Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have jobs as low-level administrators of OZ, a massive online social network used by a billion people around the world, and they’ll be working hard to make sure its myriad services run smoothly. Until, that is, Natsuki — the most popular girl in school — offers him a different job: accompanying her to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration.
Needless to say, the prospect of spending time with the cute Natsuki trumps spending a summer hunched over a keyboard. But Kenji is quickly overwhelmed by Natsuki’s large, boisterous clan, the Jinnouchis, who regale him with stories of their glorious samurai past. He becomes even more flustered when Natsuki introduces him as her fiancé. But the Jinnouchis’ nosiness becomes the least of his concerns when he receives an anonymous text message that includes a math puzzle. Math whiz that he is, Kenji can’t resist solving the puzzle — which just happens to be the key to OZ’s encryption. The next day, Kenji finds himself accused of being a cyber-criminal and Japan — as well as the rest of the world — stands on the brink of chaos as a rogue hacker begins taking over OZ.
With his previous feature, 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda established himself as an animé director to watch. And now, with Summer Wars, Hosoda has largely delivered on the promise of his earlier picture, delivering a film that resists easy categorization and adroitly balances sci-fi geekiness, technology-focused social commentary, and family melodrama.
Some might be tempted to describe Summer Wars as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of technology — e.g., relying on it too much, its alienating aspects — and leave it at that. To do so is to apply too simplistic a reading to the film. Hosoda, working with screenwriter Satoko Okudera, clearly has something to say about technology and its place in our lives, but it’s also clear that he doesn’t simply think it a dehumanizing evil.
The film creates a dizzying display of technology via the world of OZ. Think Facebook taken to the nth degree: a virtual world where people can communicate, socialize, and play games, but also one where corporations do business and even governments and nations handle their affairs. There are aspects of OZ that seem a little farfetched, but much of it feels incredibly plausible, especially given the ways in which Facebook, Twitter, et al. have become increasingly entrenched into our everyday, mundane, offline lives. They’re just not quite as flashy or vibrant as OZ’s virtual world (imagine Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse rendered in Takashi Murakami’s “superflat” aesthetic).
However, Hosoda is no techno-fetishist. As wonderful and exhilarating as OZ may be — and Hosoda certainly doesn’t downplay how cool or useful such a place could be — he’s much more fascinated by, and interested in, that most basic of social networks: the family. Let me put it this way: I consider myself a geek, and Lord knows I spend plenty of time online, but it wasn’t the ideas and concepts of OZ that sold me on Summer Wars. Rather, it was a single throwaway shot of a diagram that Natsuki had drawn for Kenji explaining all of the relations within her massive family. The moment I saw that, Summer Wars rang true for me because my wife has a large (and boisterous) family, and I certainly could’ve used a similar diagram when I first met them.
Much like Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, Summer Wars does a fine job of capturing the chaos of family gatherings, from the loud, raucous greetings to the loud, raucous meals to the loud, raucous — and messy — job of giving baths to the youngsters. Hosoda populates his film with a large (for an animé feature) cast of true characters, beginning with the family’s tenacious, strong-willed matriarch, and gives them all both flaws and moments to shine.
The film does become muddled as it juggles several plotlines ranging from estranged family members to baseball: Kenji, ostensibly the film’s hero, practically fades into the background for awhile as a result. However, this ensemble approach also means the drama rings true when, for example, the family’s black sheep unexpectedly shows up, when death appears at the Jinnouchis’ doorstep, or when the family puts aside their grudges and bickering in order to share a final meal amidst impending catastrophe.
In one especially effective scene, the camera moves across a tableau of the various family members as they cope with sudden tragedy. In just a few brief seconds, we’re given insights into these characters and how they mourn from the way they sit or stand, either in small groups or alone. It’s a lovely scene, and it’s that sort of attention to detail that ultimately makes the film as believable as it is. It also goes a long way towards setting up the film’s multi-part climactic battle, in which Kenji, Natsuki, and the rest of the Jinnouchis join forces to save OZ from the hacker.
And what a climactic battle it is, featuring virtual Matrix-like kung fu battles between an anthropomorphic rabbit and a giant demon, a heavenly card game played with millions of OZ avatars, and Kenji’s “l33t” math skills. It’s the sort of battle where combatants practice kung fu stances before sitting down at the keyboard, where they yell out battle cries whilst texting and entering passwords, where scenes of the characters furiously typing are interspersed with shots of their bloodied avatars getting virtual first aid. And yet, because of Hosoda’s devotion to the movie’s underlying themes of family and community, as well as his indelible eye for detail, Summer Wars never causes you to roll your eyes like so many past movies that ostensibly deal with computers and the Internet have — even if it doesn’t all quite make sense in the end.
Given the rate at which technology changes, we may never see anything quite like OZ, or we may see something even more grandiose. But whatever we end up with, if it ever falls prey to social engineering, rogue hackers, or any other form of online nastiness, then I hope there are folks like the haplessly devoted Kenji, the spirited Natsuki, and the proud Jinnouchi clan looking out for us. If that’s the case, then I think our online future’s going to be just fine.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on May 26, 2011.