Summer Wars is director Mamoru Hosoda’s third feature film (after his work on Digimon), and follows The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), a delightful and engaging anime which established him in the West as a force to watch out for.
Welcome to the world of Oz. You may think it’s like the one that Dorothy visited but you’d be wrong. This Oz is very different – a virtual reality accessed through computers, mobile phones and TVs amongst other media. It’s a world where you can meet real people from other nations or areas of space that are either very familiar or completely new and unconnected. Language translation and virtual cities make the experience accessible to anyone, anywhere… providing they want it, that is. It’s addictive and, in some ways, contagious. Natsuki, like many of her schoolmates, is one of the countless users of Oz but she also has commitments outside this virtual world, at least for the time being, as she has to attend a family reunion to celebrate her grandma’s birthday at her country home. This leads Natsuki to seek fellow schoolmate, affable geek Kenji who is a whiz at maths, to accompany her to the countryside, pretend that she is engaged to him and present him to her old but well-meaning grandmother. Kenji goes along with the plan, after all Natsuki is a desirable schoolmate and a good friend, but their worlds become linked in the most strange ways as family issues in the real world become increasingly entangled with Oz. The virtual world is becoming far more dangerous to be involved with as evil, violent characters begin to seek cruel dominance. Can the pair do anything to stop the burgeoning violent madness and restore Oz to a more satisfactory environment? And maybe fall in love as well?
Summer Wars combines a sweet drama about a budding relationship combined with a science fiction scenario that also takes in politics, multiculturalism and family dynamics amongst its many themes. It also introduces bizarre futuristic technological violence and antagonism, and flips us between virtual and real worlds where one increasingly exerts an influence on the other, although Hosoda’s film always provides the audience with a definite difference between normality and the ‘other world’ even if the characters don’t always realise this. Also interesting is the way that the real world is defined in terms of the differences between the consumer focussed cities and the traditional rural setting of granny’s home – there is a sense that virtual worlds not only remove people from the actual one but also reflect the way that modern society has replaced older traditions and etiquette. Granny Sakae’s illness is a societal one as well as a physical one – modernity changes everything and, while some aspects have areas that remain agreeable (relationships, love), the way society has developed with its consumerist, commercial and militarily defined attitudes, it is as different to the elders as the virtual world is to everyone who has become obsessed with Oz.
Summer Wars is ideal viewing not just for those already enamoured with anime or science fiction – it is a film about relationships between people trying to tackle changes in their own lives and the world in general. The animation is excellent, ranging from traditional cell animation of the highest quality to the integration of cell and CGI animation to create scale and extremism that would not seem out of place in a huge budget blockbuster, yet it retains a sense of humanity within the extensive scenes of action. Mamoru Hosoda is a director to keep a close eye on. There is something for everyone here – genuine emotion between its impressive and awe inspiring set pieces.