Summer Wars is quite interesting. Essentially, it’s the final product of a combination of factors, such as the director of Digimon Adventure: Bokura No War Game, and a mishmash of other plot devices from films like Die Hard and Wargames, all combined into one big anime-themed melting pot. It’s not as well-known as other films such asYour Name, Spirited Away or End of Evangelion, but I was somewhat familiar enough with it even prior to my official jump into anime. The same could be said for another fellow who I met at Anime North in 2019, where during one of our conversations he recommended this film. I inclined to make some time to see this film for myself and if it would exceed my expectations, but not only did work and other obligations get in the way, I also wanted to make sure to view this during the summer – after all, it is specified in the film’s title. After viewing this film, I’ve got to say that I vastly underestimated its value.
Mamoru Hosoda, whose portfolio includes, as previously mentioned, Digimon Adventure: Bokura No War Game (which this film is heavily based on) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is the director and the principal storywriter of Summer Wars, with animation studio Madhouse chiming in to provide the visuals and the famed Warner Bros. Studios handling distribution. It debuted in Japan and South Korea on 1 August 2009 – ten years, coincidentally, after the initial start date of the first Digimon Adventure episode – following a highly successful marketing campaign which included trailer previews on Youtube, a high volume of ticket pre-orders, and a manga published in the magazine Young Ace. It would also see the light of day in various North American and European locations, most interestingly at MIT where Hosoda himself made a cameo appearance and proceeded to hold a Q&A session to media studies students. Talk about self-promotion.
Retrospectively, the film has seen a decent amount of critical success. Although the box office numbers are not as impressive, and probably on par with that of the best possible B-movie, critics found the inter-family drama and technological intrigues entertaining enough to pass. Most view this film, along with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time as part of Hosoda’s masterpieces, which couldn’t come at a better time seeing how close they were released on top of each other. It earned international recognition with not only being the first anime entry in the Swiss-based Locarno International Film Festival Awards, but also by winning Best Animation Awards (at the 70th Mainichi Film Awards, the Anaheim International Film Festival, and the Sitges Film Festival in Spain), and an Annie Award for Mamoru Hosoda’s excellence as a directing, as well as multiple other nominations.
The film opens up with a tutorial-style prologue which details the OZ network, a high-traffic online environment similar to the Internet. Everyone, from the simple gamer to major companies to government institutions use the network as part of their daily lives, and suffice to say life wouldn’t be accessible without it. As the POV shifts from that of OZ to the human reality, we are introduced to Kenji Koiso, a high school student at Kuonji who works alongside his friend Takashi as a part-time moderator within the network. The day turns extraordinary when a classmate, Natsuki invites Kenji to her grandmother’s estate in Ueda under the pretense of celebrating her 90th birthday, where she also learns about, and becomes amazed with the boy’s mathematical prowess – such as being able to calculate the exact day of the week of a past date. Upon arriving at the estate, tired and burdened by the long journey and carrying Natsuki’s luggage, they finally meet with the grandmother, Sakae, the matriarch of the Jinnouchi clan, who is still in good health and shape.
Little did Kenji know, however, that he would be in the biggest surprise of his life, when Natsuki psyops him and introduces him as her fiancé, much to his shock and her grandmother’s skepticism. He tries to weasel his way out of it, but is egged to play the role so as to help her fulfill a promise she made to her grandmother. While staying over, he is introduced to the rest of her large family, which consists of expectant mothers, police officers, shipping clerks, firefighters, and many other people from all walks of life – especially Wabisuke, who is hated by everyone except Natsuki for running away to America 10 years ago with the family fortune, leaving the place after playing a game of Koi-Koi with said person. Later that night, Kenji receives a mysterious text message containing a string of numbers – realizing it as a hidden message, he successfully decrypts it and texts the response, only to receive a rather threatening reply with a jack-in-the-box back.
The following day, he and the rest of the Jinnouchis wake up to news that the OZ network had apparently been hacked, all thanks to Kenji’s inadvertent act of solving the text from the previous night, which happened to be a security code for the underlying system. This leads to massive traffic problems, water pipeline damages, and financial disruptions; not only that, but Kenji’s account also gets hacked and transformed into a devilish version of itself that caused all the problems, thereby falsely tracing back to him as the culprit. Anxious to reverse the damage, he allies with Kazuma, an introverted boy with an online persona as a popular rabbit-themed fighter, to diagnose the issue but fails. As the whole family comes to realize Natsuki’s deception, and Kenji’s true identity not as her fiancé, he is taken away by Shota, the policeman member of the family, to be arrested only to be diverted back due to the traffic congestion. At dinner, Wabisuke returns to reveal his role in creating an AI system, known as Love Machine, which is directly responsible for causing the problems beforehand, and is once again driven away from the home by an angry Sakae.
As dinner subsides, she invites Kenji for one game of Koi-Koi and gives her approval to his and Natsuki’s apparent romance in spite of the earlier ruse. This turns out to be her last conversation with him, as the following morning she is discovered by the family to have died peacefully in her sleep; they mourn the loss and begin to make preparations for her funeral. Learning that it was because of Love Machine’s interference that led to this, Kenji spurs on the whole family to defeat the technological menace once and for all, and avenge her death. By this point, the Love Machine has already stolen millions of accounts, and has raised itself to god-like levels; the odds are stacked against them. Thanks to Kazuma’s gaming skills, Kenji’s leadership and the Jinnouchi’s well-planned cornering strategy, they manage to successfully lock Love Machine in a fortress-style enclave, but this plan is thwarted when the ice blocks used to maintain the supercomputer they were using for that purpose, causing it to overheat; in turn, the entity breaks free, incapacitates Kazuma’s avatar, and triggers a two-hour countdown for a satellite’s collision with a nearby nuclear power plant, thus spelling imminent disaster. Distraught, they become encouraged when Sakae’s will is read, one which encourages them to not panic during times of crisis, and above all, reconcile with Wabisuke.
Not long after, Wabisuke returns home, having experienced a change of heart by Natsuki’s plea to help defeat the Love Machine and the news of Sakae’s recent death. After lunch, the time then comes for Natsuki to engage the Love Machine in a game of Koi-Koi, using the captured accounts as an item of wager. Initially successful, Natsuki becomes distracted by the pressure of time, and nearly loses all her progress of rescuing 300,000+ accounts. However, in a critical game-changing moment, 150,000,000+ other users come to her aid, and with them she defeats the Love Machine, restoring all but two of the stolen accounts; Kenji’s original and that belonging to the satellite. Kazuma’s quick fingers and Kenji’s rapid decryption skills allow them to defeat the Love Machine for good, and divert the satellite’s path to the estate’s backyard, averting a nuclear crisis in the process. With the battle won, Natsuki and Kenji share a kiss, the family commemorates Sakae’s birthday and they all lived happily ever after.
WHAT I LIKED
- The movie’s plot is quite consistent and doesn’t leave room for much plot holes to fiddle with. It cleverly explains Natsuki’s true motives for being with her grandmother, Wabisuke’s shady origins, and especially the nature of the Love Machine. It doesn’t hesitate to take any side-roads or shortcuts to accomplish its storytelling frame, choosing to let it flow naturally and reach its positive conclusion, and every action in the story is framed in such a way that it has a purpose in advancing the story rather than cluttering it – for example, the incorporation of Koi-Koi, a Japanese card game, as a story device which later becomes a crucial item to manifest in Natsuki’s bout against the Love Machine.
- I found it swell that the film intertwined the battle between the Jinnouchis and the Love Machine, and paralleled it with the baseball game involving their grandson Ryouhei; anytime they slip and fall, Ryouhei’s team also begins to struggle – as seen in several instances where he’s shown sweating with fear. I was taken back to one of my favorite action films, Sudden Death starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, who has to search for bombs amidst the action of a Stanley Cup Final Game 7, and where every move he makes has impact on its outcome.
- The scenes taking place in the world of OZ, such as those of the battles featuring Kazuma’s online persona, the aptly-named “King Kazuma”, were wonderfully crafted and added a brilliant layer to the virtual and reality worlds that make up this film.
WHAT I DISLIKED
- The only thing I can see in the film that’s a flaw was the cluttered infrastructure of the OZ network, which in the film controls everything from shopping, traffic, government, business, gaming, etc. However, the thing that stood out to me as weird was how you needed an avatar for every single action you take in the world. I mean, I can understand having to create a profile to access the network, but needing to control an online version of your character to buy stuff or do your job seems more goofy and video-game like for something that’s supposed to be a worldwide online system. I find it hard to believe that everyone in the world actually invested time to making this a necessary part of their lives.
- Going back to the Koi-Koi game part, they don’t explain how to play it – and that’s a problem. If you’re going to make it a big part of the finale at least try to put some effort in explaining how the game works so that people from outside Japan, like myself, who have never played this game before, can understand what’s going down.
Kenji, the lead hero of Summer Wars, is as typical as your nerdy protagonist can be; shy, socially awkward, and very intelligent – where he fails at being socially available with others he makes up with his speedy ability to churn out complex cyber-security hashes and translating them to English sentences with a complexion that reminds me of Satou Kazuma from Konosuba – in fact, their looks and facial expressions pan out similarly too. He goes from an unwilling third wheel to a formidable leader, rallying an entire household to knock down a rogue AI system, which is quite impressive for character development in this two-hour long flick. His best friend, Takashi, also makes a few minor appearances assisting him in the film’s later parts.
Natsuki acts as the female lead, and unfortunately there’s not much in store for her until her hanafuda-playing skills make an appearance in the final battle against the Love Machine, and her slippage as Kenji’s love interest is anything but well-deserved. Her personality was kind of cute and sympathetic, but that’s pretty much all there is to her – just a shallow vessel which pans out as the main story-driver rather than an actual likeable character. The rest of her family has various personalities ranging from the mentally collected Kazuma (no, not that Kazuma), a computer gaming geek who’s well known as a street fighter in-game to the stir-crazy Shota. But the ones worthy of mention are Sakae, the 90-year-old grandmother and head of the household, and Wabisuke, the distant uncle and black sheep of the family, who play an integral role (albeit implicitly for the former) in carrying out the film’s tense conclusion; their characters were handled well with a balanced treatment and a deep-lined backstory to them.
Overall, they’re not a bad bunch of characters in the sense that they’re irredeemably past the point of likability; just missing a few touches here and there. But whatever flaws they have in terms of personality or treatment are made up for by having them be involved with all the parts that lead to the story’s start, middle, and end.
As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing special in particular about the movie’s OST. Composed by Akihiko Matsumoto and Randy Miller, at its best, it matches the scenery of the Japanese countryside where the Jinnouchis live; however, those within the battle scenes taking place in the OZ network leave much to be desired in terms of volume and atmosphere. That’s pretty much the best way to describe the music; quiet, unassuming, and missing a lot to it. Its theme song, Bokura No Natsu No Yume by Yamashita Tatsurou, has the feel of a journey home, and it’s reflected as the credits roll with various stills from the film being displayed like a vacation album. For a film with a premise based on fighting a computer program gone awry, the sound doesn’t try to amplify any theme of that sort.
Favorite moment: The scene with the whole family bonding to fight the Love Machine, grabbing all utensils they can find ranging from supercomputer servers to giant ships is a charming, somewhat hilarious feature to add in the film, which finally fleshes out the otherwise grandiose set of cast members.
Favorite character: Although he is very threatening at first and has a bit of a dark past to stain his appearance, I found Wabisuke to be the most interesting character of them all. Bonus points too for his apparent change of heart near the end of the film when he joins Kenji and the rest of his family in shelling away the threat Love Machine posited to the world.
Favorite quote: In the middle of the film, while Love Machine wreaked havoc across Japan, we see a scene where Sakae contacts everyone in her contacts list – from old high school friends to former students, rallying them to do everything in their power to minimize the impact of the battle. One of the things she says has always stuck with me well as someone who enjoys talking to others not via virtual devices, but in-person. Although I wish there was more context to what transpired her to say such a quote, itself alone it’s pretty endearing:
What’s important is that we keep in touch with each other using the ways we were used to before. You of all people should know that the best!Sakae encourages her connections to keep their spirits high
BONUS STAGE: SUMMER WARS .vs. BOKURA NO WAR GAME
It’s hard not to avoid the fact that this film and Hosoda’s previous work, Digimon Adventure: Bokura No War Game, share certain similarities with each other. Similar plotlines aside:
- The opening sequence of Summer Wars which showed Kenji and Natsuki travelling across the country to Ueda paralleled the latter film, where Wada Koji’s famous song Butterfly plays in the background of the opening credits while showcasing the Digidestined’s various summer activities.
- Kenji’s shocked reaction after he receives a phone call from his friend Takashi that his account was hacked mimics Taichi’s face after he gets unwittingly snubbed by Yamato/TK’s grandma hanging up on him accidentally. There’s plenty more of those expressions where that came from.
- The world of OZ and the Internet as displayed in Bokura No War Game are awfully similar to each other. Both take place in a white-background layer, contain similar art styles and the details of their inner operations are left as a mystery to the user. The only thing that OZ is missing is the transition scene where the characters enter the network, which in the latter is a large psychedelic tube resembling an inter-speed highway.
- Sakae’s grand estate in Ueda looks awfully similar to Yamato/TK’s grandmother’s house that they were staying over at, which was also located in an unspecified countryside.
- With regards to the part where Kenji and the rest of the Jinnouchis stumble upon the countdown to nuclear disaster, I can’t help but notice plenty of similarities to that of when Taichi and Koushiro encountered a similar instance; as seen through Kenji and Taichi’s reactions, the way the nuclear disaster news was announced by Riichi and Koushiro, and all the way down to the dialogue structure.
Some would even say that Summer Wars was the perfected form of Bokura No War Game on which it was based; I would agree but also add that it’s leagues ahead of the former in terms of complexity, entertainment, and originality.
In conclusion, Summer Wars is a pretty entertaining flick to watch, not just for those who dwell with technology, but basically for anyone that likes a good story with both intense and dramatic action. It’s the closest movie that I’ve ever come across with a Die Hard like situation, minus the human terrorist organizations and ransoms; and for that it gets credit from me. Beyond that, the story is handled well, the family drama / worldwide crisis concepts it includes are a nice touch, and it has interesting characters and some nice visual escapades to enhance the theatrics. I don’t know why this film isn’t talked about as much by anime fans as they do with other flicks, but this is one of those films that definitely rocks the boat well.