Summer Wars


Watched via BD



PLOT: The story line for Summer Wars is very peculiar. The movie starts off simple enough with Kenji’s classmate, Natsuki, asking if he would like to go visit her family’s house in the country side to take some time off from work. This innocent request turns out to have a whole lot of strings attached as Natsuki introduces unsuspecting Kenji to her family members as her fiancé. The lying doesn’t end there—she even goes so far as to create a whole back story for the guy.

But this isn’t even the real focus of the movie. Kenji, mathematic master mind that he is, ends up playing part unknowingly in a plot to hack into OZ (essentially he breaks the internet). It ends up being between Kenji and the Jinnouchi clan (Natsuki’s family) to save the world from absolute destruction.

Upon rewatching this movie I had to recheck my MAL score, I just couldn’t believe that I gave it such a high score the last time I watched it. What was so appealing about this movie? And as it turns out, it’s the last 30 minutes of the movie that changes everything. Unlike Studio Ghibli movies which are all about reliving the nostalgia of the past, director Mamoru Hosoda is all about the present. It might just be the Contemporary Art History course I’m taking right now influencing my opinion, but this movie is a perfect representation of what movies today should be like. And by that I don’t mean all the technology, though that definitely makes it “current”, what really makes it a representation of this era is the collaboration amongst the Jinnouchi clan. Everyone works together on an international level in order to save the day. Instead of having one super star, who is the very best, you get instead the best of everyone working together.

The idea that things work best  with collaboration seems a much more Japanese than American idea, so I find it interesting that you find it a modern idea. I’d call it more old-fashioned.

PLOT: Summer Wars begins with Natsuki, an 18-year-old girl, asking her friend Kenji to come visit her family with her for the weekend.  This, of course, leads to the reveal that he’s there to play the role of her perfect boyfriend for her large family and, in particular, to cheer up her 90-year-old great-grandmother.  Natsuki’s family, the Jinnouchi clan, dates back hundreds of years and is huge, so Kenji is understandably daunted by everyone, especially given his status as the only child of oft-absent parents.

Despite this emphasis on potential romance and Natsuki’s giant family, though, Summer Wars also has another plot that is more fitting of the movie’s title.  During his visit, Kenji cracks the code for the online system OZ, which governs pretty much all online activity across the world.  An A.I. with the ability to learn, Love Machine, then takes over OZ, which has dire consequences and causes Kenji and the Jinnouchi clan to band together to save the day.

The plots in this movie impressed me in two ways.  One, the events from the second plot take a much more serious turn than I had ever expected, raising the stakes of the movie and leading me to truly worry about the characters.  Two, the two plots intertwine in a way that strengthens each.  My attachment to Natsuki’s family led me to care more about the OZ plot, and I love the real consequences of the OZ mishap.  These elements culminate in an easily-accessible but fairly realistic movie about hacking that had me emotionally invested the whole time.

For as much as I was somewhat interested in the characters, it wasn’t until they all banded together that I truly felt moved.

SETTING: I have a love/hate relationship with the setting for this movie. It primarily takes place at the Jinnouchi traditional family house, which belongs to Natsuki’s great-grandmother. I really enjoyed this location as it has a very old, homey feel while still feeling current enough that younger audiences can relate to the location. I loved the hustle and bustle of the place with everyone gathering together; it made me look forward to Thanksgiving even more….okay, yes, there is some nostalgia here, too.

Then there is OZ, which is essentially the internet. It has two faces, the glorified digital look, which you see when the characters are “in the world”, and then the boring windows version you see from the “over the shoulder” view. I really hate it when movies make the internet out to be more than what it is; it just seems so hokey. And to give the movie more action (since it’s essentially just about a family reunion) you get these added in action scenes with characters fighting which is essentially just one character hacking into another’s account. Most of the movie felt very disconnected between these two locations, but luckily it all gets tied in towards the end. I felt so relieved by that point that I ended up forgetting how much it initially irritated me.

I think that the Internet setting  has to be shown that way in order to be visually interesting.  I think the director wanted to use this plot to be topical, and to get it to work he wound up with OZ.  I’m okay with exaggerations in fiction, so long as there’s a reason.

SETTING: Summer Wars primarily takes place at the Jinnouchi family house, which is a large, traditional-style Japanese house.  For those on the look-out, this house has many characteristics that point to the age of the family, such as samurai armor, a koi pond, etc.  I think even newer viewers would gain a feel for how ridiculously large the house is and be impressed by the family’s power and influence in the past.

The movie’s other setting is OZ, where we see attacks against Love Machine visually represented through everyone’s avatars and a 3D digital environment.  This environment evolves throughout the movie, reflecting Love Machine’s attacks and the events currently occurring around Kenji and the Jinnouchi family.  While I like the family home, I especially like OZ for being a realistic vision of what such an interface would really look like, especially if it had a strong foothold in Japan.  I doubt that the characters see OZ as the viewers do, but I still find the overall setting very convincing.

What people think the internet looks like.

What the internet actually looks like.

CHARACTERS: Let’s see, Kenji is your typical computer nerd who finds his way into an amazing opportunity to get closer to “the hottest girl in school”. Typically this sort of set up would be a great opportunity to watch him grow into adulthood, but the premise of the movie seems more to be that of him finding out what it’s really like to be a part of a real family.

Natsuki’s character isn’t really as important as it’s set up to be. However, her interactions with her family helped to make them more believably real, which in turn helped out with their collaborative efforts in the end.

I’d just like to point out that the great-grandmother’s role was really weird. First of all, I’ve met ladies that old, and they aren’t near so young and spry, and second of all, I don’t see how her calling people and telling them to do the jobs that they’re already presumedly doing changes everything.

The cast is a little overwhelming, but it isn’t that important to know who everyone is. What I think I liked most was that everyone felt real, even down to the point where all the aunts had no idea what was going on until the last minute.

CHARACTERS: Kenji and Natsuki may fit into very obvious anime stereotypes (shy boy, enthusiastic girl), but they have enough quirks and human elements that they feel more like real people than most anime characters.  For his part, Kenji has his skill of being excellent at math, which immediately endears him to me.  Meanwhile, Natsuki’s interactions with her family are very realistic and remind me of experiences I’ve had.  From the taunting her aunts give her to her helping the younger kids bathe, Natsuki is a very real part of her family.

As a whole, Natsuki’s family is mostly lovable, if somewhat overwhelming.  When I watch it with new people, I give the advice to give up on keeping everyone straight and just go with visual impressions of them.  This strategy works well, but I still have the feeling that most of the movie’s characters have their own distinct personalities.  The many men in public-safety positions may be interchangeable, but everyone else has a very specific role, which I like.  I also love the great-grandmother, who’s still a spitfire at her age and isn’t afraid to raise hell during the mess with OZ.  What a woman!

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: I really enjoyed the character designs for this movie. The people looked less stylized with rather realistic facial features, like real jaw lines, which helped with differentiating who everyone was. I even liked that Kazuma’s grandfather had a pot belly. It’s always nice to see characters of all ages and sizes represented.

The designs for OZ were a little simplistic. They were definitely well customized to show personality, but they were just too cartoony. I suppose the argument could be made that it was a Japanese based Internet system, but really there should be better representation amongst the avatars. I can’t imagine my husband having a cute and fuzzy animal as his avatar online. I’d probably opt out as well for that matter.

As for the animation, it is top notch. You can tell a lot of effort was put into the little details, such as when the characters are typing or when you get a dramatic movement like with the boat going into the pond.

Well, my boyfriend would totally go for a cute and fuzzy animal avatar!  So there!  :P


ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Summer Wars very clearly has a large movie budget, and Madhouse did a great job in animating and designing it.  The settings all look fabulous, especially OZ, which could easily have looked like a tacky, clunky CG environment.  However, OZ has very polished CG that blends in with the rest of the movie and only stands out for being so clean and bright, not for obviously being CG.  I don’t really know what to say other than that this movie might be the best-looking anime movie I saw last year.  It’s certainly in the realm of Redline and Studio Ghibli, which puts it head and shoulders above most anime.

I also really love the art style of this movie.  For one thing, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of Evangelion fame did the character designs, so everyone looks nicely stylized but distinct.  For another thing, every character’s avatar is unique and reveals an aspect of the character.  There’s none of that nonsense where all avatars have the same basic body shape—no, OZ’s avatars are truly customizable.  We get to experience an 8-bit head, a train with wings, and a gerbil.  Excellent!

OVERALL: As I alluded to before, I didn’t really connect with the first hour and a half or so of the movie. I kept getting distracted and checking my email or making coffee. Luckily the ending really picked up and I ended up glued to my spot for the last half hour. I think what may have made this movie better the first time I watched it was that I was with a group of friends, so if you’re watching it for the first time, invite a couple of friends over.

Really I don’t want to leave a wrong impression. I truly liked the characters and the plot was a wonderful example of potential for film in present day Japan (as well as internationally). I probably won’t buy it, but I think it is totally worth a watch.

OVERALL: By now, my love for Summer Wars should be abundantly obvious.  It may not be radically different from the norm, but it’s a fun time that plumbs some depths if you look for it.  It deals with family and class issues, along with touching on the Internet and who should be responsible for when things go wrong.  Most interestingly for me, though, is what the movie reveals about families in Japan.  It seems to be the perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy for kids like Kenji who have no siblings and whose parents are at work constantly.  When watching Summer Wars, I have to fight the urge to begin picking it apart and close reading various elements, which I think also says something for the quality of the movie.  Even if you don’t have a hoot watching it, it’s arguably an important cultural document for this particular time period in Japan, and for that alone it should be worth watching.

Crystal and I are working on a new format for Stereo Otaku so that the text is actually part of the site instead of having to upload images of the file. WordPress is a bit of a headache when it comes to creating columns (Crystal had to write text for it) so things may seem a little different at first, but I think it has some good potential.

And as a bonus, I was pumpkin carving this last weekend and made myself a Crystal pumpkin. -W


2 thoughts on “Summer Wars

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