Friday, December 20, 2013

Five Years of GKIDS: Summer Wars

For the generation raised on Marvel’s Star Wars comic books, King Kazma will bring back memories of Jaxxon, the big bad rabbit mercenary.  This particular battle bunny is actually one of many avatars in OZ, a virtual reality community under attack in Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of the IFC Center’s retrospective tribute to GKIDS, the animated film distributor and producer of the New York International Film Festival.

In about twenty seconds from now, our dealings in OZ will become just as important as life in the real world.  For a socially incompetent high school math genius like Kenji Koiso, OZ is both a more comfortable environment and a prestigious part-time employer.  Through dumb luck, his out-of-his-league classmate Natsuki Shinohara hires him to pretend to be her boyfriend at her great grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi’s ninetieth birthday festivities.  Of course, Koiso is painfully awkward around her family, especially after he inadvertently launches a global emergency.  Solving a brain-frying mathematical equation sent from an anonymous email, Koiso unknowingly provides the code that allows an anarchistic AI program to take over OZ’s systems.  Obviously, mathematics is about all Koiso is smart about.

Absorbing the avatars of utilities managers and government officials, the so-called “Love Machine” proceeds to wreak havoc on public safety with their passwords.  However, Shinohara’s anti-social cousin Kazuma Ikezawa still controls his avatar, King Kazma, OZ’s reining martial arts champion. He and Koiso will mount the virtual resistance to Love Machine, while the revered Jinnouchi provides spiritual leadership to her extended family of first responders.

Arguably, Summer is one of the most visually distinctive anime features produced outside of Studio Ghibli (whom GKIDS also sometimes distributes).  Hosoda has created an unusually baroque world in OZ.  It is quite a trippy site to behold, where the cute and the weird interact in surreal harmony. He also makes some valid points regarding our over-dependence online social networks and related time-sinks. However, placing some of the blame for the AI debacle on the U.S. Army is an unnecessarily annoying bit of anti-Americanism.  In retrospect, it seems particularly ill conceived at a time when China is essentially claiming all of Japan’s air space as its own (and pretty much everyone else’s too).

On the plus side, Summer persuasively argues the case to kids that math and computer programming are cool.  Satoko Okudera’s screenplay (based on Hosoda’s story) nicely balances the multi-world threatening Armageddon with Shinohara’s family drama.  It also features strong female characters, including the compassionate but iron-willed Jinnouchi and the independent minded Shinohara.

Despite its occasional discordant notes and its unabashed third act sentimentality, Summer Wars is a good cyber-punk starter kit for pre-teens and above.  For younger science fiction fans, Koji Masunari’s Welcome to the Space Show also screens during the GKIDS series.  While not as sophisticated, it also boasts some richly detailed alien worlds and a talking dog.  Both have a sense of wonder even jaded oldsters will appreciate.  Recommended with minor quibbles, Summer Wars screens this Sunday (12/22), Friday (12/27), and Thursday (1/2) and Welcome to the Space Show screens for a week (12/20-12/26) as part of the GKIDS series at the IFC Center.