Anime Film Review: Summer Wars

Summer Wars is an anime film that was released in Japan in 2009.

Summer Wars
Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
Written by: Satoko Okudera
Starring: Ryumosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura, Sumiko Fuji, and Ayumu Saito
Run Time: 114 minutes

The film opens with an explanation for the virtual reality world OZ, and it’s done in such a way that it feels like you’re watching a tutorial. I thought this was an interesting way to introduce the concept of this virtual reality world. But after seeing how much of the real world is integrated into OZ, I was confident that something was going to happen to OZ that was going to have major ramifications for the real world. I also thought that perhaps one of the themes of the film would be how dangerous it is to have such a reliance on technology and the internet.

After this, we are introduced to three high school students: math whiz Kenji Koiso, his friend Takashi Sakuma, and female student Natsuki Shinohara. Kenji and Takashi are both part-time moderators for OZ, and this is what they’re doing when Natsuki comes up to them to offer them a “part time job.” Kenji ends up taking the “job,” which is traveling to Ueda with Natsuki for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. But what she doesn’t tell him is that she told her great-grandmother that she has a boyfriend, and now needs someone to fill that role since she really doesn’t have one. Kenji doesn’t find out until he’s introduced to her great-grandmother as Natsuki’s fiancĂ©.

Natsuki’s family are descendants of a samurai who challenged the Tokugawa clan in 1615, and the family has a lot of pride. Sakae Jinnouchi, the great-grandmother, is basically the matriarch of the family, and what she says is what the family does. This includes approving potential spouses for the family members. Conflict arises, though, when Natsuki’s half-great-uncle Wabisuke makes an appearance after disappearing to the United States 10 years ago with the family’s fortune. Most of the family doesn’t care for him, and Wabisuke tries to act aloof. The main family member who seems to get along with him is Natsuki.

During his first night at Sakae’s estate, Kenji gets an email with a mathematical code and is asked to solve it. He does and sends the response to the sender. Unfortunately, it appears he unknowingly activated Love Machine, a virtual intelligence device that uses Kenji’s account and avatar to hack the infrastructure, which causes widespread damage. Unfortunately, Kenji’s picture is being broadcast on television to frame him as the culprit, and Natsuki’s family discovers that the backstory that Natsuki had been giving for Kenji is a lie and they blame him for it. Fortunately, Sakae still has her old rotary phone and is able to call associates in important positions in Japanese society and encourage everyone to work their hardest during the chaos.

It turns out that one of Natsuki’s cousins is a user on OZ, and that his character is known for being a great fighter. He, along with Kenji, work together to try to take down Love Machine. It turns out Kenji had misspelled one part of the code that he cracked the night before, so he’s not the one who actually activated Love Machine. However, with his math knowledge, Kenji is able to crack another code that allows the moderators and engineers to regain control of the mainframe. It’s revealed that Wabisuke invented Love Machine and sold it to the United States Armed Forces for a test run. The family angrily drives Wabisuke away upon learning this. But with the help that he gave to end the chaos, Natsuki’s family thinks better of Kenji again.

Unfortunately, since it’s taking a while to get OZ completely back up and running, the heart monitor that was implanted in Sakae for her angina was deactivated. Because of this, she passes away because the heart monitor couldn’t send a signal to the doctor to let him know there was a problem. This was the most poignant example of how people in this world have become too reliant on having their lives tied in with the internet.

The rest of the film sees Kenji, Takashi, and several members of Natsuki’s family working together to take down Love Machine. Natsuki also becomes important during this portion of the film. The stakes go up when Love Machine takes over an asteroid probe to send it on a collision course with a nuclear power plant. Our characters have a tight time limit in order to take down Love Machine and restore OZ.

While OZ is important and we do get to see the ramifications of relying too much on technology and the internet, it ended up being done in a way that I hadn’t entirely anticipated. Saying that, though, I think this theme was handled well and was portrayed in a way that fit in with the overall tone and feel that was set for Summer Wars. The main theme of the film ends up being family ties and family relationships, and Hosoda did a fantastic job portraying this theme. One of the strengths of this film was how the story continued to build until it reached the climax. Some might call the climax a little “over the top,” but it needed to be exciting and to have even more serious ramifications than Sakae’s death. Because of how the story built up, the film kept me riveted and interested in what was happening. I also found Kenji’s reactions to people comments and reactions to his “relationship” with Natsuki to be amusing, and it added some humor to the story. Although, I have to add that the evolution of their relationship in the film felt believable in this story, and you can start seeing noticeable changes in this relationship after Sakae’s death.

The main complaint I had with Summer Wars was the sheer number of characters that were included. Natsuki has a large extended family, and they all come for Sakae’s forthcoming birthday celebration. Unfortunately, because of the number of characters that were in the film, I couldn’t keep all of their names straight. The characters I remember the most are the ones who played the most pivotal roles in the story, with the main exception being the cousin that had the strong fighter character in OZ. I understand what Hosoda was going for by trying to have this large family in order to portray the theme of family ties and family relationships, but several of the family members felt like they were just “there” and really didn’t do much. I think a few of the characters (primarily the young kids) could have been cut back on and the point Hosoda wanted to make would have still been possible.

I was glad to see the difference in the animation style between what was happening in the real world and what was happening in the virtual world. The animation style used for what was happening inside OZ really made it feel like you were seeing something that wasn’t real, and it also had a “virtual world” feel to it. If I had to describe this animation style, I would refer to it as “fantastical.” When it comes to the real world portion of the story, I have to give the character designer a lot of credit for this film. Even though there were a lot of characters included, each person had their own unique look and feel to them. None of the character designs felt as if they were “cookie cutter.”

If you’re a fan of Mamoru Hosoda or if you have an appreciation for a story that mixes relationships and technology, then you might enjoy watching Summer Wars.

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