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R2 DVD Reviews
Wednesday, 16 March 2011 00:00
Summer WarsSummer Wars is one of a few big-name movie releases that Manga UK have been releasing lately, and the one that I've most been looking forward to, despite a few big reservations. The actions of a top-class hacker have left the world's most popular online network in tatters, with serious real-world side effects - and highschool maths genius Kenji Koiso finds that he's the one who's going to have to put things right...

Kenji Koiso is your typical teenage misfit. He's good at maths, bad with girls, and spends most of his time hanging out in the all-powerful, online community known as OZ. His second life is the only life he has until the hottest girl at school, Natsuki Shinhara, hijacks him for a starring role as a fake fiancé at a family reunion to celebrate her grandmother’s birthday. Things only get stranger from there. A late-night email containing a cryptic mathematical riddle leads to the unleashing of a rogue Artificial Intelligence agent intent on using the virtual word of OZ to destroy the real world. As true Armageddon looms on the horizon, Kenji and Natsuki’s family must set aside their differences and band together to save the worlds they inhabit, both real and virtual...

NatsukiIn Oz

Right: reservations. First, I have a built-in anti-hype system - any title that's been on the receiving end of a significant amount of hype, I'm automatically wary of, and there's been plenty of hype surrounding Summer Wars. Fortunately, I've also seen director Mamoru Hosoda's previous work, The Girl Who Lept Through Time, so I also knew there was a good chance the hype was there for a reason. It is.

Second, a key plank of the story revolves around the online world Oz, its security system, and the level of trust that the people of the world seems to have put in it. The problem here is that we're straying into areas where my day job lies, and some aspects of this I really had to struggle with, as my inner IT security person was busy screaming at me that THEY SHOULDN'T BE DOING THAT! ARE THEY BLOODY STUPID!? whenever it was revealed that Important Utility A or Military Organisation B had their systems fully-connected to Oz. Air gap security? They clearly haven't heard of it. Yes, suspension of disbelief is a key part of almost any movie, but there are occasions when personal knowledge just won't let you. I can watch Armageddon quite happily, but ask anyone involved in space sciences what they think of it and you'd better be prepared to listen to them rant for a while. Computer hacking and security, I have the same problem with.

But you know what? The characters and personalities that are arrayed in Summer Wars - and there are many of them, as Natsuki's family is freaking huge - are so interesting, varied and enjoyable to watch that, once the initial "nonononono..." got out of my system, I really didn't care about the technical "issues" - I was having too much fun watching the antics of Kenji, Natsuki and her family as they tried to sort Oz out.

But back to the beginning. Natsuki is one of the most popular girls in school, outgoing and very attractive, so when she comes to the school computer room looking for someone to do a summer job for her - no details offered, other than that the lucky employee will be spending time with her - the two boys there do their best to rule each other out. Kenji eventually gets the nod, and off he goes to his fate. Separately, he receives a strange message on his cellphone: a long string of numbers, and the simple challenge: Solve Me! Think Alice in Wonderland and little bottles saying "Drink Me!", and you get how irresistible this is to Kenji - he's a maths genius, a potential Maths Olympics representative for Japan, and with a few minutes' thought he breaks the code and fires off the reply, almost as an afterthought. The code, though, was the encryption code for Oz's "impregnable" password store, and by breaking that he's opened the door to unleashing all sorts of hell in the online world.

Natsuki's family have gathered to celebrate the birthday of the family matriarch, Sakae, who rules her family with her steel will. When the problems in Oz come to the fore and Kenji is named on the news as a key suspect, it's Sakae who first believes that a) it wasn't him, and b) that something needs to be done to put it right - especially when it becomes clear that the person behind the rouge AI that's been unleashed was one of her own family. And from there the fun really begins.

Summer Wars is at various times charming, hugely funny, touching, and heartbreaking - the movie runs the full gamut of emotions and drags you along with it for the ride, and it's impossible not to be carried along by it. While Kenji and Natsuki are nominally the leads and do play key roles in defeating the AI (named Love Machine, which just brought visions of James Brown to me - and yes, I know that's not quite what he sang), it's Sakae who's the driving force behind how her family responds to the problem - although not in the way that you would expect her to be when you first get to know her. There's a low-level wackiness that underpins the whole family that just makes them great to watch, along with the way they pull together when the chips are really down.

It's also a movie that grabs you visually. Real-world settings are just beautiful, off-setting the simplistic character designs, while Oz is heavily stylised as a place where the animators are allowed to cut loose and do all the things that you'd expect to find where reality doesn't strictly apply. It's not a place I'd ever want to use myself (Luddite that I am as far as virtual worlds are concerned), but it's definitely a nice place to visit in terms of how it works with the Summer Wars story.

Put it all together, and the result is nearly two hours that you simply don't notice passing. You get drawn in, and sit through each confrontation (real-world and virtual) hoping that good will win the day and that Kenji will ultimately get the girl, cheering them on along the way. It's great fun, it nearly coaxed a tear out of me in one or two places, and come the triumphant end you can't help but give a little cheer that the good guys have prevailed - and at the way that it was done.

Full living up to the hype, then. I've been on a little run of movies recently, and Summer Wars so far is the best of the bunch (can't see Eureka Seven outdoing it, either). All-round great fun, and an easy recommendation.

Rating - *****

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