Whatever happened to Summer Wars? The story behind the U.S. theatrical release of director Mamoru Hosoda's dazzling and rousing anime is unfortunately a familiar one. Apart from a few usual suspects, the film's critical supporters received little to no fanfare upon its dismally limited December engagement (it's only grossed about $78,000 in the U.S.). This is partly because the film's publicists didn't try that hard to get the film noticed by as many people as possible, and for a gorgeous and smart anime directed by somebody that's not dead yet, or isn't Hayao Miyazaki, that's lethal. Apart from some expected otaku love, the film sank into obscurity until last week, when FUNimation released a two-disc special edition DVD. Now, as with so many other misfit genre films, Summer Wars is getting its second life on home video. With a little luck, people will take a chance on the film now and realize that they were robbed of the chance to see Hosoda give his child audience the respect they deserve and the thrills they want on a big screen.
After its expansive visual palette, Summer Wars's biggest triumph is its ability to meet its audience on its own level. Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) delivers a teasingly straightforward narrative with the expectation that his young viewers will follow where he's going even if they won't be able to anticipate how he'll get there. Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is the quintessential teen, an introvert too sheepish to go after what he wants until it drops into his lap. Luckily, what he wants is Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba), a perky classmate that begs him to come with her to her country home to help celebrate her grandmother's (Sumiko Fuji) 90th birthday, an event that brings all of Natsuki's extended family together. The real reason Natsuki wants him to come with her is that she needs someone to pretend to be her boyfriend so that she can get her picky but level-headed granny's approval.
In light of this scenario, it's remarkable that the film's emphasis on family values and communal living doesn't clash with its focus on the pervasive role of technology in today's society. A traditional card game like Hanafuda, which Natsuki has played all her life, doesn't take a backseat to the online world of Oz, a virtual community that Hosoda imagines as the logical endpoint of omnivorous social media platforms. Hanafuda is integrated into Oz, but it primarily exists in Summer Wars as a tactile card game.
At the same time, Hosoda understands the potential conflict between the Utopian possibilities of Oz, a world where real-world commerce comfortably coexists with computer games in a setting that looks a lot like Takashi Murakami's art, and its inevitable pitfalls. An evil computer program run amok, the Love Machine, begins to devour users' accounts in an attempt to learn more and literally absorb everything. Ultimately, it's Natsuki's surprisingly broad-minded family—they accept Kenji even when the TV news reports that he gave Oz's encryption codes to the Love Machine—that is able to defeat the program. The scene where Natsuki's family cheers her on en masse in a high-stakes Hanafuda match is full of hopeful expectation as more than 20 family members, old and young, pile on top of each other to root for Natsuki. Never mind the fact that a satellite is about to crash into their backyard and create a Michael Bay-sized crater; in that moment, the indomitable will to succeed is all that matters.
And through it all, Hosoda never overtly broadcasts his film's bigger meaning beyond its obvious implications, a refreshing antidote to Pixar's overheated and ostentatiously more "mature" films. Child heroes are just as noble and capable as adult protagonists and the film's endless exposition unfolds at an organic pace. Summer Wars is the ideal kind of feature-length cartoon, one that's ebullient, visually assured, and smart enough to know that it doesn't need to impress us with its intelligence.
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The picture quality on FUNimation's two-disc DVD release is surprisingly blurry. The image looks unfocussed throughout, making it especially hard to get lost in Hosoda's precise compositions and MadHouse's characteristically lavish animation. The audio quality on both the original Japanese and English dub is impeccable, preserving nicely the balance between background noises, music, and dialogue.
As flashy as it looks, FUNimation's two-disc release is actually pretty frustrating. First of all, both discs begin with a trailer that you can't skip, fast-forward, or jump to the menu from. The interview footage on the second disc is also mostly tedious. For instance, the film's cast talks about how they played their role in the most bland and unenlightening ways, like when Ryonosuke Kamiki nervously talks about how hard it was to shift between comedy and drama for his role and how he basically just played the role as if he were reacting to events. The 13-minute long interview with director Mamoru Hosoda is equally disappointing, as he spends much of it responding to what it's like screening his film at the Loncarno Film Festival and not about the themes, the look, or even the production history of Summer Wars. The one neat thing that FUNimatin threw in with their two-disc set is a set of Hanafuda cards. Unfortunately, they didn't include a rulebook.
With a little luck, people will take a chance on Summer Wars now and realize that they were robbed of the chance to see Mamoru Hosoda give his child audience the respect they deserve and the thrills they want on a big screen.