An adolescent math wiz unintentionally plunges the virtual world into chaos by solving a numerological riddle that makes the global network vulnerable to attack in this animated sci-fi adventure comedy. When Natsuki asks Kenji to pose as her boyfriend at her grandmother's upcoming birthday party, the smitten young numbers man jumps at the opportunity. But his summer of romance takes an unexpected turn when Kenji receives a complex math riddle on his phone, and solves it without a second thought. In the process, however, Kenji breaches the security of Oz, an extensive virtual realm containing everything from online shopping records to sensitive government documents and even the codes to launch nuclear weapons. Later, when a malicious AI program dubbed Love Machine begins gathering all of this data and threatens to bring the entire information infrastructure to its knees, Kenji, Natsuki, and her family must figure out a way to clear up the mess before it plunges the planet into chaos.
The internet today exists as a multitude of networks, connected from all over the world. But imagine if our society was controlled through just one network. Instead of signing up to several online communities, be it a PHPBB forum or Xbox Live, you'd have just one avatar for all of them. This lone network is called OZ, and your avatar would be literally your only one, from accompanying your mobile text message to sitting on your PC or satnav as a desktop buddy. You are tied to it and it to you, with your digital self displayed on everything you use. And uses aren't just on a personal level, but also on a business level, with corporations and even governments all over the world at your service, or you can set up your own. It sounds amazing. But with this convenience of having just one login protocol, you also have just one door waiting to be hacked into, right?
Make that a really, really big door – To be more specific, a 2056 digit algorithm. This equation is presented to our protagonist and maths pro, Kenji Koiso. It's not too long before he solves this puzzle and returns it to its anonymous sender. Completely innocent of course, but by morning, OZ has been turned into a data battlefield and society itself is turned upside down. This is what Summer Wars is about. OZ is that one online community, shoelaced into the boot of society, on an international scale. And it's up to Kenji and company to fix it. Did I mention the company happens to be a fake girlfriend and her numerous relatives?
Story aside, the production itself is enough to want to see the film – I'm a sucker for anything by Mad House. The animation is perfect and really comes off on the sequences within OZ itself. It gives you the impression that we're not to accept this virtual world's gorgeous imagery in a literal sense, but more metaphorically. For this, I really have to hand it to the film's art director, Youji Takeshige (Spirited Away, Patlabor). Have you ever thought about your personal experience as a user via the internet, counting all the coding involved? Have you ever wondered how you could present it to someone else who has never used it? Without being super boring? Summer Wars does an eye-relishing job of representing the network user-experience as an animated art form, with emphasis on "art" – There were moments that felt like I was watching a Visual Jockey performance, rather than a movie. I'm a bit sad that I hadn't seen it at the cinema instead.
The voice acting is very good in both Japanese and English. Brina Palencia (Romeo X Juliet, Full Metal Alchemist) does a sweet and chirpy job as the popular girl-from-next-door Natsuki. Michael Sinterniklass (The Venture Bros., TMNT, Bleach) plays your usual, wimpy shyboy Kenji as he should, but with that understated charm that shines when either scared, confused or working that great brain of his. The dual cherries on the cake are Maxey Whitehead representing the gamer nerd youth, and J. Michael Tatum as the cool but callous black sheep of the family. Mix these with the rest of the assorted talent, and you have a cast that's both heartfelt and believable. What's more important to me than the voice acting however, is the lipsynch and translation. Funimation have done a seamless job, not just with the lipsynch but the translation re-write. It's not a robotic direct-translation, but a thoughtful play on phrases throughout. For example, "please tell me you didn't break the internet?" – With that, I could almost forget about the original Japanese vocals, really!
So, it's almost two years since its original Japanese opening, the script still feels very fresh from a technological standpoint. Although, the pacing might seem a teeny bit complicated for those not in the know (so fellow otaku shouldn't worry!). The visual design is very Web 2.0 mishmash, and reminds me of me of recent years' Flash video virals. To be more artist-specific, Takashi Murakami or Tubby Paws come to mind.
Summer Wars gets a near perfect nine out of ten from me. It's a fun story about love, honour, life and death. But what I like most is the family aspect – the film's emphasis on community, both online and offline, local or global. Whether it's togetherness at the family table, or a fellow online user's unexpected, anonymous helping hand. This is registered through a ubiquitous wealth of characters, from a hard-nosed, halberd-swinging grandma to a divine digital whale named after John Lennon. I highly recommend this to anyone who is proficient with the internet or gaming, and so that means you, ON readers! I'm off out to get the Blu-Ray version and watching all over again.