A few weeks ago, Wolf Children aired on standard broadcast TV. It was a moving, modern fairy tale about a woman who loves a wolf, and bears him two children. The movie mostly follows her efforts to raise them, trapped between two worlds, two very different "cultures." It was surprisingly sensitive and nuanced, and the art was really impressive.
This sparked an interest in Mamoru Hosada, its director and co-writer. Last night we watched Summer Wars, a neat mostly present-day piece where the main difference from our world is a shared virtual space called Oz, where pretty much everyone in the world's 10,000,000,000 people (maybe this is near-future?) has an account. This story mainly follows a couple of high school students: a flighty high school girl who has brought her friend, a bookish underclassman, to work part-time at her family farm.
This film relied more prevalently on CG, with swaths of the movie taking place in this virtual reality which is largely a super flat styled space, with simplified and stylized avatars roaming throughout its multipurpose environs. The bulk of the real-world portion takes place in the countryside, the journey to which is itself worthy of note: As the characters leave the city, they move from bullet-train to standard train, to trolley, to bus... exemplifying the gradually lowering technology and modern convenience until arriving at the farm, itself a turn-of-the-century relic of traditional Japanese architecture.
The girl's family is very well-realized, with a number of interesting characters being portrayed across a number of traditional character types. While the two main characters were fairly realistic in their presentation, the surrounding family relied more heavily on dramatic archetypes; surprisingly this worked well, despite the contrast.
The film is, despite the grand scope it eventually enters, a coming of age tale writ large. It has strong undertones of how we are all interdependent, reliant on each other. Oddly there is another theme about how "the old things are better," showing analog methods to be the most reliable ways -- when the majority of the world is unable to access their bank, work, and school accounts online, the grandmother pulls out old letters and postcards to reach out to her real-world network of people to help. She calls them on a rotary phone. The boy, a math olympics champion, relies on a pencil and paper to reverse-engineer a necessary password at a critical plot point. However, the film itself ignores the fact that the grandma's phone is connected to all her fellows' by a digitally linked network which is only possible through technology, and the boy's efforts on pencil and paper could only have been sped up by a portable calculator. It's possible I missed a plot point where the grandmother's phone use /is/ detected on the digital network, and possibly the math savant's phone has a calculator but he fears not use it because it's networked... but seeing as the pencil-and-paper method is employed before Things Go To Hell, I'm guessing it's just a desired affectation to enforce the theme.
The reason I'm blagging on about this is that it seems so ironic: to realize the full vision of this movie, the modern contrivance of CG is used to amplify the visuals all over; not just the VR world, but many items in the "real" world are rendered into it rather than being hand-drawn. In addition, the movie has relied heavily on Korean studios for the production -- outsourcing, another step away from tightly linked small studios in Japan, to the broader, cost-sensitive world of distributed development. I'm not saying it is wrong, but it is a shade ironic.
It is, without a doubt, one of the best animated films I've seen. It is a fun ride, with a good message at its core, despite some unintentional irony.