantasy on a large scale mixed with reality on an even larger scale, meaningful and worthwhile messages about how fast our world is growing in this technology based environment as well as how much personal contact with our loved ones outweighs most of what our virtual worlds can provide. Summer Wars does not condemn our fast growing reliance on technology, it actually affirms it but with a slight bit of caution with how much we rely on it. I cannot recommend this film enough, if you are in the market for a beautiful film filled with all sorts of imaginative sights and wonders along with a fun and moving human element then look no further than Summer Wars.


What's on the disc?

What a great set of extras Funimation has collected here. While some may be turned off by the fact that they are not presented in full 1080p high definition, their content cannot be dismissed. You get some really insightful interviews with a number of the original Japanese voice cast as well as a fairly in depth discussion with the director himself. The package is rounded out with your usual assortment of trailers and what not but regardless, I found this to have quite a bit of wealth to it overall.

Even in the real world some wacky things take place.


Please note that all these features are presented in 720p High-Definition.

Japanese Cast Interviews HD - Here you have a total of six individually selectable interviews with members of the original Japanese voice cast. Each one is worth a watch (even if you did watch the film with the English dub like myself). You will get a whole new perspective on the film and the actors who portrayed the characters in it. During all the interviews you get to see some behind the scenes footage depicting how they recorded all their dialog in the same room together. I was also surprised to find out most of the cast had never done voice acting before.

- Interview with Ryunosuke Kamiki (Kenji Koiso) - (6:14)
- Interview with Nanami Sakuraba (Natsuki Shinohara) - (2:21)
- Interview with Mitsuki Tanimura (Kazuma Ikezama) - (4:57)
- Interview with Ayumu Saito (Wabisuke Jinnouchi) - (3:19)
- Interview with Sumiko Fuji (Sakae Jinnouchi) - (5:32)
- Interview with Mamoru Hosoda (Director) - (13:04)

Collection of Trailers and TV Spots HD - This one pretty says it all. Like usual there are a series of different trailers that were used to promote the film and these are those trailers.

These are just a handful of the wildly imaginative avatars inside OZ.

Final Verdict:

The more I think back on my experience watching Summer Wars the more I realize just how fantastic it is. Visually speaking it is jaw dropping gorgeous and it has a real heart and soul to the sometimes crazy but always moving human story with the family members. If you are a anime fan then you owe it to yourself to see this movie immediately. The disc has a crisp and clean picture that will melt your eyes with all the fabulous colors at play and the sound (the English Dub anyway) was second to none. The extra features may seem light but they are filled with some really great content that any fan of the film will enjoy. This one is a no-brainer for animation fans of all types.

Movie   -  A
Video   -  A
Audio   -  A
Extras  -  B




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