Summer Wars is very nearly a flawless movie.
And I use that term very specifically. A flawless movie means that I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. It doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is great merely that you can’t find fault in its execution. I’ve seen a very few flawless films in my time but even of the ones I have seen they aren’t my favourite kind of film. I’m much more interested in films that are trying to do something new or interesting even if their reach exceeds their grasp. Ambitious failures are more exciting than lazy successes.
Summer Wars is flawless and its got just enough creativity, engaging themes and new things to say to compensate for a straight forward plot and ideas that are not particularly original.
Summer Wars tells the story of Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) a high school student who has just missed out on the chance to represent Japan at the math olympics. He’s preparing for a dull Summer in a job as an administrator for OZ.
What’s OZ? Well it’s a social media platform that has kind of replaced traditional browsers. In OZ you can do anything you can on the internet, banking, work, shopping, social interaction and of course play games. But rather than just reading text on a screen you have a custom avatar that inhabits a virtual world and interacts with its surroundings visually and in multiple dimensions. Want to go shopping? Well you can take your avatar to a shop and have it wander around the same as you would on the high street.
Kenji’s boring Summer plans get interrupted when he gets offered a Summer job working for Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) a girl who has just graduated high school this year and also a girl that Kenji has a massive crush on. She wants him to accompany her to her Grandmother’s home to attend her 90th birthday party. What Natsuki doesn’t tell our hero until he arrives is that he’s pretending to be her over achieving fiance from a perfect family. Turns out Granny Shinohara hasn’t been feeling well recently and Natsuki said she wasn’t allowed to die until she met her boyfriend, a boyfriend that didn’t exist.
Kenji of course thinks this is both unfair and impossible and has a stressful day answering questions and being sized up by the extended Shinohara family including black sheep uncle Wabisuke Jin’nôchi.
He gets distracted from his problems though when a mysterious message arrives composed of numbers. Thinking it’s a maths problem he spends all night deciphering it and then sends the finished code back to the mysterious sender. And this turns out to be the secret backdoor password into OZ. And Kenji has just given the password to a malicious A.I. named Love Machine that immediately starts causing chaos and havoc in OZ. Worse, since OZ effectively is the internet the chaos has major ramifications for the real world, fire engines are dispatched to fake emergencies, traffic seizes up into miles long gridlocks, medical monitoring equipment stops working. Whoops.
Now the race is on for Kenji to fix what he did and he discovers along the way just how much the Shinohara’s are inextricably linked to the fate of Oz, himself and the world.
At face value Summer Wars is a Cyberpunk story, and not a particularly original one. The notion of an alternate virtual world that reflects how the internet works goes all the way back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984 and variations on the idea have appeared in Snow Crash, The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Tron, ReBoot and even Digimon. In fact Summer Wars is in part a re-make of the second short from the first Digimon movie known in Japan as Bokura no wô gêmu! Or “Our War Game.” Director Mamoru Hosoda was also responsible for that short and the plot, basic concept and a lot of the animation is freely recycled from his earler effort.
What many of those other examples share though is that they’re set in the future and so feature other sci-fi or fantasy elements. Tron and Digimon feature people actually travelling to the digital world. Neuromancer and snow Crash features cyborgs and other SF technology that reinforce their theme of how people and technolgoy interact.
In contrast Summer Wars is firmly set in real world Japan pretty much exactly how it works, looks and feels in 2010. And this is because Summer Wars is only half a cyberpunk story. The other half is concerned with the family and relationship drama of the Shinohara’s. The dynamics, tensions and alliances of the Shinohara’s are beautifully observed and feel so real to me. Kenji’s stress and panic when he’s the one outsider in a group of 20 or so people, all with names he struggles to remember, completely echoes the way I felt when I first stayed with my fiance’s relatives in Tokyo. Even if you don’t have any experience of Japanese culture though you’ll recognise and empathise with the way each family member teases the others, slots into a defined role, makes sub-groups within the larger family, etc.
Summer Wars really is about the contrast between communication amongst families and communication online. It’s about how the human dynamics of 2 thousand years adapt to the technology of the modern world. And it’s a story that could not be told more perfectly than in Japan. I’ve remarked numerous times that one of the things that stands out to me about Japan is about how the very high tech and the very ancient live together. Outside of Japan countries adapted to the changes of technology gradually, each new invention necessitating changes in how human beings lived and thought. But Japan remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years until the Meiji Revolution when, boom, all the benefits of the industrial revolution came completely overnight.
It meant that Japan had to adapt fast to change and the way they managed it largely was to isolate and section off their lives, this bit is traditional, this bit is new. Like the paper walls that section off a Japanese home they could create invisible notional walls that left both the old and the new in the same place, but separate.
The Shinohara’s are a particularly good example of this. A samurai family with a large traditional house that made their money from silk. They have unusually strong ties to Japan’s past and are proud of their heritage. But they all have cell phones, the kid’s all have game boys, one son is a professional baseball player, another is a computer programmer and one more sells computers. They’re as much a part of the modern world as anybody.
Summer Wars is not alone in being about the tension between technology and tradition in Japan, Mononoke Hime and Hi-No-Tori cover similar ground in greater depth and complexity. What Summer Wars does get right though is that it doesn’t pick a side. Very often in films about the importance of family or the environment tech gets demonised and the audience is encouraged to root for nature. Not so in Summer Wars. Tech can cause problems but it also, ultimately, saves the day. The strong family bonds of the Shinohara’s help them organise and get through the crisis but it’s a failure in family dynamics that inadvertently causes the threat in the first place. And one character dies explicitly because tech that was keeping them alive no longer works. Tech is not the bad guy, nor even is the reliance on tech.
What is the bad guy though, in every instance, is a lack of communication. Kenji not knowing the situation he’ll be in stresses him out, which leads him to solve the maths problem and not knowing who sent that problem leads to the problem in OZ. Wabisuke not knowing that he is loved and forgiven leads to the creation of the Love Machine. Equally every problem is solved through communication. There is an amazing sequence of Granny Shinohara phoning people up during the first OZ crisis and pulling seemingly the whole of Japan through the problem with stern words of admonition and others of encouragement. Kenji is able to get the gear he needs to fight Love Machine due to the family connections of the Shinohara’s each of who can contribute a particular skill or talent showing that we’re stronger together than fighting alone.
If there is one criticism of Summer Wars it is that technology doesn’t work that way. The depiction of OZ is one thing but the damage that Love Machine is able to do because he hacks OZ is simply impossible. And the idea that punching a giant monster, which is rendered in code in a graphics engine, with a rabbit avatar which is equally rendered in code in a graphics engine would somehow re-write or alter code is frankly silly, a useful visual allegory but silly. I think the film gets a buy on this though. Every film gets to do one impossible thing and for me with Summer Wars I’ll let it slide that the internet doesn’t work that way. Partly because although the internet doesn’t work that way the way the film depicts how people use the internet, what our relationship with communications technology is and what it does to us is 100% spot on. I know for some people though this is an insurmountable obstacle, and all I can say is I wish you could get past it to experience just how good Summer Wars is.
Every other element is, as I say, flawless. The acting and script are just perfect. The movie has a very naturalistic feel despite the big SF concepts which again supports the contrast between the real world and OZ. Even better the script is brimming with humour and nice character moments. This film has a huge cast of characters, many of whom get maybe one line of dialogue and most of whom have names I couldn’t tell you. Yet they don’t feel interchangeable, everyone feels like a real person and distinct from the others. With only a few lines of dialogue, the acting and the animation everyone is able to bring each character to life.
The animation too is spectacular, right up there with Ghibli. Supplied by Madhouse, who also did the stunning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Millennium Actress, the scenes in the real world look nearly photo realistic with amazing attention to the background details. The characters are just stylized the right amount, nobody looks like an obvious cartoon like Disney or Ghibli but they still move and emote with energy whereas many realistic animated films feel stiff and lifeless.
That realism is crucial for selling the contrast between the real world and OZ. In OZ though the animators are free to indulge in their wildest fantasies and OZ is full of striking, inventive and memorable visuals to rival other eye candy anime like Evangelion or Spirited Away. I particularly like how there are no black lines in OZ, everyone is instead outlined in another primary colour such as red. It gives the effect of making OZ seem more ethereal and the real world more real by comparison.
Pacing, direction, music, atmosphere; everything else is just perfect for what the film needs them to do.
Summer Wars is an absolute must see.