Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Writer: Satoko Okudera
Composer: Akihiko Matsumoto
Starring: Michael Sinterniklaas, Brina Palencia, Maxey Whitehead, Pam Dougherty, J. Michael Tatum, Todd Haberkorn
Distributor: Funimation, Warner Bros. (USA)
Genre: sci-fi, drama, adventure, comedy
Following the reception of his critically-acclaimed animated film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Japanese film director, Mamoru Hosoda began work on a new project—one that promised viewers an imaginative and heartfelt experience, told through streamlined, colorful animation.
After its successful theatrical run to Japanese audiences, Summer Wars made its way to America through Toonami where it was watched by some 1.36 million households. The same year, Summer Wars was officially released to English-speaking audiences through Funimation on Blu-ray and DVD.
Crafted by a director that critics are comparing to Hayao Miyazaki, does Summer Wars live up to its enormous hype? Or is this digitized adventure packed with game-ending glitches?
The future has taken social networking to the next level—a digitized metropolis known as OZ. Protected by the most powerful encryption code known to man, OZ is a safe haven for everyone—from the government, to businesses and hobbyists, to individual users. The virtual network does everything previously handled by humans—from protecting sensitive information, to regulating hospital patients and school schedules; from buying and selling property and goods, to planning vacations and delivering breaking news. Real-time, automatic translators bridge the language barrier between users of different nationalities, and many users participate in OZ for the variety of competitive, videogame-based sports available therein. In more ways than one, OZ is a brimming Utopia for users and their customized avatars—providing a safe, secure way to connect to others and maintain the world’s systems.
Enter Kenji Koiso, a teenaged protégé who can calculate anything mathematical… but can’t even begin to decipher the way into a girl’s heart. In the midst of his day job as a maintenance checker for OZ, Kenji is approached by his classmate, Natsuki Shinohara, and invited to attend her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party.
But when Natsuki unexpectedly introduces Kenji as her fiancé, the mathematical genius knows he’s in far over his head. Natuski claims it’s for the sake of her great-grandmother who is growing old, and Kenji reluctantly agrees to play the part.
As the Jinnouchi family gathers from all across Japan for the celebration, tragedy strikes. A mysterious equation appears on digital devices across the world, and Kenji, believing it to be yet another mathematical challenge from OZ, spends an entire night cracking the code. The next morning, his face is broadcasted across television screens throughout Japan as the man responsible for hacking into OZ and crashing the system.
With the world thrown into chaos, Kenji must do more than merely prove his innocence. OZ must be repaired, and with his ingenious knack for equations, he may be the only one capable of destroying the malicious program that has infiltrated the virtual network… and being there for Natsuki when she needs him the most.
An ominous, world-wide clock begins counting down to zero. The race is on. And family is on the line.
Summer Wars advocates the importance of family. The Jinnouchi clan consists of over twenty-eight on-screen members, each with their own values, beliefs, and personalities. More often than not, these personalities clash, arguments are had, and heated words are exchanged. Despite their spats, though, the Jinnouchi family shows deep love for each other—sharing meals together, helping each other, and encouraging others when tragedy strikes. When OZ is hacked, the family bands together, combining their unique talents to combat the threat and fearlessly staying behind to try and stop it, even though it means risking their lives. Kenji is moved by the Jinnouchi’s togetherness, commenting that his parents are always away and that being able to eat with the clan “like a real family” means so much to him.
Great-grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi empowers her family and others through genuine encouragement and praise. She lives by the mantra that anyone can do anything so long as they put their minds to it, and that everyone can make an enormous difference, regardless of their personal circumstances.
On the subject of family, Sakae says, “Never turn your back on family, even when they hurt you. And if you remember nothing else, remember to find time to eat together as a family, even when times are rough—especially when times are rough. There’s no lack of painful things in this world, but hunger and loneliness must surely be two of the worst.”
Forgiveness and acceptance also have important roles to play in this film. Sakae’s husband cheated on her, having an illegitimate son with another woman. Despite her husband’s disloyalty, however, Sakae holds nothing against the son, Wabisuke, and adopts him into the family, telling him that “he would be their child from that day forward.” Even after Wabisuke plays prodigal son and steals the family fortune, only returning for Sakae’s birthday ten years later, Sakae again forgives him, despite her disappointment. There’s a feeling of reconciliation between them by the film’s end.
The Jinnouchi family lives by a series of mantras, such as “People’s lives can’t be replaced” and “Helping people is the best way to spend your time.” There’s an enormous sense of honor in the family’s lineage; they uphold virtues of courage, selflessness, and kindness. “There’s more to valor than only fighting when you think you’ll win or sitting out when you think you’ll lose,” says one member when the odds of beating OZ seem overwhelming.
Kenji is very respectful to the elders of the Jinnouchi family, as well as to Natsuki. Despite their “fiancé act,” he never takes unfair advantage of her. Initially, he doesn’t believe in his ability to take care of Natsuki, as great-grandmother Sakae requests, but he none-the-less agrees to honor her wishes and tries his best. By the end of the film, Kenji gains confidence—staying at Natsuki’s side when she needs him the most.
A Japanese funeral alter is shown. A temple is mentioned. A character beseeches a deceased relative to “watch over” someone. One character is said to have had their “love fortune” told when they were young.
Within the realm of OZ, digital avatars can engage in various competitive sports, including cage matches. A few snippets showcase these battles as characters kick and punch each other with solid, powerful blows that shatter armor and pummel their opposition. One cartoon character emits a stream of liquid blood from his nose when a rival punches him in the face.
Things get a bit less competitively friendly when one of the avatars (the virus program) goes on a rampage, devouring other users’ avatars and attacking any avatars who try to stop it. The film’s climax involves a lot of hand-to-hand, fantastical fighting between avatars and the virus program.
Of course, the chaos in OZ affects the real world, leading to bugged communication, spewing sewage systems, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and general frustration and frenzy. The virus goes so far as to send satellites homing in on nuclear factories across the world, leading to some rather tense, threatening moments. A satellite does indeed crash to the earth, sending out a shockwave that rips apart and upturns buildings and nearby structures.
Conflict between family members can sometimes get intense, particularly between Sakae’s illegitimate son, Wabisuke, and the others. The most extreme scenes involve yelling, seizing characters by their clothing, breaking drinking glasses, upturning furniture (and sending perfectly good food flying in the process), and even lashing out at a family member with a nearby oriental spear.
For all its violent moments, though, Summer Wars steers fairly clear of blood. In a fit of rage, a boy punches an intrusive family member in the face, causing his nose to bleed. Nose bleeds occur during a couple other occasions, with the ending scene climaxing in an exaggerated, nasal fountain (in Japanese animation, nosebleeds are often used to signify that a character is smitten with another and embarrassed about it).
Fourteen uses of d***, six uses of h***, two uses of bast***, and one use each of bullsh*t and a**. “Oh my God!” is exclaimed three times. Other noteworthy words are “suck” (used three times), “jeez” (used three times), and “idiot” (used four times).
As per Japanese custom, Natsuki is shown bathing with some of her relative’s children and helping them wash up. All characters are nude, with Natsuki’s chest being covered only by her arm. One toddler’s nude backside is shown. Later, when Natsuki steps out of the bath, covered only in a towel, she and Kenji run into each other and share an awkward moment.
Kenji is also shown nude when his bath time comes around, with only his groin area covered by a towel and his backside bare. He pauses outside the tub, contemplating that, “Natsuki just soaked in this very water” and proceeds to take a deep whiff of it. Moments after, something startles him and he tumbles to the ground as the towel flies off. Private parts are obscured only by careful leg positioning.
Though Kenji is forced to act like Natsuki’s fiancé, no sexual encounters result. There’s a lot of blushing, reddening, a nosebleed or two (a Japanese visual gag meaning that a character is embarrassed by “sexual arousal”), and an innocent kiss on the cheek, but little more. One of Kenji’s friends encourages him to “get nice and cuddly” with Natsuki since they’re apparently sharing the same room (this is never actually shown, however).
One family member asks Kenji when Natsuki’s due date for the baby is, assuming that Kenji “got her in a family way” because he’s a “college man” so he’s obviously “done it” with her. Another relative tells the unwanted questioner to “Stop being a perv.”
Within OZ, a female, anthropomorphic character transforms, outgrowing her clothes. For a few seconds she is shown nude (from the side), with her backside bare and her breasts barely covered by her hair.
It’s discussed that Wabisuke is his father’s illegitimate son. The virus program’s male avatar is shirtless. A mother is shown breastfeeding a baby. Wabisuke tells an intrusive niece that he’s looking at “ladies with big boobs” on his mobile device (he isn’t really). It’s implied that Natsuki has had a long-time crush on her uncle.
Sake and beer are both mentioned. Alcoholic beverages are a common sight at the dinner table and many of the family members drink from them. One is shown a bit tipsy, as he begins asking intrusive questions to Kenji.
A few scenes show characters casually smoking cigarettes.
Other Negative Content
Natsuki lies about Kenji being her fiancé, and, despite his qualms about doing so, Kenji agrees to act the part. Natsuki claims that it’s for the good of her grandmother.
Several heavy, emotional moments may be upsetting to younger viewers. Summer Wars does not shy away from realism, and the death of a significant character is an especially emotional moment; onlookers try to revive said character with CPR, while others weep and yell desperately, but it’s clearly too late.
Interweaving two separate stories is no easy task, particularly when the topics are so diverse. Summer Wars combines one plot about coming-of-age, celebrating a great-grandmother’s life, learning to understand each other, and joining together as family; with a seemingly unrelated storyline about virtual avatars, network-wide cyber warfare, and impending nuclear doom.
Admittedly, it’s a bit jarring at the onset. As I watched colorful avatars bounce through the film’s beginning, showcasing a digital world of fun and fancy (all the while wearing naïve grins plastered on their pixelated faces), I had to wonder exactly what this pleasantly cheesy opening had to do with a film advocating the importance of family. Following its lengthy, anesthetic narrative, detailing the workings of OZ, Summer Wars brings viewers back to the real world for a solid twenty minutes, leaving the virtual reality completely out-of-the-picture (perhaps even forgotten) by some members of its audience.
For this reason, Summer Wars starts out with semi-flimsy filmography. Yes, the animation is captivating. Yes, the characters are quirky. Yes, the humor hits home with nearly every attempt. But the initial segregation of these separate worlds and plots feels a tad unsettling, which throws viewers off at the onset and detracts (at least partially) from the enjoyment of the next twenty minutes. It isn’t until OZ is reinstated into the story and given some genuine, plot-based reason for existing within the narrative that the film really begins to gain ground.
To ensure that these two worlds mesh significantly, the director is wise enough to create strong, personal incentives for the real-world characters to become involved with the goings-on within OZ. Kenji accepts responsibility for unleashing the virus, seeing it as his personal obligation to destroy it. Ironically, several members of the Jinnouchi clan also hold significant ties to OZ (one of whom controls the most powerful avatar in the game, and another who is responsible for writing the virus program), and when the failings of OZ result in a system crash and family death, the Jinnouchi are given plenty of reason to get personally involved. These gradual revelations do much to build intrigue in the film towards a satisfying, if not predictable, conclusion.
Perhaps Summer Wars’ biggest flaw is its predictability and reliance on irony. The plot does hold a few surprises, but they’re often so far-fetched or easy to see coming that they lose most of their shock value. The truth about the virus program and why it was unleashed on OZ unravels through, at best, careless storytelling; some have gone so far as to dub it a “cop-out” on the director’s part, and I’m inclined to agree. The ironic fact that so many of the characters are unbelievably talented is another hard pill to swallow, particularly when it’s revealed that one of them created Love Machine (the virus program) without any real foreshadowing of the fact.
With over twenty-eight on-screen players, two separate worlds, two central plots, and several sub-plots, Summer Wars is a complicated fabric of interwoven strands. Unfortunately, many of those strands result in frayed loose ends, as there’s bits of plot scattered all over the narrative and simply too many characters to develop significantly within a two-hour timeframe. While the central cast does get more screen-time than the rest, only two or three of them receive any character development whatsoever, and it feels predictable and minimal at best.
That being said, the characters resonate with reality. With twenty-eight family members, some very noticeable personalities come into play, and viewers are likely to draw parallels between the fictional family members and some of their own. It’s truly difficult not to feel a semblance of hominess while observing the Jinnouchi family—the rowdy banter and storytelling over the dinner table, the mischievous antics of the family children, the old family traditions of playing hanafuda… These all culminate into a nostalgic appeal that brings a bit of magic to the story.
Kenji is an especially charming lead. Much like his contemporary, Hiccup (of How to Train Your Dragon fame), Kenji is a bumbling misfit with astonishing technical intelligence but zero social skills. Watching him mesh into the Jinnouchi family is an uncomfortable process for both Kenji and the viewer, making him an overall easy character to connect with early on in the film.
Anime buffs (and animation buffs, too) will find plenty of colorful eye candy throughout the film. OZ, in particular, seems to be a showcase of Hosoda’s digital, animated splendor, disguised as a pretty plot-point. Digital animation blends seamlessly with traditional 2D artwork to bring the exciting, computerized world of OZ to life. Hand-to-hand combat, pulse-pounding chases, and breath-taking showdowns against titanic foes, all play a significant role in the world of OZ with few breaks for a breather. By contrast, the “real world” is animated with acute attention to detail and realism. Characters move and tumble with a fallible believability that’s oddly refreshing, and the animators go a long way to keep these motions proportionally and physically accurate. At times, it’s difficult to say whether the characters are propelled by hand-drawn animation or motion-capture animation, though it’s most certainly the former disguised as the latter.
Much like Pixar, Summer Wars is able to capture little moments of life in blunt, natural ways: a character hears the dog barking long before they wake up; a mother apologizes and ducks out of a room filled with silent, grieving people in order to tend to her crying baby; and kids play handheld videogames inches away from their faces as they tumble around in the back of a bumping car. These little slices of reality bring genuine humanity to the film and go a long way to generate relatable humor, emotions, and personalities.
The voice acting is a blend of anime’s traditional vocal rhythm and punctuation, coupled with a more Disney-esque, naturalistic sound. The result is a rather satisfying mix of Eastern and Western speech patterns that feels loyal to both Japanese and American animation. There are points where the actors strain a bit in order to compensate for an emotion. Veterans of anime will feel at home with these vocal deliveries; however, newcomers unfamiliar with customary, anime speaking patterns may find the same deliveries slightly off-putting.
The music uses precise timing and volume to add levity and anticipation to the film’s most comedic and epic moments. No, not every soundtrack in the score is memorable, and instrumentals fade modestly into the background more often than not. That being said, Summer Wars features a thrilling climax that stirs the blood as much as the heart, backed with a powerful, choir-led anthem that guides the heroic characters to victory during the final battle.
Like Hayao Miyazaki before him, Mamoru Hosoda is setting out to make a name for himself in the field of Japanese animation. While many will draw parallels between Hosoda’s and Miyazaki’s abilities to create exciting fantasy worlds, tell original stories, and capture day-to-day life in honest, down-to-earth ways, it’s clear that, with Summer Wars, Hosoda has (to quote The Japan Times) “stepped out of Miyazaki’s shadow” with his own brand of storytelling.
Summer Wars is a contemporary tale with an age-old heart. Family, love, honor, and good ol’ fashioned heroism are the pillars that support this vivid, animated feature. This is an anime that makes full use of its genre, captivating the audience with life-like, traditionally-rendered characters and creative, wide-ranging, semi-CG sequences.
Despite its strengths, however, Summer Wars suffers in many areas—most prominently its story-telling, which is pocked with coincidence, plot-imperative irony, hard-to-swallow romance, general predictability (some of which is due to clichés), and undeveloped (or under-developed) characters.
Christians (and parents, too) should be aware that Summer Wars may hold multiple parallels to Studio Ghibli’s work, but it’s not nearly as “kid friendly” as the majority of those films. Profanity is fairly frequent, and coarse discussions and sexual content are more prevalent. That being said, Summer Wars does pack in a lot of wholesome messages about the importance of family, love, encouragement, kindness, and forgiveness in ways that may cause more emotionally invested viewers to tear up.
Plenty of viewing alternatives exist through Studio Ghibli, given that viewers find Summer Wars’ negatives to outweigh its positives. Providing that you take little (or no) issue with the film’s content, however, Summer Wars is a poignant, vibrant, action-packed flick to add to your anime viewing list.
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+ Strong, vibrant animation + Character-centered, engrossing conflict + Intense, layered climax + Tangible realism, nostalgia, and relatability + Some powerful musical scores + Charming protagonist + Advocates the importance of family, love, forgiveness, kindness, and heroism
- Predictable, ironic plotting - Underdeveloped cast of characters - Improbable romance and plot points - Some grating SFX - Some integral, Japanese text not translated - Frequent profanity, some coarse topics, sexual content, and blood
The Bottom Line
Summer Wars is a contemporary tale with an age-old heart. Though it does suffer from (most prominently) story-telling issues, this is an anime that makes full use of the genre, captivating the audience with life-like, traditionally-rendered characters and creative, wide-ranging, semi-CG sequences. Christians (and parents, too) should be aware that Summer Wars may hold multiple parallels to Studio Ghibli’s work, but it’s not nearly as “kid friendly” as the majority of those films.