When I heard that Hosoda’s plans for his next film were in the works, I was truly excited. Afterall, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time instantly became a favorite or mine, and not one that I will soon forget. So basically after hearing “He is making something, and it is called Summer Wars,” I promptly tuned out any information thereafter. Something made me want to jump in blindly, to be completely caught unaware by this next film. And truly I went into the theater with no knowledge of the plot and having only seen the poster for the film. Going in really on faith alone that it would be amazing seemed to really stimulate my imagination so you dear reader may want to turn back now and enjoy that same feeling. Though there aren’t any spoilers here, even the analysis of Summer Wars characters and themes seems like I’m telling you too much if you haven’t already experienced it.
A question I often hear is “Who is going to be the next Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, or Mamoru Oshii? Who is going to be the next reliable anime director that people can expect quality films from?” The worry is that as the great anime directors of today retire there will be no one to take their place. I will say with full confidence that Mamoru Hosoda is a name everyone should be watching as a worthy successor to the great anime directors of the past and present. His outstanding work on the 6th One Piece film and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time had caught my eye in the past. And Summer Wars has solidified him as a director I shall go out of my way to research and keep an eye out for what he is doing next.
It begins with a simple deception. Natsuki Shinohara needs someone to accompany her to her grandmother’s 90th birthday party so she brings along her friend Kenji Koiso who quickly realizes that there is more to this little favor then he first assumed. As Kenji is trying to wade through the politics of Natsuki’s large extended family he becomes entangled in an even more dire situation as he accidentally helps hack the online system of OZ that controls everything from simple web browsing and e-commerce to vital public and military functions. Soon the hacker is using his new found powers to wreak havoc in the online world and the real world. Kenji and Natsuki must unite her family in an effort to regain control of OZ before the chaos turns into tragedy.
I think it’s important to note the layers of story being told in Summer Wars. All in all, when just describing it, it sounds fairly straightforward and simple, maybe even something you’ve heard before. But when you see the film, that feeling will quickly dissipate. Underlying the peril in the movie is a quiet story about a family that extends all over Japan, that fights and laughs, that forgives and teases, that may even push people away, but they are coming together for this birthday party and around a woman who has been at the epicenter of all of their lives (minus Kenji). This is a huge part of the film, this feeling of togetherness that shouldn’t be taken away by the virtual. The strength of this family and putting faith in people is what can save their world.
Kenji Koiso starts the movie as a mild mannered young man. The only thing that he is confident in is his mathematical ability. It is obvious that he has a crush on Natsuki but it is equally sure that he is out of her league. Everything in the movie from his experiences in the real world to his battles in the virtual world show him that he has a far greater strength than he gives himself credit for. Natsuki shines as brightly as Kenji and when she is in the spotlight you take notice. She is charming and bright while having a sense of comforting majesty. While Natsuki always stands out, her grandmother steals every scene that she is in no matter what else is going on. Sakae is powerful and commanding even when she does not say a word but she can also be compassionate and nurturing when the time comes. She is the strong ideal of the Yamato Nadesico. Kazuma is a standoffish member of Natsuki’s family. He starts of with a snarky attitude towards Kenji and tries to brush him off as quickly as possible. But when he realizes that Kenji is in over his head he just as quickly comes to his aid. I will not go into the rest of the family since this cast is huge but everyone one in Natsuki’s family stands out. Some members of the clan stand out more than others but everyone gives off a distinct and memorable flair. It might be for their devotion to baseball or their boisterous retelling of old family history but everyone makes an impression.
The spotlight falls on many characters throughout this film, in fact as a matter of screentime it’s not easy to decipher just who the main character is. So while only a few moments of pause will give you the answer, Kenji, Summer Wars really comes together as an ensemble of characters whose interaction with each other is at the core. In fact, it’s quite beautiful as you see each person open up and come together, this is seen most clearly through the outsider Kenji as he wins over family members a few at a time. The huge family life is portrayed with such subtly and quirk that you are sure these people much exist. If you have a large extended family I’m sure you will see them here, I know I did. You can really pull out Kanji, Natsuki, Sakae, and Kazuma because I feel they embody the themes about our relationship to technology in very similar ways, but have different attitudes about themselves. Each one has a real world skill whether be it an intellect (Kenji); confidence is a game (Natsuki); the ability to make people move and to communicate (Sakae); or the decision to no longer be a victim (Kazuma) each of these things are paramount to saving both OZ and the very real world. There are many others that contribute to this goal, too. I enjoyed Summer Wars ability to highlight moments and characters at just the right moment of impact.
I did leave out one of the most important characters; the world of OZ. Everything about OZ has a unique design sense that gives you insight into all the characters involved. Everyone’s icon in OZ shows you how they view themselves which is a great little touch. All online worlds that characters interact with should be this detailed and vibrant. The design work is a clear mixture of modern day social media sights with the artistry of Takashi Murakami. Having worked on Superflat Monogram it is clear that Hosoda was influenced by his style even if it was not purposeful. I think the Superflat virtual world gives the movie a bright feeling that helps it stand out in your memory.
As the film ended I started thinking about the name “Summer Wars,” it had perplexed me as I watched. At first it doesn’t seem quite right for the movie, and personally I don’t find it quite evocative of what you’ll see. However, I came to understand its purpose and meaning when I played back the film in my mind. The name “Summer Wars” speaks to of course the war being fought against a digital predator who threatens both the virtual OZ and the real world with havoc and destruction. But it is “Wars” plural, this plurality I came to see as the war going on within individual minds against themselves, their own uncertainty, and a world reliance on technology, it is also about a war that exists between the advancement of machines and old traditions, and it is about a war going on within the family, and probably a host of other wars can be found within the context of this. It is a war of compromise and coming to an understanding (as many wars are) that both can coexist, have a purpose, and work in tandem. Summer Wars is about yourself, about all of us, your immediate environment, and the entire world all at the same time.
One of the greatest pleasures about New York Film festivals showing anime is on rare occasions they get the Director to speak to the audience at premieres. At the end of the film Mamoru Hosoda did a rather lengthy Q&A with the audience which was extremely gracious of him. Since it played at a children’s film festival about half the question were from little kids. I was amused and slightly saddened by the fact that most of the questions from little children were better than most of the question asked of Japanese guests at anime conventions. Hosoda provided some great insights into the production process and this thoughts going into the production of Summer Wars. If someone posts a transcript or a recording of the questions I suggest you seek it out.
I nearly leaped to my feet once the credits started, I wanted to cheer and jump up and down. I turned to the person next to me and excitedly stated that I wanted to watch the movie again right then. I scribbled possibly unreadable gushing notes on my comment card. Seeing it on the big screen add a lot to the experience, but the essence of show could not be made better by it. Summer Wars is joyous, sad, funny, uplifting, exciting, and all in all moved me very much. It has a great pace that ebbs and flows as it highlights the characters, themes, and action each in turn. It was all presented in this stunning production that feels familiar but smart and thrilling, as if Hosoda is saying look what I can do with these elements! As far as I’m concerned Summer Wars is a near perfect film and I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.
The one element of the film that stuck with me the most was the even handed handling of the increasing integration of technology into our lives. It shows the boons and pitfalls of technology in equal measure which is very rare to seen portrayed in anything but a polarized light. Summer War show technology causing chaos and upholding order; keeping people apart and bringing them together. Technology is a tool that can be use however the person using it wishes for it to be used. I very much agree with that philosophy and so I very much synchronized with the spirit of the movie. Even if this is not the case for you there is so much that clicks with the audience about this movie. The engaging characters, the solid story, the delightful humor, the amazing visuals, the rip roaring actions scenes, and the heartfelt drama all mix together to make this a must see movie.