While working a summer job as an admin of the online universe Oz, Kenji Koiso gets asked by his senior, Natsuki Shinohara, to go with her as a hired hand to an important family function. While dealing with the rowdiness and drama of Natsuki’s extended family, a malevolent presence in Oz begins to cause real world trouble. Suddenly, Kenji and the Shinohara family find themselves at the focal point of Oz’s problems – and it’s up to them to put a stop to the chaos before anyone gets hurt.
Summer Wars is Mamoru Hosoda’s fifth theatrical film, following a pair of Digimon movies, a One Piece movie, and 2006’s excellent Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo. Like Hosoda’s previous work, Summer Wars presents itself as a family-friendly comedy/drama that packs some more serious themes; basically it’s the same kind of movie that Pixar wins Academy Awards for year after year. Alternatively, you could think of it as a Miyazaki movie that has been fully updated to the 20th Century.
The film begins by introducing the viewer to Oz, a virtual world that resembles the lovechild of Second Life and Google’s web services, if such a thing was able to take over everything in the world. By beginning in Oz and transitioning to the real world, the film sets up the idea that the two are interconnected. The opening scenes therefore immediately reflect the way the Oz storyline intertwines with the Shinohara family’s story. Yet there’s something inherently silly about the concept of Oz. It just wouldn’t happen. You would never have a virtual world where people do online shopping in one area, and public servants administrate important utilities in another area. It’s clearly a metaphor for the internet, but the internet doesn’t work even remotely similarly to Oz.
Parallel to the Oz story, Summer Wars shows the drama surrounding the Shinohara family in four subplots. First, the family’s matriarch, Grandma Sakae, is expecting her 90th birthday. The entire family is gathering, and Natsuki brings along Kenji under the false pretenses that he’s going to be a hired hand. In reality she wants him to pose as her fiance in order to impress Sakae. The second subplot involves Wabisuke, who Sakae adopted as a child but disappeared after taking a sizable portion of the family’s fortune. His returns causes a lot of tension as most of the family except for Natsuki has developed a hatred for him. Third, the family draws upon its lineage from the Takeda clan in order to fight against whatever’s controlling Oz. The last subplot revolves around the town’s baseball team trying to win the championship – an obvious metaphor for the events that unfold.
Let’s set a side for the moment the inherent silliness of Oz. It’s one thing the movie never lets up on, so you either get past it or you can’t. Oz is pretty much the entire internet, which is being taken over by a malevolent being known as “Love Machine” which is basically SkyNet. The trouble that Love Machine causes in the real world is a bit of a ham-fisted commentary on how our lives are increasingly virtualized. Hosoda doesn’t really use Summer Wars as a soapbox to condone or condemn this fact. Rather, it’s a catalyst for the more serious familial drama going on in meatspace. That being the case, I find it a bit strange that Oz occupies so much of the film. It fills an action and excitement quota, sure, but Hosoda has proved himself more than capable of handling purely character-driven stories through Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo. So while the action makes Oz more appealing to children, it makes the film becomes somewhat less relevant to adults.
Still, using a virtual world is a good way to hook the target audience into the story, since it’s a concept they’re familiar with. For this reason, Summer Wars is a clever movie. It has a lot to say about duty, about finding strength within yourself, and about the importance of each person’s bond with his family. It uses the trouble in Oz to test the Shinohara family, so that eventually they realize these lessons. Guiding their journey is Grandma Sakae, who embodies the spirit of the ancient samurai that her family is descended from. As such the historical battles of the Takeda clan serve as metaphors to Kenji and the Shinohara family’s struggles in Oz (cooler but no more subtle than the baseball metaphor). Somehow Summer Wars maintains the focus of its plot, never feeling too disjointed to eclectic. The cutting between battles in Oz and what happens in the real world goes a long way to connect the two plots. The other subplots are sprinkled in at appropriate times, so you never lose track of what’s going on. The deliberateness of this structure is perhaps the film’s most impressive asset. It could have lost its story down any number of plot threats, but Hosoda reigns them all in to get across his message and his vision.
The cast of characters is quite large but most of the screen time is shared between Kenji, Natsuki, Sakae, and Kazuma (one of Natsuki’s young cousins, who controls a poweful avatar in Oz). The film is structured so that Kenji is our point of entry into Natsuki’s family. First he spends time getting to know Natsuki and getting introduced to her family. Then he meets Kazuma, and eventually comes to know Sakae better. Rather than being a passive observer, Kenji also plays an important role in galvanizing the family in response to the Oz crisis. I think this represents an active approach in teaching the movie’s big lessons. Since the viewer is meant to inhabit Kenji, it’s like we learn those lessons as Kenji does because they affect him as much as the Shinoharas.
Though Natsuki gets Kenji into the whole mess, she had less of a presence than what I was expecting. Overall she is a stand-in for the entire family. Whereas Sakae is their guide and mentor, Natsuki is a representative for all of them. Yet the film quite ably makes use of each individual family member, and does a good job of showing the relationships between them. Natsuki herself is kind of redundant as a character.
Kazuma rounds out the cast as a prodigal Oz user whose avatar (King Kazuma) is the virtual world’s only hope of defeating Love Machine. I thought he would be the type of character I’d end up disliking, but his struggles, victories, and defeats make him surprisingly human. I feel Summer Wars is as much about him as it is about Kenji, and their two character arcs are remarkably similar. Kazuma only fills a role that Kenji can’t, in that he is able to actually combat Love Machine. The risk he puts himself in and the way he steps into the hero’s role remind me of the way Kenji integrates into the Shinohara family.
Ultimately, Summer Wars is bigger than any of its characters, and is more about the values that keep them going. I didn’t find anyone to be particularly deep or amazing, but the Shinohara family as a whole merges into a meta-character that is rather fascinating. Each member is an ordinary person, but all their diverse talents and connections combine into a formidable force embodying one of the central themes of the movie.
Mamoru Hosoda teams with Madhouse and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto to bring some solid visuals to the movie. Its party piece is Oz, which is rendered as a very alien world containing a few little metaphors to real life. In this respect, it is sort of like the internet. Watching the CGI settings and battles in Oz was a treat. The rest of the film’s overall look is reminiscent of TokiKake, making use of large swathes of sky and grass and a lot of white. In conjunction with Sadamoto’s character designs, I see Hosoda using a visual language, a signature of the sort that Miyazaki uses for his movies. When you see a Miyazaki movie, you just know it’s him. Likewise, when you see Summer Wars, you just know it’s Mamoru Hosoda.
I checked up on the voice cast and they seem relatively inexperienced. Most films of this scale use experienced voice actors, but Hosoda’s casting avoids using recognizable voices. The result is amateurish, but it makes sense in a way. The actors don’t use any kind of “acting voice” so the dialogue ends up sounding more natural. This is especially true for Kenji, whose lines sound more conversational than dramatic.