It’s pretty much summer, so what better time than this for the wonderful movie, Summer Wars (Samā Wōzu)? This was Mamoru Hosoda’s 2009 follow-up to The Girl Who Leapt through Time, and there was definitely no sophomore slump for him. Summer Wars follows a shy teenage math genius as he has an eventful summer – taking a part-time job with his sempai-crush, nearly destroying the world, and then scrambling to save it.
Kenji Koiso is something of a math prodigy who works part-time for OZ – the enormous virtual reality world, which is like a social network on steroids. Resigned to spending most of his summer immersed in this fake world, he gets a shock when his pretty sempai, Natsuki Shinohara, asks him or his friend to help her out. He quickly agrees (sorry, Kenji’s friend), without knowing what he’s agreeing to, and ends up going with her to the family estate for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. As her fiancé. He is torn between being freaked out by her overly large clan (seriously – her family reminded me of a clown car), and ecstatic that he gets to spend so much time with her. Not even the appearance of her “first love” Wabisuke Jinnouchi, who is an illegitimate son of the family, can dampen his ardour (though he is not above a little jealousy). Since the film didn’t really make a big deal out of the potential incest, I decided just to ignore it too – it was hard, but what can you do.
His romantic idyll is threatened after he unknowingly unleashes an invader on OZ, called Love Machine (I guess that sounds pretty sinister), and the world as we know it begins to break down as Love Machine wreaks havoc on everything controlled by OZ – which is to say, everything. Soon it becomes a race against time as Love Machine ups the ante, and Natsuki’s family gets seriously involved, even if that means playing computer games. Even though Natsuki’s cousin Kazuma Ikezawa is a big help, being the famous King Kazma of OZ, in the end it is up to Kenji to save the day. And maybe get the girl.
Even though this was technically a science fiction story, I think that the strange OZ elements were mere wrapping for what was at heart a story about alienation, communication, and the importance of family in the modern age. To be honest, those OZ scenes were really bizarre to me (I’m not that much a fan of video games, you see), but I think this second world remained secondary to the core of the plot. It reminded me a little of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode involving the demon in the computers (wasn’t that a great one?), only on a much larger scale, and with fewer demons and more pop art. I guess when you really think about it, OZ wasn’t so crazy, but I still hope this movie doesn’t prove to be as eerily prophetic as the stories of Jules Verne.
No matter how lovingly OZ was depicted, the movie was still a warning about dependence on technology at the expense of human interaction (wasn’t it?). I think this movie argued pretty effectively for the continued need for a real social network of family and friends, even if this message was delivered pretty high-handedly, and even though I knew I was being seriously manipulated. The whole family traditional estate and family history were pretty contrived, but fascinating all the same, just like it was to Kenji. The historical elements and the real setting of Ueda were also very appealing, so I had to wonder whether this movie could have worked without the crazy OZ-Love Machine details (I think it totally could have). But I get that things need flash sometimes. And the whole computer world of OZ served as a nice contrast to the more homespun life of Natsuki’s humble (but very large) family.
Mamoru Hosoda has said that this story was inspired partially by his own visit to his fiancée’s family, and I totally see that influence – I guess that does feel like a life or death experience. Because of this film, Mamoru Hosoda has become one of the few directors whose work I will see automatically – this and his debut film were that good. He also works with the same screenwriter, Satoko Okudera, so maybe I should look into her other work as well, even Gakkô no Kaidan, which is about ghosts at an elementary school (summer is traditionally horror movie time in Asia, after all). She’s, like, won awards and stuff. So, I am eagerly awaiting their next feature, The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, which seems to continue with his themes of family and a rural existence (and being wolf children). I might not have liked Summer Wars as much as The Girl Who Leapt through Time, but I still thought it was a wonderful movie – a great way to spend a lazy summer day.