In the wake of Satoshi Kon’s death, many members of the anime blognoscente spent innumerable sleepless nights counting — one by one, using their mandible-like man-fingers — the few living Directors of Note still working in the industry. Due to an allegedly unrelated bout of mass psychosis, their first and last choices were always Mamoru Hosoda, director of 2009’s Summer Wars. Summer Wars is a good movie, Hosoda is a good director, let’s talk details.
Hosoda busted into the industry with a pair of short movies based on 1999’s Digimon World TV show. His first Digimon movie was beautiful and restrained. His second, 2000’s Digimon Adventure: Our War Game, was harrowing and suspenseful, with a plot that quickly hammered out its characters by placing them in a situation of stark terror and abject confusion. By the end of its 40-minute runtime, you cared about the fate of a few grade-school kids and their mass-marketed cyber-animal companions — even if you had never watched the Digimon TV series. Hosoda had skill, and more importantly, he had something to say. People took notice.
He was rewarded with an invitation from Studio Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, which didn’t end up happening. He then directed the 2005 One Piece movie Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island, whose plot can debatably be viewed as a harsh repudiation of his experiences at Ghibli. Of Hayao Miyazaki in particular? Yeah, that’s a tough one.
Hosoda then made himself known to a worldwide audience with 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, adapted from a story by the legendary Yasutaka Tsutsui, whose novels acted as a wellspring for most of the works of Satoshi Kon. Go watch it. It’s a wonderful movie.
So. Summer Wars is a maturation of the ideas Hosoda explored in that second Digimon movie. It’s bigger and bolder. It’s Hosoda striding confidently forward. He’s got this. The script was penned by Satoko Okudera, who wrote The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but the story is very confidently Hosoda’s.
We’re immediately drawn into the world of the movie with an overview of “Oz,” which is… the Internet. The amazing movie Internet as rendered through the partial visual lens of Takashi Murakami, who you may know as “that Superflat guy.”
Oz is a brightly-lit cyberworld where commerce is conducted, games are played, and people meet. We’re treated to a dry, narrated overview of the joint. It looks like a pretty cool place for a movie. We see all manner of fantastic creatures fighting each other in martial arts duels. We meet our protagonist, Kenji, who has a job online as an IRC mod with his pal, Takashi.
And then we’re in the real world. In a whirlwind of set-up, Kenji gets an offer from Natsuki, the prettiest girl in school, to come with her out to the countryside — Ueda, specifically — for part of the summer. They’re going to celebrate the 90th birthday of Natsuki’s great-grandmother, you see. Kenji agrees. We see some of Natsuki’s extended family, offshoots of the Jinnouchi lineage. There are lots of children, and an enormous family estate, which was defended to the death by the Jinnouchi clan across centuries.
We see more of Natsuki’s extended family. It’s a big one. There’s a guy who runs a fishing business, immediately identifiable from his deep sunburn and tank top. There’s a police officer, who is extremely protective of Natsuki, suspicious of Kenji, and loud. There are members of city fire departments, government bureaucracy, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The mother of a highschool baseball star whose harrowing journey to the national championship runs parallel to the action of the movie.
And finally, there is the 90 year old Sakae Jinnouchi herself, a fiercely independent maternal figure whose reassuring, kindhearted presence inspires just about everyone during the course of the plot to rise up in the face of adversity. She’s the lynchpin holding everything together, and intensely memorable. A great character.
Not so great is the motivation that brought Kenji along. Natsuki, it turns out, just wanted him in the household to be her pretend future-husband. The movie doesn’t do a good job of rationalizing why she did this — outside of the fact that Kenji would never have been in this movie without her — and it makes Natsuki seem like a manipulative and annoying girl whose behavior is dictated by the whims of the plot, instead of a fleshed-out, likable character. This didn’t register as a big deal while watching it, but it’s one of those things that sticks out when thinking back on the movie.
Some more plot quibbles. Kenji’s something of a math whiz, and ends up inadvertently becoming implicated as the perpetrator of the big crisis that befalls Oz as a result. He freaks out when he sees his picture on the TV, there’s a palpable sense of tension as he attempts to avoid the inevitable, and then he’s caught. The movie telegraphs that the action is going to shift away from the Jinnouchi household, but that can’t happen because the movie is most interested in the character drama of the family. Kenji ends up back at the house, and unceremoniously absolved of doubt in the crisis that only twenty minutes prior threatened to swallow up him and everyone else. Again: it’s very exciting while you’re watching, but it rings a little hollow in retrospect.
And meanwhile, Natsuki is just kind of there. We are introduced to another interesting member of the Jinnouchi extended family, whose existence and affinity for Natsuki partially explains her insistence on bringing Kenji along, but it barely registers. Another thirty to forty minutes later, and Natsuki is suddenly pivotal to the plot again. Everyone else has just about the right amount of screen time. Just… not Natsuki. It’s definitely a misstep. She’s right there next to Kenji in the dang movie poster, but ultimately she — and her relationship with Kenji — is subservient to the movie’s most interesting character: the family. Hosoda clearly wanted to have it both ways, and this is where he stumbles, if only a little.
Summer Wars is a little conflicted, you might say. On the one hand, there are visually stunning aerial martial arts battles raging deep within a fantastic cybernetic dreamscape. On the other hand, there are the human beings controlling those fights, who live and breathe and use that artificial world to the benefit of their real lives, in which the movie is just as if not more interested.
On the one hand, there are moments of frenetic action, of slapstick goofiness, of freewheeling and lighthearted adventure that don’t so much push the movie forward as send it careening down the side of a mountain on a rocket sled. On the other hand, there are scenes of intense longing, heartfelt emotion, and profound despair, willing to linger as long as necessary to tug on the audience’s heart strings.
On the one hand, there are the weary anime tropes of the antisocial stammering nerd, the pretty girl who ropes him into a whirlwind of adventure and eventually falls in love with him, the visual and stylistic motifs of the card game with rules you don’t even need to know played for the fate of the world. And on the other hand, there is the warmth of a family comedy, an almost Capra-like sensibility for characterization, a massive family numbering in the twenties made into recognizable, likable people in under two hours.
Summer Wars wants to be a lot of things to a lot of people. It wants to be the big summer blockbuster. It wants to be the touching and introspective family drama. And it wants to be a commentary about the role technology plays in our lives, both for good and for ill.
Mostly, though, it’s an unbelievable amount of fun, a visually stunning crowd-pleaser that’s always giving us someone or something new to look at, think about, and care for. Hosoda has crafted an astonishingly enjoyable film, and while the details fall apart a little under scrutiny, its heart is very distinctly in the right place. I do not dig Summer Wars to the same degree as, say, Tokyo Godfathers. But it’s a good movie, and I would emphatically recommend it to anyone.
Whatever Hosoda does next, I hope he hits it out of the park. Again. He can only go farther next time.