A fascinating look at family, community, and connectivity by the director and team behind The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
What They Say
In 2009, Hosoda secured his status as the man who drove a stake through Miyazaki's grumpy old heart with SUMMER WARS, the most Internet-friendly movie since Shunji Iwai's ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU CHOU. An animated epic, it tells the tale of a young nerdling pretending to be the boyfriend of a schoolmate on her summer trip to her aging grandmother's house. When an online social networking community known as Oz gets attacked by a piece of sentient malware that threatens to deliver a denial of service attack to the entire world, her massive extended family unites to restore peace to cyberspace.
Hosoda goes out of his way to make the point that the Internet, TV and cell phones are all part of a technological continuum that started with letters and books and whose goal is to form networks, to build communities and to erase the distance between individuals. The hero of Hosoda's film isn't the main character, but the network of people around him. It's one of the best animated films to come along in ages. (Grady Hendrix, NYAFF)
Young Kenji Koiso was preparing for a somewhat dull summer of doing maintenance work for internet social networking service OZ, when he's unexpectedly recruited for a summer job by popular girl Natsuki. It's not until Kenji arrives at Natsuki's grandmother's estate that he finds out what the job actually is: The young math prodigy is to pretend to be Natsuki's boyfriend in front of her grandmother and extended family. It's a dream and nightmare come true, because while Kenji would secretly love to be Natsuki's boyfriend, Natsuki has lied told her family that Kenji comes from a prestigious background. Confused, smitten, and humiliated after the first family meal, Kenji lies awake in his bed. He's surprised when he receives a mysterious email on his cellphone containing a massive matrix of numbers, along with a request to crack the code. As we all do when confronted with difficult math problems late at night, Kenji decides to stay up until morning solving the puzzle, and replies with the answer. He comes to regret this, as Kenji soon learns that what he cracked was the firewall for OZ. A giant online service, combining social networking, gaming, shopping, and government services, the breach in security is causing problems on networks across the world. On top of all of this, the problems for Natsuki's family are just beginning.
Summer Wars is a huge leap in scale from the small, intimate world of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Director Hosoda, screenplay writer Okudera, and character Sadamoto have gone from a small story about three friends into a huge, ambitious project dealing with a massive ex-samurai family, a world-spanning internet service, and potential global calamity. It's a huge shift, and for the most part, it works incredibly well. However, I can't help but feel a bit like Kenji presented with the code on his cellphone. The immensely rich world that Madhouse has created, and its multiple layers of social commentary are incredibly enjoyable to try and figure out, but the heart of the film is somewhat conflicted and confused. So while the film didn't succeed for me as the heartwarming family film it wants to be, it is nonetheless impressive as a work that manages to present, and comment on, so many facets of modern Japanese culture and society.
Though it's said so often that it's oversimplified and cliched, modern Japan does deal with resolving contradictions between "ancient tradition" and cutting-edge technology. However, I've never seen it expressed in such a visually rich way before. Action cuts between family hijinks at Natsuki's grandmother's estate, an old-fashioned Japanese house with tatami mats, sliding screen doors, and samurai relics, and the "superflat" world of OZ, which seems to mix influences from Takashi Murakami's art and Hosoda's previous work on Digimon. Despite this, the movie never really feels schizophrenic. The movie comments on modern society's reliance on technology, compares Japan's infamous "old boy" network with modern social networking websites, and even touches on Japan's sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the United States. It's an incredible encapsulation of its time, and a film I would recommend to any student or any person interested in learning more about Japan. Academics could write pages decoding its fascinating symbolism and artistic achievements. This is not to say, however, that it's a hard to understand or culturally alienating film. The basic messages of the movie are easily understood, but the depth is there for those who go looking for it.
Those don't go into movies looking at them as academic exercises are likely to wonder how it works as a family film. As entertainment, the film is strong, but not as exceptional. Because it attempts to take on so much of modern Japan in its two hours, it was less affecting for me than the smaller-scale Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Again, I can't help feeling a bit like Kenji would: I wish more time was spent on Kenji and Natsuki's relationship. I wish I got to spend more time with Natsuki's family. The problems with OZ, while exciting, feel like they take too long to resolve. As my jaded self, I also felt that everything was wrapped up a little too cleanly and neatly, unlike the bittersweet end of Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Every family member gets their time to shine, and although there is heartbreak, there's an ending you can stand up and cheer at. It's all a bit too precious for me, but I know others will eat it up.
Regardless of whether you come into Summer Wars looking for social commentary, or heartwarming family moments and battling rabbit avatars, there really does seem to be something for everyone in this film. While I feel this makes the film a bit too crowded, and makes it lose the impact of a more targeted, focused film, it's nonetheless an important achievement. As everyone else has said, it does announce Mamoru Hosoda as an important new talent in anime and Japanese film, and should be mandatory viewing for all animation fans.