I’m sensing a definite theme in the work of Mamoru Hosoda while watching his movies for the first time—and that is the mixture of science fiction ideas and plots with human comedy and drama. In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, it was time travel and teen high school living and loving, and with his follow-up, 2009’s Summer Wars, Hosoda keeps the teen love angle, adds a whole family of weird people, and lays it atop a satirical allegory about humanity’s reliance on technology, the ability for artificial intelligence to cause havoc, and very nearly the end of life as we know it on this planet. And it’s all done via computer game. This movie kind of rocks.
There was a melancholy quality to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a wistful take on the passing of youth into adulthood and letting go. But with Summer Wars, the wistful angle comes from family, full stop. It’s at once a bottle story, with most of the action taking place in one physical location, but it also encompasses the whole of cyberspace, and like any good sci-fi anime, it features an evil villain and martial arts. You can see a lot of the influence Hosoda’s work on Digimon had on him but with a much more refined sense of irony. You’d never guess what the movie’s actually about from a title like Summer Wars.
At some point in the near future, a social network called OZ has become not only a part of every piece of connected technology in the world, but an integral one. The user creates their own avatar and that is, for all intents and purposes, them. It has all their bank information, all their identification, all of their everything, as well as being in a virtual space where users can play games and even battle each other, arcade-style. Kenji is a 17-year-old math whiz who spends most of his time in the virtual space but gets pulled into the real world when a cute 18-year-old girl, Natsuki, hires him to come with her to her family home for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday to do some work. Little does he realize that when he gets there, his “job” is to pretend to be Natsuki’s boyfriend, and more than that, her fiancé. Naturally, he’d love that to be the case, but they barely know each other.
In the evening, Natsuki’s long-lost half-great-uncle—for whom she harbored a childhood crush—returns. He has been off living what seemed like a glamorous life abroad as a computer programmer working on classified programs. After making an okay impression on the two dozen members of Natsuki’s family in attendance, Kenji spends the evening solving a complex math problem sent out by somebody in OZ. When he solves it, his account is immediately hacked and his avatar stolen. The user, with the code name “Love Machine,” has taken over and is doing horrible things to Japan’s infrastructure. Worse still, Kenji’s identity gets leaked as the culprit and he’s wanted by the police, including Natsuki’s cousin by marriage who wanted to marry her himself (Japan’s family structure is different than ours).
But soon they realize Kenji has been duped, as have thousands of others. Slowly, Love Machine is taking over, and not even Natsuki’s other cousin (whose avatar is the legendary fighting rabbit King Kazma), can stop the ever-growing Love Machine. Everything, from the traffic grid to hospitals, are down and nothing seems to be able to fix it. When it’s revealed that Love Machine isn’t a person but an AI developed by the uncle, everyone in the family gets enraged—especially great-grandma, who actually tries to kill him.
The next day, after telling Kenji to look after Natsuki, the great-grandma dies. Natuski is beyond distraught, but Kenji and one of the other older male relatives believes it’s up to them to try to stop Love Machine. If they’re going to do it, the whole clan is going to have to band together in both reality and cyberspace, lest Love Machine’s final stroke destroy most major metropolitan areas.
There’s really no two ways about it: Summer Wars is a weird movie, but it’s also because of its weirdness that it works so well. It at once skewers the idea of living your entire life on the web while praising those who are exemplary at it, or any field. It cautions us from relying too heavily on automated systems, but also revels in the victory and sense of accomplishment that can be felt by succeeding in these arenas. The movie is conflicted, but so is the topic and Hosoda never comes down too hard on the side of “technology is bad,” especially given how much he clearly loves designing the weird and cool avatars within the world.
The family drama aspect of the film works immensely well—I was never bored of it, because it and the digital world felt connected on a narrative level. The problems within OZ are paralleled in the household, and the enormous family has heroes and villains within it. Kenji, even after being shunned by the family when they think he’s a cyber terrorist, says how much he loves spending time with them all because he grew up without much of a family and always longed to be part of one. That rings incredibly true and we definitely sense the pride he feels at being included in any fashion. The connection he has with the great-grandmother is wonderful, too, and she seems to believe in him fully even though he rarely believes in himself.
The visuals are really glorious, with the sheen and whiteness of OZ contrasting beautifully with the earth-toned real world. There is, not to use and overused word, epic quality to the OZ sections, and Love Machine becomes a truly terrifying figure the more it engulfs other avatars. In all of his forms, he’s a scary looking guy and we long to see King Kanza or Natsuki’s awesome avatars just pummel him to pieces.
The movie’s climax is truly tense, and I love any kind of ending where the good guys have to work all together. Each of the main characters gets a chance to shine while trying to stop the missiles from striking, with Natsuki playing a card game against Love Machine to win avatars (to try to strip some of his power) while the uncle is trying to hack into his own creation. Kenji also attempts to figure out the incredibly complex math equations needed to unlock the missile’s codes while Kanza tries to destroy Love Machine once and for all. It’s a very effective, very emotional scene and we feel it on the face of every member of that family.
I really had no idea what to expect with Summer Wars, because the title is certainly not explanatory and the box art looked like it could be anything. But once again, Hosoda makes a movie that’s very high on science fiction concepts and very deep on human connection. This seems to be his whole ethos, and I am loving every second of it. I’m only sorry I just have two movies left of his.
Next week, I’ll look at another movie I know next to nothing about, save that it features mystical elements. 2012’s Wolf Children will be next!
Let me know your thoughts on Summer Wars in the comments below!
Images: Madhouse/Warner Bros Jp
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!