So here we are, a little over a month later and the last selection of 5 Modern Japanese Movies Everyone Should See. The point of these articles was to demonstrate that the Japanese have a very rich and colorful cinematic variety, rich enough that it can make people completely change their view of Japanese Popular Culture as a whole. I’ve tried to present movies that avoid certain stereotypes such as Samurai movies, Yakuza movies and Tokusatsu movies. I wanted the fifth movie in 5 Modern Japanese Movies Everyone Should See to be something that didn’t fall into the trap of recommending an animated film from Japan. Let’s face it, non-film fans and non-anime fans tend to lump all anime into 2 categories; Miyazaki films and tentacle porn (aka Hentai). Though I may be over-generalizing how people view anime, the non-anime fans definitely tends to look at Japanese animation as something pornographic. They make exceptions for the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli because those films are meant to be family films. The fact is more than 90% of anime is non-pornographic in nature and most of it is aimed at children and teenagers.
Miyazaki’s reputation is such that I have actually had people who don’t like anime try to argue that Miyazaki doesn’t make “anime”. That somehow, because he makes such remarkable family fare, his work shouldn’t be lumped with the likes of say Dragon Ball or Gundam. I am quick to point out in these arguments that Miyazaki built his early reputation on Lupin The Third, a franchise that is still going strong in Japan with new animated TV movies every few years. To say Miyazaki doesn’t make anime is ludicrous and I encourage everyone to laugh at those who say otherwise.
This brings us to Mamoru Hosoda, a director who is making his name by making family friendly movies yet has nothing to do with Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli. Hosoda first came on most anime fans radar back in 1999 when he directed 2 films in the Digimon franchise. Some would not use that as a positive example of good filmmaking but all directors have to start somewhere. He alter directed the 2005 entry in the One Piece film franchise Baron Omatsuri & The Secret Island. It was his work on One Piece that spring boarded him to a project that earned him widespread acclaim with scores of anime fans and critics in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Hosoda used a well loved science fiction story from the 60s and its movie adaptation from the 80s to create a sequel to the original works. Doing a semi-sequel to something that is pretty well loved is always risky but Hosoda, along with his cohorts at Studio Madhouse, delivered a fun and bitter-sweet tale that deals with time travel without making the viewer’s head explode for worrying about time paradoxes. Making a sequel is one thing but making a good sequel is always tricky. Hosoda not only made a good sequel but he made a sequel that is at least equal to its predecessor.
So after the acclaim of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in 2006, Hosoda began work on his next project. It would be three years before the end result was seen in Japanese theaters and it is that film which I am here to praise. Hosoda’s Summer Wars was my favorite movie of 2009. Not favorite animated movie, not favorite genre movie. It was simply my favorite movie of that year. Summer Wars made me laugh, it made me almost shed a tear and it made me stand up and cheer the way good a movie should. Summer Wars was Mamoru Hosoda’s notice to the Japanese film industry that his name should be spoken in the same reverence as Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and the late Satoshi Kon. Hell those are just the animation directors in Japan; I’m not even counting directors like Kurosawa or Fukusaku.
So what was so great about Summer Wars?
Summer Wars was great because it is a family movie where the theme of the movie is about family coming together and overcoming a crisis on a global scale. It is a family comedy, drama and action film all rolled into one. It has teen romance, malevolent artificial intelligence and such a vibe of fun, even during its most somber of scenes. To put it simply, Summer Wars is the summer movie that you really can enjoy with your family and not feel like it is being specifically marketed for children. Hey I love me some Pixar movies but outside of Up just how many of their films aren’t geared with getting children into the theater?
What we get in Summer Wars is the tale of Kenji Koiso, a boy who gets sucked into a lie by the cute girl in his class, Natsuki Shinohara. The lie involves Natsuki’s family reunion and her taking Kenji along to pass him off as her fiancée. Never in the history of film has a plan like this ever been successfully pulled off. Of course all this goes down when the largest online social networking site called The World, has gone absolutely haywire. Of course it is up to Kenji, Natsuki and Natsuki’s insanely large and eccentric family to save the day. Of course I am over simplifying the movie. The theme of responsibility to family and oneself flows throughout the movie. It is that theme makes Summer Wars so enjoyable without being heavy handed. The film is balanced with its comedy and drama, mixing the 2 to give a viewer a downright enjoyable movie. Hell I might even say Summer Wars is one of the best “Adventure Movies” I’ve ever watched.
Even better is that Summer Wars delivers on more than just its portrayal of story and characters. The animation is crisp in both its hand-drawn segments and CGI. One type of animation doesn’t overshadow the other, which especially nice given how every animated these days is about showing off just what a computer animated film can do. Summer Wars lets one style of animation compliment the other, something that isn’t done enough in modern animated films. It isn’t lush and gorgeous like a Miyazaki movie but it isn’t offensive to the eye either. It finds that perfect balance that so few animated films seem to be unable to find. That just might be its greatest accomplishment from a technical standpoint.
So what is Mamoru Hosoda trying to tell us with Summer Wars?
Is it about the dangers of technology and Artificial Intelligence or is it about the importance of putting family first? Is it trying to teach us about the dangers of lying?
Well it is about all these things. Picking out one theme in Summer Wars to put above the others is a disservice to the overall movie. It is all these elements that help Summer Wars more than just your average animated film. It is these elements that form a story tapestry where all the themes are the thread and without all of them the tapestry is there but not nearly as rich and satisfying. After all, who wants to look at a dull tapestry?
So we come to the end of 5 Modern Japanese Movies That Everyone Should See and in turn my analysis of Summer Wars. I hope that those of you that read these articles have at least had your interest piqued to the point where you want to watch at least one of these movies. There is so much in the way of good movies out there and you really should give something different a shot. Hell even bad movies deserve some attention, if for no other reason than to entertain you for all the wrong reasons. So go forth, watch at least one of these 5 movies and I DARE you to walk away with at least an opinion of what you watched. Because really, if you can watch any of these and not have an opinion then you really shouldn’t be watching movies, foreign or domestic, in the first place should you?