(2009) Directed by Mamoru Hosoda; Written by Satoko Okudera: Original story by Mamoru Hosoda; Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura, and Sumiko Fuji; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“This particular film revolves around one family, and the issues I think that family has to deal with are probably relatable to issues that face real families all over the world. That’s at the core of it; we started out telling the story of a family.” – Mamoru Hosoda
There’s something about a summery setting in movies that gets us (especially in the thick of winter, as of this writing) wistful about long hot days, short nights, and sipping our favorite cool beverage while lazing about. The reality, of course, is when we’re actually in the thick of it, it’s often too hot and sweaty to endure, and (at least from my perspective), it just makes me yearn for the reprieve that autumn brings. With Summer Wars, filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Wolf Children) recalls the idealized summer in our minds, with celebrations, good food and great company, accompanied by the ubiquitous sound of cicadas* in the countryside. Oh, and there’s this pesky AI that threatens the fate of the world…
* Fun Fact #1: If there’s one sound that’s synonymous with summer in Japan, it’s the humble cicada. There are 35 known species in Japan, each with its unique call. You can find out more here (including sound clips).
Popular college student Natsuki Shinohara (Kazuma Ikezawa) offers nerdy high schooler Kenji Koiso a unique opportunity to accompany her to her house over the summer, in exchange for some easy money. Unfortunately for Kenji, she doesn’t reveal the whole story. He learns, much to his horror, that she wants him to pretend to be her boyfriend/fiancé. They arrive at her ancestral home, to celebrate the 90th birthday of family matriarch Sakae Jin'nôchi (Sumiko Fuji). In the first of many trials that await him, Kenji must convince her grandmother and numerous family members that he’s the only one for her. Soon, he has much bigger fish to fry when his identity is hijacked, and he unwittingly enables the AI program “Love Machine” to take control of OZ, a vast virtual complex. On the one hand, OZ is a social network and gaming mecca, but it also controls worldwide commerce, finance and infrastructure. Suddenly, Kenji is accused of being a criminal mastermind, and to add icing to the cake, Natsuki’s ruse is revealed. An annoying prank becomes a dire harbinger of doom when Love Machine takes control of a wayward space probe, potentially targeting one of the world’s nuclear power plants. Now, he’s presented with a two-fold dilemma: patching things up with Natsuki’s family and saving the Earth.
One of the joys of Summer Wars is its meticulous depiction of Natsuki’s family.* While many of them would be little more than window dressing in another film, Hosoda takes the time to introduce us to the various members (30 individuals, according to Hosoda) and their idiosyncrasies. Sakae is the heart and soul of the Jin'nôchi clan, strong-willed, passionate, and above all, service-minded, with a strong sense of duty to her community. Even after Kenji’s bluff is called, she sees something in him the others don’t see, as a worthy companion for her granddaughter. Another key player is, Natsuki’s uncle, Wabisuke Jin'nôchi (Ayumu Saitô), brash, impulsive, impudent, and the brilliant creator of Love Machine. In his fight to help regain control of OZ, Kenji finds an unlikely ally in Natsuki’s young cousin, Kazuma Ikezawa (Mitsuki Tanimura), who leads a second virtual life under the avatar King Kazma, a badass martial arts rabbit. Even the family’s beloved Shiba Inu, Hayate, gets his moment in the sun. Hosoda somehow manages to keep the disparate elements of the family drama and looming cyber-threat up in the air without crashing to the ground. The overarching theme of loyalty under adversity defines how the family deals with its inner conflicts and how they face the global crisis. Beside the positive aspects of family, Hosoda masterfully captures the less than savory dynamics that many of us can likely relate to, with cliques, shaky alliances, and petty animosities.
* Fun Fact #2: If you’re a trifle confused (and who wouldn’t be?) about who’s who in the Jin'nôchi clan, there’s a handy fan wiki page, which attempts to set the record straight.
Kenji, by far, demonstrates the most growth among the myriad characters in the movie. When he arrives at the Jin'nôchi residence, he’s a fish out of water, unable to measure up to the imaginary boyfriend that Natsuki fabricated (based on her prototypical idol, Wabisuke). Poor Kenji, by contrast, is timid and soft-spoken, and has never dated before. He’s far from helpless, however; his superpower of sorts is his head for numbers, which enables him to decode long sequences. It’s gratifying to watch him find his place, as he discovers his own voice, teaming up with Natsuki’s family to battle a seemingly unstoppable enemy.
The virtual world of OZ is colorful, immersive and bewildering, unrestricted by the boundaries of the physical world. It’s easy to see how someone could become lost in this alternate reality, where your avatar can be an idealized version of yourself, and you can live out your fantasies. On the flip side, Summer Wars illustrates the perils of such an online arena, where we blindly put our trust out in the ether, taking for granted our identities and information will be safe. As intriguing as OZ’s online universe is, the film remains firmly rooted in the real world (another movie from a lesser filmmaker might have made Oz the primary focus). The family drama is front and center, so we can appreciate how high the stakes are when they’re sucked into the mix. Visual spectacle is something quite a few filmmakers can do well, but the ability to incorporate believable characters you care about is in short supply. Managing to handle both deftly is a talent few can match. Filled with stunning imagery and an abundance of heart, Summer Wars is another winner to add to Mamoru Hosoda’s impressive resume.