Summer’s Come Early – Summer Wars Review
Title: Summer Wars
Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy, Romance
You may recognise the name “Mamoru Hosada“, and if not perhaps you should memorize it. Hosada, the director of the bitter-sweet “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time“, has left my mouth watering in anticipation of his latest project. Summer Wars was released in August 2009 in Japan, and has been gathering publicity at a steady pace. North American license holder FUNimation even allowed it to have a limited theatrical release in December, making Summer Wars eligible for an Academy Award. Sadly, it failed to be selected in the Best Animated Feature category, after a shortage of eligible films led to only 3 nominations being made.
It’s only natural, as an avid shipper of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, that I would compare the two works, and as such, my initial reaction to Summer Wars was one of slight disappointment. I had been building myself up to expect something poignant, yet sweet, an emotional yet heart warming engaging film about developing relationships between a boy and a girl, but what I got was something a lot different.
Unlike it’s predecessor (As Hosada mentions in an interview featured on the DVD and Blu-ray), Summer Wars is not a film made to depict the whimsical, free spirited nature of a young girl’s heart, but rather an insight into the complexity of relationships between a closely knit community, and may also be considered to emphasise the importance of family, even in modern society.
Summer Wars begins by introducing us to the land of OZ, a virtual world, accessible through telephone, TV and computer. OZ boasts features for business, shopping, and all manner of related and unrelated THINGS worldwide, including instant translation of messages. It is here that we meet Kenji Koisi. A talented mathematician, Kenji is introduced brooding about a mistake in solving a maths problem, leading him to finish runner up in his quest to represent Japan in the “Math Olympics”. Kenji is accompanied by friend, and fellow geek Takashi Sakuma, the pair are working part time jobs as maintenance/moderators of the popular online community.
It isn’t long before their peace is disturbed by the beautiful and popular Natsuki Shinohara, offering the prospect of a summer job, which consists of accompanying her to celebrate her Great-Grandmother’s 90th birthday at the family residence. After a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Kenji is chosen to accompany Natsuki to Ueda.
Shortly after arriving, Kenji is introduced to the head of the Jinnouchi family (Natsuki’s Great-Grandmother), the stern and strong Saki Jinnouchi. Without hesitation, Natsuki introduces Kenji as her fiance, carving out an elaborate back story of a prestigious family and education, with which Kenji is forced to play along with.
That night, a mysterious message is sent out to all members of OZ, containing a mathematical code. Utilising his talents, Kenji sets about solving the code, and sends his solution in response before settling down to sleep. The next day, the news is rife with stories of catastrophe in the land of OZ. The security code that protects the community has been cracked, chaos has ensued, and Kenji has been framed as the perpetrator. As the hacker uses their control to cause havoc across the world, the family is forced to group together to protect themselves and prevent national disaster.
Interestingly enough, the driving force behind the plot of Summer Wars is neither of the main characters, but rather from more minor characters, particularly Great-Grandmother Saki.
Wise, old-fashioned Saki Jinnouchi commands respect from the entire Jinnouchi clan with her implacable will, and inexplicable way with words. It’s her influence that gathers the family together, and her sentiments that unite them in “cleaning up the mess”. Whilst she may not be directly involved in the action, her presence is felt throughout, and it is perhaps apt that the final face-off utilises “Hanafuda”, a card game which, thanks to her, was adopted as the Jinnouchi family game, and featured heavily throughout.
The story flows with a yo-yoing pace, as Kenji, Sakuma, and the Jinnouchi clan devise new plans to liberate OZ from the rampant hacker, each time garnering more support and strengthening the family bond. The most stirring development of this grudge match being the emotional growth of Natsuki’s young cousin, Kazuma Ikezawa. Closed off, and stoic in the beginning, Kazuma rarely leaves his room, and it is revealed that he was the victim of bullying at school. His Grandfather used OZ to teach Kazuma Shaolin Kung Fu and self defence, lessons that aided his avatar “King Kazma”‘s fame as an OZ martial arts champion, and punctuates his desire to protect it. Kazuma is the main source of confrontation with the rogue hacker, as his determination to win manifests into a determination to protect his family and unborn little sister.
The core of the Jinnouchi family consists of nearly 30 members, and with story focussing on such a large range of characters, it is natural that some characters’ roles are fairly passive to the overall story, their importance in the family feeling secondary to those privileged enough to be allowed development. However, even Ryohei Jinnouchi, who appears on as the star pitcher in Ueda High’s baseball team during the TV coverage of a school baseball tournament, has some opportunity to add to the atmosphere, his success on the pitcher’s mound sharing an eerie juxtaposition with the family’s battle to save OZ.
In fact it is Hosada‘s decision to focus the story on such a wide range of characters that is the root Summer War‘s charm. Boasting a range of skills, experience, contacts and quirks, there is plenty of room for confrontation and cooperation within the, often disjointed, family group, and when the ending credits role, it is their unification that leaves a heart-warming affection lingering in your chest.
For the shallower watchers, the animation is slick, eye-catching and perfectly toned. The movement of characters looks comfortable and natural (an occasional weakness of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), an essential requirement for the battle scenes throughout.
I couldn’t give higher praise to the dubbing of Summer Wars, which means a lot given my over critical views on dubs in general (the only one I tend to actively support is the Pokemon dub. ‘nough said). It is well edited, emotive and perfectly cast, and possibly the only dub I can say has improved my enjoyment of the story.
Having watched through the film several times, I have managed to pick up the odd pet peeve, such as: “How is it that an ‘impossible’ to crack security code is solved by numerous people?”, “How come most of the world seems to understand the rules of Hanafuda, when I’ve never even heard of it?” and many more in that vein, but when I get past these minor irks, it seems to me that the more I watch Summer Wars, the more I like it.
It certainly didn’t have the initial impact that I’d been expecting, but Hosada has created an inspiring story of fighting for what matters, and sticking together when times are tough. Summer Wars is an essential addition to any otaku or casual fan’s library, and certainly deserving of the Oscar nomination that it sadly missed out on. Thankfully, Summer Wars has raked in a collection of other awards: The Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, The Japan Media Arts Festival’s Animation Division Grand Prize, The Anaheim International Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best Animated Feature and a nomination for the Locarno International Film Festival’s Golden Leopard award. I hope Mamoru Hosada treasures these as much as I treasure my copy of his film.
Extras – Bonus features include: An interview with Mamoru Hosada (director) at the Locarno Film Festival, The “Stage Greeting” given before a preview screening in Tokyo during July 2009, Interviews with cast members, TV Spots, Teaser Trailers, and the full film Trailer.