Summar Wars is director Mamoru Hosoda‘s second feature film (that counts) since the unexpectedly successful Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, which rose from obscurity by word of mouth. Summer Wars is the second child in the family, the one who has to live up to the expectations of others to supersede the greatness that came before it. Did it succeed? My feelings are mixed.
As Hosoda himself puts it in interviews, Summer Wars is a movie about family, particularly a large traditional Japanese family. Just as Tokikake uses time travel to tell the story of a teenage girl’s inner uncertainties about love and growing up, Summer Wars is a story about family love and human communication wrapped in a soft sci-fi story.
The movie takes place in a slightly more advanced version of modern Japan, where the internet has evolved into a virtual world not unlike Second Life. This network is called the OZ and it can be accessed from a variety of devices that look remarkably similar to various real-life intellectual properties. Every user is represented by a personal avatar and uses it to get things done in the OZ. Every action in the OZ is represented by symbolic representations of its real-life equivalent (i.e. a key for a password lock and what not).
Or to put it simply, OZ is pretty much what people in the 90s imagined the future of internet to be because the real internet is too boring to be the setting of a movie.
In the movie, OZ is being attacked by an unknown hacker (guest starring Anonymous) who goes around “stealing” people’s avatars in order to gain their access rights to various systems. As is typical of the Hollywood Hacking trope, every critical system in the world is connected to this virtual funland. Oh noz.
The main character is Kenji Koiso, almost IMO representative for Japan, who is good with computers and works part-time as a OZ administrator (i.e. kind-hearted geek with l33t skills). He is invited by his senpai Natsuki Shinohara (i.e. hot older girl) to help out at her grandmother’s birthday celebration. There, he meets the rest of the Jinnouchi family, a long line of warriors whose ancestors fought the Tokugawa shogunate and held great influence in Japan. On some level, there’s a “tradition meets modernity” theme going on, but its prominence in the story is slight at best.
The direction that the story takes should be quite clear from this initial set-up. Boy meets girl (and extended family) and By Their Powers Combined™ they unite to save the world. There are few surprises to be found in Summer Wars and its plot is definitely not one of its strong points. The story has about as much subtlety as a super villain in a 80s cartoon. Compared to Tokikake, this is a step backward in some sense, but perhaps that is simply because Summer Wars is a different kind of movie. (Or it’s just not as good…)
The most interesting part of Summer Wars is probably the Jinnouchi family, a diverse group of people whose mundane banters are strangely entertaining. In today’s world where nuclear families are becoming the norm (and in fact seems to be the only form of family ever depicted in anime), the Jinnouchi family presents an engaging and appealing look into an increasingly rare kind of social structure — that of a big traditional family that has adapted to the challenges of modern society without losing its sense of identity.
As an Asian coming from a culture bearing similar concepts, there are many elements in the film that I personally find endearing, but your mileage may vary on this count. At the very least, the humorous interactions between the diverse range of characters in the Jinnouchi family should make for some heart-warming moments.
I find the OZ portion of Summer Wars and its whole associated storyline to be the weakest part of the movie. Sure, the action scenes and the depictions of 3D virtual world are somewhat entertaining, but they do not mesh well with what appears to be the main focus of the film — the Jinnouchi family. The role OZ plays in the movie is of dubious importance and the final “crsis” feels too convenient as a plot device.
I suppose the sci-fi angle is meant to be the flashy gimmick used to draw the audience in to the real underlying message, but it ends up being more of a distraction. As I previously stated, I believe that on some level the original intent was to create a contrast between this wildly futuristic idea of the internet and the traditional values represented by the family. Unfortunately, only a few feeble attempts were made to actually develop this tenuous link into a coherent message.
Character development in the story is practically non-existent. Where it does exist, it’s really not any good. Considering the story’s premise and Kenji being depicted as slightly socially awkward, one would expect some kind of character growth to occur as a result of his interactions with the Jinnouchi family (he practically said as much himself at one point in the movie), but that doesn’t really happen. In fact, for a main character, he does surprisingly little throughout the movie. Oh sure he gets the girl in the end, but for what reason beyond playing to audience expectation I just can’t say.
Of course, every work of fiction is flawed in some ways especially given how much of it is subjective. Hence, it’s not about how many rights or wrongs, but whether the things that are done right are more important than the wrongs. Summer Wars, in spite of all its execution flaws, provides an extremely enjoyable and heart-warming experience that will hopefully leave a longer-lasting impression than its abysmally bad sci-fi component. Well, it did for me anyway.
To sum up, Summer Wars has its moments and is on the whole likeable and decent, but I expected more from a follow-up to Tokikake. Of course considering the fact that everyone else is hailing it as the second coming of Hayao Miyazaki (a comparison which frankly boggles my mind… They are both Japanese?), maybe it’s just me being an unappeasable jerk as usual.
Those who are in Singapore can catch it in most Cathay cinemas. Just bring with you some rudimentary understanding of Japanese because the subtitles are terribad. White on white? Jeez.