I just watched the Japanese animated film, Summer Wars. I was interested in it largely because of strong word-of-mouth as well as the fact that it’s directed by Mamoru Hosoda. In 2006, Hosoda directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which in my opinion is one of the best animated films of all time. It’s also one of the best, most insightful time travel films I’ve ever seen. To say I was disappointed by Summer Wars would be an understatement. It’s quite bad as far as I’m concerned, and I fail to understand why it’s considered in any way good.
The animation and design are decent at best. The story is full of contrivances. The set-up of the film’s world is entirely illogical and displays a complete misunderstanding of how the Internet and modern technology operate. I’m convinced that if the animation style had been American and the film was released by Disney it would have been mostly crapped on for all these reasons. Instead, it’s seen as a cool, stylish animated film for “adults” from a country that actually respects the art of animation. Is it possible that we in North America simply cut foreign films like Summer Wars a bit too much slack?
First, let me describe Summer Wars in a bit more detail. The film is set in the present, maybe a couple of years advanced. The Internet has essentially been replaced by an avatar-based, Second Life-like system called OZ. In the real world, a teenager named Kenji is goes with a girl named Natsuki to her grandmother’s 90th birthday party. It’s a big family event and there are tons of characters to keep track of. While there, somebody lets loose an AI bot within OZ that begins stealing avatars, eventually threatening to destroy the world by virtue of OZ being connected to every system on the planet. Basically, it’s a lot like the plot of Die Hard 4, only it actually makes less sense and full of even more idiotic plot contrivances.
One example of such a contrivance is when Natsuki’s idiot second-cousin steals huge blocks of ice being used to cool a giant supercomputer being used to do anime-style battle with and trap the AI bot. Just as they’ve got it trapped, the supercomputer heats up, melting the motherboards and freeing the bot. Why did the cousin steal the ice? Well, he decided he wanted to keep his now dead grandmother’s corpse cool. Did he not realize that ice was serving a function important to global security? I guess not. Why did he steal the ice at that particular moment? Because the plot needed it to happen. Did the plot really need it to happen? No, but I guess they needed the film to go on for 15 or 20 more minutes.
Maybe I’m off base on this, but I seriously believe that if the plot machinations I just described had occurred in a Hollywood film, critics would be deriding the film as childishly written garbage. Which leads me to wonder, are people just cutting Summer Wars slack? And if so, why? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the film being foreign.
Part of why I think this might be true is due to our false perception of foreign cultures. We see a movie like Summer Wars, and though a lot of it makes no sense and much of it is plainly stupid, we take the position that this is the product of a foreign culture with different traditions and styles of storytelling. There may be some truth to this. Japanese animated films are often extremely complicated, and almost always rely on wild tonal shift and plot contrivances. It’s very possible that to really appreciate these films you must be acclimatized to the culture they come from. I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse, though. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has wild tonal fluctuations and a few minor plot contrivances, but the story flows well and it never feels stupid. There’s a difference between accepting a foreign style of storytelling and ignorantly cutting bad foreign films slack.
Another area where I think this comes into play is in standard genre fare. Take, for example, the Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and got plenty of critical accolades. It’s a slick film with some great camerawork, and I really enjoyed it. But it really isn’t a great film by any means. It’s well made, but it’s totally typical genre stuff. The film is overly long and there’s a love story that takes up far too much time. It relies on a shocking twist, that while quite shocking and grotesque, is hardly different from other, better films, including many American ones. But for whatever reason, the film got praised as something greater than it is. The fact that it was foreign somehow made it more special for some reason. It’s not just another American thriller. This one is from another country! Isn’t it impressive that they could make something this entertaining while still having subtitles across the bottom of the screen?
Then there are other areas where I often feel people give foreign films too much credit. The biggest is the acting. Performances in foreign films are often praised, and I have praised them myself. Still, I often wonder whether that’s right. So much of a modern speaking performance comes down to thinks like verbal intonation, and when you don’t understand the language, how can you properly gauge something like that? For all I know, the performance I thought was great came off as silted to people who understood the original language.
And then there are times when I think people really do give actors too much credit. Noomi Rapace, for example, was fine in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but her character was hardly dimensional. The way I saw it, Rapace did little more than wear make-up and carry an angry expression on her face for the entire film. Sure, it made the character into something of a super-cool badass, but it’s nothing people like Sly Stallone weren’t doing back in the 80s. Meanwhile, in the American remake, Rooney Mara, who was also deservedly praised, actually earned the praise she got. Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander was one filled with range and nuance. She felt less iconic, but much more like a real, living human being with great virtues and even greater flaws.
It’s possible I’m completely wrong about this, but I do think I’m onto something. I do think that in the same way people often cut tiny indie movies a little slack because they lack resources, people also cut foreign films slack for being “foreign”. Maybe that doesn’t explain why people rated Summer Wars so highly, but I’d like to think there’s a reasonable explanation. And not all slack is a bad thing. Many foreign films—last year’s The Skin I Live In, for example—are heavy on melodrama, which people are much more accepting of than in American films these days. More often than not, though, I feel like cinephiles are essentially dumbing it down, assuming “foreign” automatically means “better than Hollywood”.
Do you sometimes fall prey to this issue? Do you disagree that it’s an issue at all? Let me know. I’d love to hear some other opinions on this.