I don't think I've ever seen any kind of anime receive the kind of universal acclaim afforded to last year's summer smash hit Summer Wars, Hosoda Mamoru's follow-up to the genuinely very good Toki wo Kakeru Shojo. Review after review and analysis after analysis hailed Hosoda as the successor to Miyazaki Hayao, the Japan Media Arts Festival picked it out for the Grand Prize (the absolutely masterful Kemono no Souja Erin, surely!), and fans queued up round the block for weeks to watch it.
I know what you're thinking: so what's wrong with it that makes it so popular?
Summer Wars certainly has its moments. There's some snappy dialogue, some larger than life characters, and some nicely-played dramatic interaction early on, but it also can't help diving too far into abstraction in the latter part, and that's primarily where it falls down.
Nationalism and patriotism (and whatever you say, there really is no practical difference) in film or television tread a fine line. Within a film -- diagetic patriotism, if you will -- it can be an effective way to represent a particular character's personality, and it's fine or even admirable. Where the film itself is pushing the patriotic buttons (non-diagetic patriotism) then it's more troublesome. Old war films like In Which We Serve sometimes get away with it by being brilliant, and The Green Berets gets away with it nowadays because the gift of hindsight (and preferably a handy pair of irony-shaded glasses) makes it seem endearing and naive. Others, such as Takahashi Tsutomu's hilarious women's baseball manga Tetsuwan Girl, get away with it simply by being so unbelievably absurd (intentionally or otherwise) that there is no other option than uproarious laughter at least twice a page. Still others, like Itami Juzo's Tampopo, tread a more complex path between sending themselves up and retaining a perverse pride in their own eccentricities.
Summer Wars attempts this latter path, perhaps largely succussfully. Again and again it plays up to an imaginary past of traditional Japanese values, uncorrupted by American culture, with every family member representing some patriotic (yet never humourlessly so) ideal of Japaneseness, from the stern yet kind-hearted, nagitana-wielding matriarch to the family history buff/karate teacher/fisherman uncle, to the teenage video game champion, to the baseball-fixated fat woman whose position in the family I couldn't determine. Only black sheep illegitimate child Wabisuke has a troubled side, and you know he's bad news because he's been in America. Still, even he lets us know early on that he can be saved when he mentions that for all its inferiority to the US, Japan still does better beer.
The scenes with the family are, as you can imagine with such two-dimensional characters, desperately cliched, but they are nevertheless the most effective and enjoyable parts of the film, working as an affectionate sending up of Japanese life (or at least Japan's image of itself, which in these postmodern times can often seem more like reality than the dreary truth does,) as well as pushing a lot of the right dramatic buttons. For the first forty minutes or so, Summer Wars is, while by no means reaching Itami's level of quirky social satire, nevertheless a top notch film.
The second half/two thirds of the film, after the grandmother dies (old people in Japanese films exist primarily to die so that their troublesome family members can weep a bit and reflect on their lives) shifts the focus from the family drama more fully towards the problem in the online world of OZ, and this is where Summer Wars goes completely off the rails.
The presentation of OZ is fascinating, with designs clearly influenced by Japanese artist/fashion whore Murakami Takashi (who also provided the visual impetus for Hosoda's short film/Louis Vuitton commercial Monogram). This is also interesting in the way it shows how Murakami's work has gradually come to be accepted and incorporated into anime culture, despite initial resistance from otakudom at the way he (many at the time felt) exploited otaku culture through his work. Not just through Hosoda's work, but also in many of the designs in last year's Kūchū Buranko anime, it seems that the anime world is increasingly coming to accept Murakami as one of their own.
The problem with it is that while OZ is an interesting visual concept, it's difficult to sustain emotional engagement in such an abstract world. By showing us the real characters behind the avatars during the first part of the film, and by regularly cutting back to events in the house, Hosoda presumably hopes to give us a "real world" starting point to latch onto, but he fails. The final hour of Summer Wars basically amounts to watching people sitting around a computer screen, and it's boring.
The fact that the villain that they're fighting against is an entirely impersonal, motiveless computer programme called "Love Machine" makes it even more difficult to care, and by the denoument, when Natsuki enters OZ for the final confrontation with Love Machine, all possible interest I had in any of the characters or events had been stripped away.
Azuma Hiroki spends a whole chapter of his book Dobutsuka-suru Postmodern (Otaku: Japan's Database Animals) discussing the ways otaku culture fetishises a self-congratulatory and imaginary image of Japanese history, particularly the Edo Period, and then warps and twists them to incorporate their own, more recently developed fetish objects. With the image of Natsuki's avatar during the final confrontation, Hosoda appears to have lifted (or paid tribute to) as many of the traits that Azuma identifies as he possibly can, fixing her up with a miko's outfit, fluffy animal ears, and later a pair of angel wings (to show she's levelled up, natch). This is interesting, but self-referentiality isn't what the film needs at this point. The whole final portion of the film becomes completely tied up in rules: the rules of the games, the rules of the computer world and the network, and the rules of otaku culture. Humanity, irrationality, emotion, and character lose their power to influence the plot, and are relegated to a reactive role, the characters' faces telling us when we should be caring about a particular lump of pixels moving around on a computer screen.
People claiming that with Summer Wars Hosoda has unseated Miyazaki as the king of anime filmmaking are deluding themselves. 2008's Gaki no Ue no Ponyo demonstrates that Miyazaki is still miles ahead in terms of originality, clarity of vision, character writing, pacing and emotional engagement. In fact even the Hosoda who made 2006's Toki wo Kakeru Shojo is miles ahead in those respects too. Summer Wars is an interesting premise that starts off by no means unpleasantly, but quickly gets eaten up by its own concept.