Mamoru Hosoda and the Amazing Percussive Clavalier Cyber-Flotilla: Summer Wars

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.


  1. Nail on the head. I really enjoyed Summer Wars, but the more you think about it, the more it falls apart.

    In the hand of a less competent director it would have been a real huge pile of shit.

  2. Summer Wars is a bad movie. I think every intelligent japtoon fan knows this deep down, but they’re afraid to say it because Hosoda has been hyped to such a massive degree.

    As you mention, the movie is horribly unfocused. It wants to be something to everyone (no doubt a commercial decision), but fails to be properly coherent as a film. Movies should strive to make some focused, interesting point, but this movie can’t. It feels more like a Hollywood action movie, perhaps viscerally engaging, but ultimately not worthwhile.

    Not only does this make it unfocused, but necessitates that the plot move at breakneck speed. It has the weird feeling of a young child telling a story when it’s just one pivotal plot development after another. The movie is one long sentence full of ‘and’s. Not much time is given to naturalistic dialogue, or shots of normal things happening, or whatever else one might expect in a good film.

    The plot is terrible. It pretends some resemblance to the real world, when the scenario is clearly preposterous. Not wanting to spoil things, but nukes being launched and satellites being controlled through what is essentially Facebook? Come on. This and all the techical stuff just being wrong (the hacking etc.). Then there’s the fact that every important player in a global crisis is in the same family, except the main character, who’s staying with them. Movies should relate to the real world in some way, otherwise they’re just pointless excercises in escapism. The family stuff tries to, but fails to be new or interesting.

    There are other issues I have with the film, but I’ll leave it at that because this is getting pretty long.

    I will give it some credit though: it’s a very pretty film (animation and art, not the cinematography, which is shit). It can be watched just for the visuals, they’re that good.

  3. Summer Wars is best enjoyed by not dwelling too much on what it’s doing wrong. Or maybe I’m just a bit biased towards the Meet the Robinsons-esque setup (sorry I can’t think of an earlier example of this trope).

    But yeah in retrospect Natsuki felt really detached from the plot up until that silly card game. Let’s remember here that she didn’t even specifically pick Kenji (unless I’m forgetting something), she asked if either him or his friend could go and they settled it with janken or whatever. I’m not sure what the underlying message to that scene was.

  4. “Summer Wars is best enjoyed by not dwelling too much on what it’s doing wrong.”

    And say what you will about Mussolini, but he made the trains run on time. Fascism is best appreciated if you don’t dwell on the things it does wrong.

  5. Unfortunately, I have the kind of mentality that will pick apart a film, if it’s bad, while I’m watching it. This obviously interferes with my overall enjoyment of the piece because part of me is trying to watch it as another part keeps pointing out the flaws. This doesn’t happen to me with every movie but it was certainly the case with “Summer Wars”.

    It’s not an awful movie by any stretch of the imagination. There are plenty of good things to say about it. Unfortunately is packed with ideas, many of which are not explored adequately.

    “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” was successful because it had a tight focus (even if there are some third-act problems there as well). “Summer Wars” tends to come apart where the focus is too loose. Or I might just be saying that because it goes neatly with my other point.

  6. I’m sorry to hear that Summer Wars killed your family and ruined your life, dotdash. I was being insensitive.

  7. “Unfortunately is”. This is why I should always run my posts through Word first so that I’m reading them for what they are, not what I thought I wrote.

    Not that “Unfortunately it is” makes much more sense. Hmm.

    Glad to see that Mussolini has been brought to the table. Far too often people leap straight to Hitler, but that’s becoming a bit passé.

  8. Hey Colony Drop, long time reader, first time commenter (or is it second, its been a while), I just wanted to say that this movie I feel suffers from the “Movie Theater” Movie. Its a great watch for 2 hours the first time in, but when you think about it, its plot relies too much on convinces, plot devices, and as the reviewer said, having it go “both ways” and not sticking with one set of solid messages to tell the audiences. Its not a BAD film, its just falls apart after the magic of the movie ends, and the spell of the plot weakens.

  9. I really liked Summer Wars, but even I know it’s riddled with problems, which I won’t list as everyone else seems to have already done so, although I’d like to add that the family almost came off as some kind of secret cabal by the end with all the crazy stuff they pulled out of nowhere(the kind of organization that might get killed by Kamen Rider in the sequel). I think I’m probably just a sucker for how much it reminds me of “Our War Game”, which I watched on a weekly basis as a small child and still like quite a lot. It might also be that I saw it on a 35 millimeter print with the director there to answer questions afterward. That said, the two hours of Mamoru Hosoda talking were probably more fun than the two hours actually watching the movie. I’m also a bit partial to the red outlines in the virtual world (I like it when animation gets creative with its outlines). All in all I would say that pieces of the film work (there are a few good character arcs and plot lines), but the whole thing doesn’t really come together. I guess that makes it about as much of a “turn your brain off” show as New Getter Robo, but that doesn’t make it not fun.

    Additionally, I didn’t mind the how silly the tech side of things was. Sci-fi stories (and what else can you really call it?) have thrown way dumber things at us over the years and been taken completely seriously. I don’t think an entirely made up network and computer system really need to conform to real world rules.

    I should probably add that I was laughing my head off for most of the movie once things started happening because I don’t actually “turn my brain off” for these things.

  10. “Glad to see that Mussolini has been brought to the table. Far too often people leap straight to Hitler, but that’s becoming a bit passé.”

    Anyone who’s had experience of travel in Europe would know that getting German trains to run on time wouldn’t be seen as such a groundbreaking achievement.

    In the meantime, if all it takes to enjoy a film is ignoring the things wrong with it, then every film ever made is a masterpiece.

    There’s a lot about Summer Wars that I didn’t feel worked. The whole latter part of the film seemed to be answering a question that the first half didn’t really ask, and the way the focus moves away from the family to all that twatting about in Oz made it much more difficult for me to care about the people involved and the things they were doing. There was praiseworthy stuff in there, but for me Hosoda frontloaded all the interesting stuff and left the latter portion of the film feeling a bit hollow.

  11. What gets me most about this flawed film is the way it has been Americanized. An above comment compared this to a Hollywood blockbuster, and I agree. The main character is a stereotypical male: he is smart, he gets the girl, he solves the problem, he saves the world, blah, blah, blah… Very predictable, and overall unsatisfying. I want to see a main character with true flaws, or one who doesn’t completely solve the problem at hand. That is what made Tokikake great.

  12. I saw a preview for this at the local arthouse. It was dubbed. Everything OTHER preview was subtitled. I’m afraid I’m one of those radical anti-dub folks, so they’ve already lost me on seeing in the theatre. Oh well.

  13. I believe they’re doing showings in both languages, but you’ll have to check your listings. I saw it at a film fest subbed myself.

  14. Thanks for this fine essay. I loved Summer Wars and have re-watched it several times with pleasure. Most of the supposed weaknesses listed in your post, and much more in the comments, arise either from inappropriately applying Euro-American movie theory concepts, or from not realizing what certain scenes are openly attempting to convey to the original Japanese audience. For instance the card game that you say “you don’t even have to know the rules of” is actually a REAL game that one would expect the intended audience to have a nodding acquaintance with — just as we all have a nodding acquaintance with baseball. More important, and not mentioned so far, is the way this film repeatedly evokes elements of traditional Japanese culture — from the moving-image posters and works of art in the train station, to every detail of the family house, furnishings and grounds. Almost from the start the viewer is being sensitized to the fact that this film is going to be engaged with the issue of what it means to be Japanese — aristocratic Japanese — in the modern world. Almost all the male members of the family hold the modern equivalents of samurai professions: doctor, teacher, military intelligence officer, EMT. The only exception is the fisherman who, not surprisingly, is the one most openly obsessed with traditional military valor. And yet the household is ruled by a woman. There is an entire architecture of authority, who holds power and what power means, in the male-female dynamic through this film. The scene in which the great-grandmother threatens the son of her dead husband’s concubine with a spear, is straight out of traditional Japanese theater. The open dining area where much of the family interaction takes place resembles a Noh stage. I could go on and on but in short, this is one of those films in which every tiny detail is intentional, and almost every scene involves some sort of engagement with traditional culture. It’s fascinating. I think it’s a better film than Girl Who Leaped Through Time — fine as that was — but Summer Wars is perhaps not a film that would ever say much to non-Japanese.

  15. These comments are very ANN Forums-like.

    Summer Wars is not perfect, but has a solid main plot and a kinda retarded sub plot.

    So many commentors seem to be foaming at the mouth to write off Hosoda. If this turns out to be his worse movie, then I think we have a bright future to look forward to.

  16. The idea that one has to be Japanese to enjoy the film or that not enjoying it shows a lack of appreciation for Japanese culture is bollocks. It’s also a little insulting. I noticed most of the stuff you mentioned (except the Noh thing, although why is that interesting in itself?), but still felt it was a failure. A series of references to Japanese culture do not make a good film. In any case, nothing interesting was said with the family drama side of the film.

    Will, I don’t think silly sci-fi stories should be taken seriously. All the best sci-fi – stuff like Blade Runner, 2001, Patlabor 1, hell, even Godzilla – has something to say about our world, and/or the direction it might be going in. The unrealistic elements are just ways to get the idea across. Summer Wars isn’t making any kind of point; the sci-fi element is just mindless escapism.

    Huh, so negative comments are ANN forum-like? That’s a bit harsh. I’m not foaming at the mouth to write Hosoda off, I just think if something’s bad it should be criticised.

  17. My biggest gripe with Summer Wars (aside from the scatterbrained pacing) is that the danger and drama revolves activities that all but push the viewer out of the action: Speed typing, Math Olympics, and Japanese Pinochle. With that said, Hosoda does a respectable job given the ingredients.

    The extended family dynamics were refreshing and I’m sure it succeeded in its goal of making all the suburbanites feel lousy for abandoning their roots and perhaps even make their children look up from their PSPs to ask the question, why don’t we spend more time with Grandma and Grandpa?

    Not as good as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time but not the end of his career either.

  18. there’s an inordinate amount of people whining about this movie…

  19. >Jack

    The film garnered an inordinate amount of praise, so the backlash is proportional. It’s a measure of the high standards to which people now hold Hosoda that Summer Wars’ (many) flaws attract the criticism they (rightly) do.

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