Summer Wars (2009)

Those who like Hosoda Mamoru’s Wolf Children should also check out his Summer Wars – here’s my review for Little White Lies

Hosoda Mamoru follows up his successful anime The Girl Who Leapt Through Time with this latest multiple award winner, Summer Wars – although in many ways the fluid connection that it shows between the wired and the real worlds harks back to the preoccupations of Hosoda’s feature debut, Digimon: The Movie.

Koiso Kenji nearly made it onto Japan’s Math Olympics team, except that, as he explains to his friend Sakuma, “Right at the end, I choked.” So when this shy highschooler is hired by popular girl Natsuki to pretend to be her fiancé at a Jinnouchi family gathering to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of their indomitable matriarch Granny, Kenji is quickly embraced by this ancient, honourable clan, who themselves have a long history of fighting losing battles.

When Kenji unwittingly helps a viral hacking programme, designed by Granny’s wayward adopted son Wabisuke, to infiltrate the global online platform known as OZ, an apocalyptic fire sale is unleashed (think Die Hard 4.0, but without Bruce Willis, quips or gunplay), even as an out-of-control asteroid probe begins plummeting towards an unknown target on Earth. Fortunately Kenji’s new family has ‘warrior blood’, a proven track record for rallying in a crisis, and a long-standing tradition of taking on impossible odds.

Unlike other ensemble disaster movies, Summer Wars takes place not in some sprawling metropolis, but in a large, classical home in the hinterlands of Ueda City, Nagano – as well as in the colourfully realised world of OZ. From these unusual perspectives, Hosoda is able to deploy a series of apparent oppositions.

On the one hand, there is the natural beauty of this rural idyll, the warts-and-all reality of the Jinnouchi clan, and the ancient armour and spears that adorn their country home; while on the other hand, there is the artificial utopia of OZ, the idealised cutesiness of online avatars, and all the high-tech accoutrements of the modern age.

Yet Hosoda is far less interested in contrast than in continuity, as he demonstrates how the age-old values (protect the community, never turn your back on family, work together) that have seen the Jinnouchis through sixteen generations of history still hold true in today’s networked society. Although Kenji is the ostensible hero in the making, every character here has their part to play.

Far from resorting to easy, reactionary technophobia, Hosoda shows Japan’s age-old traditions being upheld throughout different generations, with the beautifully realised digital community of OZ proving as much the solution as the problem.

As a mildly dysfunctional clan throws its different talents together to fight off an emerging global threat, Summer Wars pitches itself somewhere between WarGames and The Host. Destruction and even death are never far away, but still the film retains its feel-good vibe, carrying with it the sense that any difficulty can be surmounted within the domesticating framework of a loving family.

There are moments of mawkishness, but there can be forgiven thanks to some astonishing visuals, deftly sketched characters and – that rare thing in both animes and films about computer users – a script that radiates with real human warmth.

Anton Bitel