It isn’t every day that an anime feature film lands in American theaters, let alone in its original language with English subtitles, so I try to go the extra mile to see them whenever it happens. When I read that Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars would be screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, I knew that a trip downtown was in my near future. However, a quick look at the GSFC’s website gave me second thoughts, as photos of the theaters themselves looked suspiciously small. And the words “video projection” made me wonder if I might just be better off waiting for the DVD to come out in another two months. But what’s life without a little adventure? We drove into the city, tracked down the theater (located within a five minute walk of both Macy’s and the Daley Plaza Christmas market), and ascended the stairs to its second-level location.

Fortunately, the theater itself was much larger than I had expected, being only slightly smaller than one of the “small” theaters you might find at your local multiplex. And the screen was more than large enough to provide the kind of immersive, widescreen moviegoing experience that we all crave (in short, this was definitely a real theater). I’m assuming that our “video projection” meant we were viewing a DVD instead of a film reel, but the movie was still bright, bold, colorful, and beautiful to watch. I can’t imagine any film or animation enthusiast coming away disappointed in its presentation. Subtitles were easy to read, and the sound was everything you’d expect from a theater presentation. In short, if you’re in Chicago, you have but one more evening to catch this before it’s gone, and I’d definitely recommend making the effort to do so.

I have yet to see Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but I know it’s one of the more successful and acclaimed anime films of the last few years, and I hope that Summer Wars will be held in the same regard. I have to wonder if most Americans would be able to comprehend this movie — let alone truly enjoy or love it — with its blend of realistic (“slice of life,” I hesitate to invoke), considerate drama and science fiction. That is, science fiction not as a collection of genre tropes, but as a heightened exaggeration of the world we live in today. The cyberpunk worlds envisioned by authors in the 1980s never quite came into being (not to say that William Gibson or Neal Stephenson necessarily thought they would). But it could be argued that life in the 21st century has turned out to be even stranger than fiction, with our increasing reliance on the Internet in our day-to-day lives slowly changing how we view and define “reality.”

Summer Wars pushes our present, “always-on” world to an extreme, imagining an online world called OZ. OZ combines gaming, social media, commerce, and even civic and governmental applications all into one online world, one so user-friendly, convenient, and engaging that it attracts over a billion users worldwide. Imagine if everyone from your friends, grandparents, employer, and physician, to your local public works department and the Pentagon, were plugged into a Second Life-like world populated by millions of Takashi Murakami-esque avatars, and you’re about halfway to understanding just what OZ might look like.

Kenji and his friend Takashi, both high school students, work as low-level OZ administrators, proficient at their part-time work but less-adapt when it comes to socializing in the real world. Kenji possess one unique talent: an uncanny knack for mathematics, a skill good enough to nearly land him on Japan’s national team in the global math Olympics. However, his spectacular abilities don’t endow him with self-confidence. So he’s shocked when his popular classmate and secret crush Natsuki asks him to accompany her to her family’s home in Udea. “Play along,” she tells Kenji, upon bringing him to meet her extended family, including her 90 year-old grandmother Sakae. I’d rather not rehash the entire plot, suffice it to say that Natsuki’s “job” for Kenji turns out to be much more than he bargained for.

Oh, and a malevolent artificial intelligence program is set loose in OZ, stealing user accounts and abusing user permissions to cause chaos throughout Japan and across the world. It’s here that the sweet and touching family drama of Summer Wars makes way for colorful, fantastic forays into the world of OZ, where Kenji, along with Natsuki’s cousin Kazuma — whose avatar, the fearsome white rabbit known across the system as King Kazuma, is grand champion of the OZ fighting arena — take on the AI known as Love Machine. These battles, which comprise the most visually stunning parts of the film, are rather straightforward, but as the plan to defeat Love Machine grows increasingly complex, viewers unseasoned in the concept of virtual worlds might find themselves a bit confused down the stretch. Nothing a weekend spent with Wargames and The Matrix won’t fix, but inevitably I feel that the “rules” of this film (which most anime fans will grasp with little trouble) will be completely incomprehensible to some. I suppose it does help to approach Summer Wars with a little experience in this genre.

One possible source: the Digimon film Our War Game, originally released in 2000. The film was included in Digimon: the Movie, a hatchet job of a film released later that year for English dub audiences in here in America and beyond. In my opinion, it was the best segment of that film, and watching it again this year I was pleased to find that it was better than I remembered. Summer Wars shares many similar themes and plot elements with Our War Game, albeit giving them a much fuller and more interesting treatment. I figured this was all a coincidence, until I was reading Mamoru Hosoda’s filmography on MAL this afternoon. I’m certain I’m not the first, or perhaps even the thousandth fan to point out that he directed both. Does it matter? If a director revisits one of their previous films for inspiration, or just remakes one altogether, does it take anything away from the “greatness” of either film? I certainly never considered Our War Game to be “great,” but in Summer Wars Hosoda abandons everything irksome about his earlier film and goes all-in with a smarter, more heartfelt script and greater visual ambitions than before. It’s not a masterpiece, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it a great film.

Trying to describe this film has been surprisingly difficult. The plot surrounding Kenji, Natsuki, and the gathering at her relatives’ home is easy enough to sum up. As is the concept of OZ and the AI-derived chaos it’s thrown into. These two disparate ideas should not be able to coexist in the same movie, but somehow they do and actually make for a compelling story that I felt involved in from beginning to end. I’ve always been a fan of these kind of science fiction elements, and found Summer Wars‘ commentary on online life to be one of the cooler and more relevant takes on the subject in quite some time.

But for all the creativity that was poured into the scenes taking place in OZ, I was surprisingly sucked into the domestic drama that took place back in the “real world” as Natsuki’s family begins preparing for her grandmother’s birthday celebration. We’re quickly introduced to nearly two-dozen supporting characters: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a parade of cousins, until we’re nearly as overwhelmed as Kenji. I come from a small family that’s rarely taken part in extended family gatherings of this magnitude, much less put much any stock in its heritage or much emphasis on tradition. So to suddenly find myself in such a setting would likely be a somewhat unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience. No, scratch that. In recent years, getting comfortable with a new family in such situations has been a very strange (but ultimately very positive) experience, indeed, one that I’ve only recently felt open enough to really embrace. But that’s one of Summer Wars‘ most poignant messages. It’s easy to take family for granted, but having a group of people you can count on, even through the worst of times, is a special privilege. One that’s worth holding onto no matter what.

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