Thursday, April 7, 2011

Summer Wars: Not really all that seasonal

Links: I'm kind of late linking to this, seeing as it has already met its goal, but I wanted to point out this Kickstarter campaign by Joshua Hagler, whose comic The Boy Who Made Silence I really loved.  This one is for a 3-D animation project, but he's a pretty great artist, so I'm excited to see anything he does.

I enjoyed Think of the Children, a webcomic which imagines that Fredric Wertham and pals were actually fighting against a demonically possessed William B. Gaines during that whole Seduction of the Innocent affair that comics people are so obsessed with.

The first issue of Double Feature Comics is up, featuring stories by Tim Seely & Ross Campbell and Dennis Hopeless & Mike Norton.  Only 99 cents for either Ipad or PDF formats.  Get it while it's hot!

You could also check out this comic from LA Times Magazine by Don Winslow and Sean Phillips.  Nice.

And here's a free download of an uncompleted graphic novel by Vasilis Lolos, if you're wondering where he's been lately.

On a more timely note, I won't be at the MOCCA fest this weekend, but if you're going, you might want to check out The Tavern of Ill Repute, an event at the I Made an Art gallery, taking place on Saturday, April 9, and including work by artists (names like Danny Hellman and R. Sikoryak, as well as several others), new animation, performers, live music and a clown (?). Sounds like it could be fun.

Okay, I'm behind on comics reviews, but here's something else:

Summer Wars
Directed by Mamoru Hosada
Japan, 2010


How is it possible that a cartoon can feel so much more personal and full of life than most live-action movies? As an anime produced by a leading Japanese studio (Madhouse), Summer Wars must have taken tons of people and money to produce, but compared to any number of blockbusters, this one feels like something inspired by life, as if somebody worked to project their own family history onto the screen. It’s an effect that works to give the crazy plot about the end of the world via virtual reality internet hacking an emotional impact, something that sticks in the heart rather than just dazzling the eyes.

That plot? After establishing a future world in which the internet has been taken over by an especially Japanese version of Second Life called OZ, in which everyone has a cutesy avatar and interacts via a shiny, candy-colored virtual space, we are introduced to a student named Kenji, who is quickly dragged over his head into two different situations at once, in the on- and offline worlds. A fellow student named Natsuki pays him to come along with her to a big family get-together for her great-grandmother’s ninetieth birthday, waiting until it is too late for him to back out to reveal that she is passing him off as her boyfriend. He gets thrown into the chaotic interactions of all the family members, as they gossip, eat together, argue, play, and act like a group who are intimately familiar with each other.  Meanwhile, Kenji receives an anonymous midnight email containing a string of coded numbers, and being a math whiz, he cracks them, then wakes up to discover that he seemingly enabled a hacker to take over any and every account in OZ, completely disrupting not only the online world, but any offline services he wishes, including traffic signals, power grids, trains, and emergency services, with little in the way of reason beyond a trickster-like delight in widespread mayhem.

The interesting thing is where Kenji’s two worlds collide, as Natsuki’s family alternately rejects and accepts him, teaming up with him to fight the online threat or viewing him as an interloper. There are subplots about a family black sheep who is involved with the ensuing chaos, a younger cousin whose online avatar, a rabbit wearing a Marty McFly jacket, is a martial arts champion that becomes a defender against the all-consuming cyber-monster, and Granny’s matriarchal leadership, not only of the family, but of various powerful acquaintances who she encourages to pull together in the time of chaos, seeming to single-handedly hold the country together.  There’s a foreseeable family tragedy, leading to scenes of devastatingly relatable emotion, and a pulling together of forces, as multiple generations marshal their resources in a ragtag effort to stand against what ends up being a world-threatening villain.

Somehow, this all ends up being an enormously satisfying conflict, perhaps due to the realistic family dynamics of Natsuki’s clan, combined with the over-the-top unreality of OZ, which is presented as a virtual reality playland full of cartoony avatars and ever-expanding physical space, even though the characters themselves only seem to experience it through tiny browser windows and cell phone screens.  The scale of the conflict keeps expanding, as the hacker turns from a creepy Shiva-like monster into a gigantic, roiling mass of Facebook profiles, eventually facing off against Natsuki in an inscrutable Japanese card game for all the world’s marbles, a kind of silly yet effectively tense battle which includes what must be the most dramatic winning throw of a card in history.

That this all works so well is a testament to the good writing, the creation of characters that interact believably. Their shared sadness and joy, fear and triumph are palpable, even in the face of just-beyond-believable events, and the reactions of the observers are what sell the real stakes of the battle even beyond the real-world consequences that we see, making the furious staring at screens and pounding on keyboards, or Kenji’s deciphering of 2048-bit encryption in his head, compelling and tense.  This is one hell of an entertaining movie, goofy and strange and sad and happy all at once, a cyber-thriller that manages to hit the viewer right in the emotional soft spot, and stay there after the brightness of the visuals fade.  That’s something special.