‘Summer Wars’: Anime that takes social networks to the dark side

Jan. 06, 2011 | 4:52 p.m.

summer wars 31 Summer Wars: Anime that takes social networks to the dark sideMamoru Hosoda’sSummer Wars” (starting Friday at the Laemmle Sunset), combines elements of a teenage romantic comedy and a sci-fi adventure with a striking vision of a cyberworld that is more urgent — and perhaps more compelling — than “Tron: Legacy.” Hosoda, who gained an international reputation with “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006), discussed his work in an interview conducted via e-mail from Tokyo. “The biggest influence for the idea was the new circumstances surrounding me,” he says. “I got married four years ago and got welcomed into a big new family. Ever since, ‘family’ and ‘family members’ have been big themes for me in work and everyday life.”

Kenji Koiso was a runner-up for the Japanese Math Olympics team: He ruefully notes that it’s fortunate he’s good at math, “because I suck at everything else.” Kenji works part-time doing routine maintenance for the global computer network Oz, so he’s ecstatic when Natsuki Shinohara, the pretty girl he secretly adores, offers him a job — until he discovers she wants him to pose as her fiancé at her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration.

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Kenji has to cope with Natsuki’s large, fractious family, who constantly cite examples set by their samurai ancestors as they squabble among themselves. They dismiss him when they discover he isn’t an honors student at prestigious Tokyo University or the scion of an old samurai family, as she had claimed. Only Sakae, the great-grandmother, likes Kenji — which is no small distinction: When this formidable matriarch gets mad at her ne’er-do-well adopted son, she grabs the halberd from an antique suit of armor and goes after him.

“Sakae’s character was influenced by a lot of people I know, including my own mother and my grandmother,” Hosoda explains. “Her character also reflects a kind of idealized view we Japanese have toward our mothers and grandmothers.”

Kenji and the Shinohara family have to abandon their quarrels when a malicious artificial intelligence program known as the Love Machine attacks Oz. Hosoda and his artists present a striking visual contrast between the oppressive heat of a real Japanese summer and the cool, brilliantly colored, hallucinatory realm of Oz.

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“I thought for the film, the background art would be a very effective way to describe the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer: wide, blue skies and green mountains,” says Hosoda. “Art director Youji Takeshige draws beautiful nature scenes, and his talent played a great role.

“Oz is an advanced version of social networks like Twitter, Facebook and so on,” he continues. “The designs for Oz and the individual avatars had to be cute and friendly: Oz is a cyberworld used all over the planet. Not just by men and cyber-maniacs — kids, girls, women, even old people use it. Nintendo products’ design and color concepts were one of the many references I used to make Oz more accessible.”

The Grid in the “Tron: Legacy” is a grim, gray, industrial realm that can only be entered through a deserted arcade; Oz overflows with adorable avatars in Day-Glo pastels. Everyone is constantly linked to Oz through their computers, gaming devices and cellphones: They chat with friends, pay bills, cyber-commute and engage in stylized duels. Hosoda participated in Takashi Murakami’s Superflat” exhibition, and the avatar characters reflect its overripe cuteness.

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In contrast, Love Machine looks like a demon-warrior out of a Buddhist legend. When he scrambles a series of panels with his spear, traffic lights all over Japan go out of synch and traffic grinds to a halt. He pushes over a series of panels that fall like dominoes, and throws the nation’s train system into chaos.

“I thought I needed to describe the disorder and destruction of the infrastructure in a simple way, so even little children could follow the story,” Hosoda says. “Anri Jojo, the Oz production designer, gave me lots of ideas to describe those situations visually.

Paul Felix, who served as art director on Disney’sBolt,” comments, “I love the contrast between the fully realized three-dimensional paintings of the real world and the implied space of Oz. Space seems much more abstract in Oz, and it has an almost adolescent sense of color, which makes it feel like something’s wrong with it. When Love Machine’s attacks occur, that palette makes it seem even more sinister.”

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To defeat Love Machine, Kenji uses his extraordinary ability to solve complex mathematical puzzles. But the climactic cyber-battle also involves Natsuki’s talent at a Japanese card game and her sullen cousin Kazuma’s skill at Kung Fu and computer games. “I wanted all the characters to be realistic: There are no superheroes and robots in real life,” Hosoda says. “I wanted to make an action film in which a crisis arises and people solve it in today’s Japanese society.”

“Summer Wars” earned an impressive ¥1.63 billion (about $17.5 million) in 2009 and won the best animated film at the 33rd Awards of the Japanese Academy. Hosoda is already at work on his next film. When asked about the international appeal of “Summer Wars,” he concludes, “I attended the U.S. premiere at the New York International Children’s Film Festival last year, and was happy to see American audiences enjoying the film. Of course, I want my film to be enjoyed in other countries, but I believe only good local movies can be good international movies. I always make a film hoping a Japanese audiences will enjoy it first.”

— Charles Solomon

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