Title: Sumer Wars

Japanese title: サマーウォ— ズ

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Writer: Mamoru Hosoda and Satoko Okudera

Release: 2009

Runtime: 109 minutes

A strange combination

The title of this animated film may give you certain impressions of what this 109 minute showcase entails; all of them are likely to be wrong. Before we get too ahead of ourselves however, let’s not mistake confusion for disappointment. 

Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars is a compelling and heartwarming story about a high school student, Kenji, who gets roped into becoming the fake boyfriend of Natsuki, the popular girl at school, for a family occasion. If this wasn’t enough he also gets embroiled in a potential world-ending threat by a rogue AI and must use his renowned mathematical skills to help save the world. 

These seemingly unrelated events may come across as a bit of an eclectic mix, (well yes, they are) yet their juxtaposing nature forms an integral part of Summer Wars and helps create a film that is full of delight and innocent fun. It wasn’t at all the film I was expecting it to be, but sometimes — like here — that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Family focus

The initial shots of Summer Wars showcase a simulated world known as ‘Oz’. This is a virtual space that has come to play a part in much of the world’s affairs, becoming not just a place of entertainment, but also a hub of interactivity on all levels. 

The idea is very reminiscent of Steven Spielbergs ‘Ready Player One’ of which came later in 2018, sparking the possibility that Summer Wars had some influence in its concept. Yet here, this virtual world doesn’t nearly have the same amount of focus despite its initial representation, and only really comes into play much later into the film. 

What may also be surprising is that, while this ‘Oz’ is certainly a plot driver, It is the story of Kenji and Natsuki in the real world that is given the most attention. 

You might also be interested in:

Battle Royale film review: 20 year perspective

Posing as Natsuki’s fiancee, Kenji is introduced to the large and proud Jinnouchi family who have gathered for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. She is immediately established as the matriarchal anchor that connects the family and is a major force in the film going forward.

Now, these two major components do eventually begin to merge into one narrative, however, it is the interactions, the character dynamics, and the family response that is given preference with on-screen time – even as drastic events begin to unfold — all of which have been lovingly crafted with personality and adoring charm. 

This brings me to the first major conclusion: this is not an action oriented film (although it does have its moments). It has intentionally brought together the two often diametrically opposed values of family and tradition, with modernisation and digital outlets, and is weighing up the importance of each; and in Summer Wars, the former is winning out. 

Unity and competition

Kenji is initially welcomed into the family during a meal at the Jinnouchi household, something that becomes a common theme within the film. Not much happens without a family gathering occuring, and the presence of a family meal is a sure fire way of highlighting an important moment.

SW dinner
Kenji being introduced to the family

In essence, a sense of unity seems to be what Summer Wars is trying to promote, especially if we contrast this with what unfolds in the world of Oz.

It becomes apparent that a rogue AI has begun taking over this virtual world. Due to the interconnectivity that now exists between Oz and the hundreds of millions of users that have incorporated their lives into it; by extension, the AI has control over many digital aspects of the real world. 

And what is the major consequence of these events? The loss of communication. 

If you consider what could happen because of such an event, the outcomes would be catastrophic, yet on this theme of unity and division; shoehorned would be too strong of a word, however, it’s certainly noticeably apparent. This has the result of making the film feel a little constricted in its direction and the stakes don’t feel as high as they could be. 

However, as the plot begins to ramp up, these two forces get locked into what can only be described as a competition exposing and playing on the weaknesses of each other. It’s this competition which creates some real endearing moments as each family member begins helping out in the small ways that they can. 

Eternal beauty

There is a noticeably familiar scene early on in Summer Wars that viewers of a certain Studio Ghibli film will instantly recognise. It involves a side-on shot inside a train carriage where the main characters sit side by side, and we see the landscape through the window behind fly by. I am of course talking about the famous train shot of Spirited Away

characters riding a train
A very familiar looking scene on a train

The clip in Summer Wars is almost an exact replica and cannot possibly be a coincidence. But the thing is, it doesn’t feel out of place. It’s almost like Mamoru Hosoda is confidently saying “hey, our work is just as good”, and after watching Summer Wars I feel inclined to agree with him. 

Much of the film’s artwork and scenery is absolutely gorgeous, to the point that taking a screenshot and getting it framed could be a legitimately viable option. The film’s understanding and use of light is key in helping Summer Wars achieve its marvellously – at times – photo realistic backdrops. And again, in a display of confidence, there are moments when the only thing displayed on-screen are these artistic scapes for the viewers to enjoy.

Where things start to become debatable is how Summer Wars’ aesthetic is pretty constant throughout. By that I mean the way there is little to no variation other than bright, cheerful and inherent optimism. It remains the case even during periods of struggle and sorrow. 

As alluded to earlier, it’s leaning very much towards being a family-oriented spectacle, both on-screen and as an audience perspective, which this trait reinforces. However, the lack of peaks and troughs and range of corresponding visuals may make Summer Wars start to feel a little stale by the end. 

SW mountains
An example of some of the stunning visuals

Further thoughts and impressions

You may have noticed a distinct lack of information regarding the world of Oz itself. To be completely blunt with you, it’s a part of the film that interested me the least; in fact, I looked forward more to the ending of each sequence so that we could return to the glossy finish of the real world and the interesting family dynamics it contained. 

It doesn’t really help that much of Oz’s interior space is white — perhaps to signify the digital world — however it just came across as bland and uninspired. In all honesty, it left me not caring about this entire half of the film. If you judge Summer Wars by the synopsis or from watching the trailer, you really are only getting that half the story when there’s a lot more to witness. 

Despite the somewhat linear nature; despite the somewhat lacklustre virtual world, it’s a film I quite enjoyed. The on-the-rails approach meant it was easy viewing, and the exquisite art style and fluid animations ultimately saves the film — which should speak volumes seeing there are some questionable components present. 

It’s a film that is absolutely ideal for a family viewing, as it is the characters as well as the sense of family drama and dynamics that will keep you engaged to the end.

Nathan