One of my fondest memories from my youth were the annual family reunions. As I stood and watched the nearly 30 – 40 people I was related to – whether through blood or marriage – I was overcome with a powerful sense of pride; “The Yi Clan” as I affectionately would say to myself. I haven’t been to a gathering in over fifteen years, and watching Summer Wars infused me with a sense of nostalgia and longing for the extended family members I someday would love to reunite with. If I sound lonely, that’s alright, Kenji Koiso felt the same…until he met the Jinnouchi Clan.
Kenji Koiso is a shy, awkward teenager whose only talent is his prodigious math skills. When popular girl Natsuki asks Kenji to pretend to be his boyfriend in order to appease her great-grandmother and matriach of the clan, Sakae, Kenji agrees and is invited to stay with the elusive Jinnouchi family. During his stay, Kenji is falsely involved in a severe internet hack that has messed with the OZ system. This act of cyberterroism only worsens, forcing Kenji and the Jinnouchi Clan to band together and combat the viral menace, Love Machine.
Summer Wars is a unique entry from director Mamoru Hosoda because he’s essentially recreating an older film he did back in the late 90s: Digimon’s Our War Game used a similar premise of a dangerous virus targeting hapless Japan and the human leads countering via elaborate digital tools. Hosoda seem to have warmed up to the idea; though he rehashes the basic premise, Summer Wars is an altogether different beast with an incredibly nuanced message.
Summer Wars deals with two themes that are often not in tandem with each other. The first emphasizes the traditionalism of family structure and the ties that bind. The lengths we go to love each other as well as earn others’ forgiveness is a big theme. Wabisake serves as the resident black sheep of the Jinnouchi clan, as the illegitimate son of Sakae’s late husband and his seeming abandonment of the family after taking what little fortune they had for reasons unknown. His return marks a dark period for the rest, and how he integrates himself is a major plot in the movie. This subject is further elaborated through the eyes of its protagonist, Kenji. An only child with distant parents, he serves as the Other looking in, bewildered and impressed by the Jinnouchi’s tenacity and stubborn devotion.
The other theme centers on the progression of technology and mankind’s reliance on it for everyday use. The cyberterroism enacted by the ironically named Love Machine causes a heap of trouble. At best, it’s a minor inconvenience to the people of Japan; at worst, it’s a dangerous obstacle that could seriously harm someone. A typical narrative would have thrown a wrench at humanity’s over-reliance on technology and insisted that the old ways are preferable instead, but Summer Wars never chides the audience with such cynical pontification. It tells us technology isn’t a barrier against genuine human contact, but a gateway for it. OZ is a celebration of the level of the friendships that can be forged from the Internet. People from around the world gathered under one network is as valid a form of human contact as a family reunion in real life is.
Separately, they’re good lessons, but Summer Wars effortlessly merges the two themes into one, balancing the old with the new and demonstrating why both are complimentary to each other. Humans may have created and unleashed a deadly digital virus, but it’s teamwork and open communication that gives the Jinnouchi Clan the leg up they need to fight the menace, no matter what tools of the trade they possess. The tools themselves include the old and the new, ranging from a touching letter left by a family member to video chats. One scene has Sakae using an old-fashioned telephone to contact every major figure in Japan to keep the spirit burning during the technological crisis. In another scenario, young thirteen-year-old Kazuma transfers his martial-arts prowess into fighting game tournaments online, eventually using these very skills to save the world. Neither is treated as better or worse than the other, since both are effective methods of dealing with Love Machine.
This wouldn’t have worked so well if not for the movie’s expert handling of the twenty-something characters on screen, each with diverse personalities that pepper every moment without ever overcomplicating the film. Obviously some cast members get a bigger spotlight than others, but every single character has at least one spotlight moment in the nearly two-hour long film. The Jinnounchi Clan behaves believably as a family, warts and all, and each of them lend their talents during the final act, producing an intense and engaging battle against Love Machine. Never have hanafuda cards ever felt so epic.
Additional praise must be made for the world of OZ. A staple of Hosoda’s work, OZ is a largely stark white background coated with surreal digital imagery. It’s such a visually distinct interpretation of the Internet that it sets itself apart from the dark colored Matrix-y 1s and 0s so many others utilize. OZ truly feels like a unique world onto its own.
Extras include interviews with Mamoru Hosoda and the primary Japanese-language voice actors from the movie. There are also trailers and TV spots. The Hosoda Collection for Summer Wars is packaged with a 48-page booklet providing a basic information on the show, the crew behind-the-scenes, and some character/background concept art. It’s not particularly in-depth, but provides what you need to get a general understanding of the film. The Hosoda Collection collects both the DVD and Blu-ray for your convenience.
Summer Wars is a frighteningly relevant movie, perhaps moreso now than it was seven years ago. I feel the world is at a precarious path as of this writing, and the crisis that can potentially bring is equally unnerving. Summer Wars tells us that in a sea of uncertainty and growing tech, simultaneously learning from the past while embracing the modernity of the world can lead us to a brighter future. Though we can debate on the merits of such sentimentality nowadays, it is a grand reminder of our individuality — no matter what generation we’re from — and the strength that can be deprived when we pool our talents and experiences together.