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Summer Wars

I checked out “Summer Wars” from the local library this week. Anime has lost a lot of its sparkle for me, as it does for a lot of fans: what is at first a radical new animative form with amazing explosions and camera swoops, wacky humor, and plenty of cute eventually becomes familiar, and from there it’s a short hop to realizing that 99% or more of it is just as formulaic as the latest Disney princess. Paint-by-numbers animation, if you will. Still, the remaining 1% worth seeing tends to rise to the top, and “Summer Wars” in particular had a solid endorsement in the form of a screening at NYICFF a year or two ago.

Turns out the movie is full of stupid. Lots and lots of stupid. Hackneyed, threadbare stupid.

The story begins when a high school geek who spends his out-of-school time as a drone for Japan’s national internet system deciding to take a different summer job. He does not learn until he gets there that the “job” is to pretend to be the fiancee of a girl hoping to satisfy her aged grandmother (and stern matriarch). Oh, so you’ve heard this one before? And not just any girl—the most popular girl in school, at least according to the protagonist’s fellow geek. Yeah. And then an AI inspired by too many viewings of “War Games” decides to destroy the world, and eventually it’s all up to the protagonist to save the world by cracking its thousand-digit access code in the space of forty-five seconds using his amazing puzzle-solving ability.

I’m not kidding about the “War Games” analogy. The villain of the piece is the nebulous “US military,” which releases the earth-destroying AI on Japan, of all places, because…um…for some reason. Possibly because the US military doesn’t realize it inhabits the same planet. The faux girlfriend, soon to become a real girlfriend, takes it on herself to delay the AI by challenging it to a game of hanafuda. (“Shall we play a game?”) Hanafuda is a card game vaguely akin to rummy or mah jong with an exponential gambling system like that of backgammon, and, like American baseball, a symbol of national pride because nobody else plays it. Fortunately, granny has forced the whole family to learn to play hanafuda well enough to defeat a global computer system, and even more fortunately, the AI clever enough to locate its enemy’s house and take over the space program in order to drop a satellite on him is also stupid enough to gamble all its computing power against a tiny bit of additional computing power that it could take in an eye-blink anyway. Also fortunately, the guy who designed the killer AI just happens to be the black sheep of the family, who just happened to drop by for the first time in ten years, so he can offer advice on destroying it. Even more fortunately still, the world’s greatest online duelist just happens to be a saturnine younger cousin in the same house. What a coincidence! Granny dies in the middle of all this, so the family has to pause from saving the world in order to have a quiet meal together, but the delay proves worth it, because the protagonist geek does somehow guess not only the twelve-thousand-digit access code to control the AI, but also the alternate access code the AI gives itself—what?—five minutes before impact, with seconds to spare. Don’t ask me how, in those final seconds, he also diverts the plummeting satellite; I wasn’t aware that one could out-type gravity, but apparently all things are possible with enough people cheering “Gambatte!” in the background. And then there’s kissing, and the summer “job” proves to be a little more permanent than a summer, and less laborious than flipping burgers.

So why, with this much stupid in it, did “Summer Wars” appear at NYICFF, which makes a point of exposing kids to beautiful, profound, or at least experimental material? The technical quality of the animation was decent but nothing special compared to what you can readily find in the anime section of Best Buy. The story was trite, the characters triter. What was here worth showing to kids?

I eventually decided that it must be the theme of social approval so important to teens and pre-teens. Does the kid get accepted by his faux girlfriend? Her family? Will the black sheep accept his family? Will they accept him? The climax of the film is the spontaneous offering worldwide of private accounts to the hanafuda gamble, when the whole world pours its love onto this plucky Japanese girl, her online avatar surrounded by coruscating fields of internet love energy. (Anime veterans will be shocked to learn that she was not transformed at this point into a singing pop idol, bur merely remained a cute bunny girl.) I think “Summer Wars” made the festival by virtue of a message the hosts wanted to deliver to its young audience, and not by any inherent merit.

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