Aug 2 2010 6:11pm

Family ties and sore losers: Summer Wars (サマーウォーズ)

Kenji is a shy 17 year old math genius who spends a lot of time online using OZ, a social networking site he is also a low-level moderator on. He gets invited by Natsuki to come help out at her great grandmother’s 90th anniversary celebration. Even though he doesn’t know the details of what he’s supposed to do, he accepts.

Arriving at the family homestead, Kenji meets Natsuki’s very large family and his (mis)adventures begin when his true task is sprung on him: he has to pretend he’s Natsuki’s fiancée for the four days of his stay with her family, he discovers this when she presents him to Sakae, her formidable great-grandmother.

Late that evening, he receives an e-mail from an OZ user challenging him to solve a math problem, thinking it a game, he does and sends the answer in. The next day, not only is he accused on the news of having cracked OZ’s security, but Natsuki’s family also find out he is not who she said he was, much to his and her embarrassment.

Whoever has cracked OZ’s security is not only taking over user accounts, but also causing mayhem in the real world with the access to transportation networks, banks and other infrastructure systems these accounts give it. All of these faked emergencies which must be responded to in case they are real, causing police, firemen and other agencies to be overworked.

Eventually, we find out the culprit is an AI accidentally unleashed on the world by the U.S. military during a test gone slightly wrong. It has been programmed to take over networks and gain control of as many systems as it can. It views all networks and security systems as games and will try to play as many as possible.

At first people try to get by as best it can and deal with the problems caused by the hacking. But things take a turn for the worst when the automated heart monitoring system used by Sakae fails and she passes away, making Kenji and others realize just how serious this can be and that they have to take action before something worse happens. The only way they have to fight the AI is to log on to OZ. Luckily, Kenji has help from Kazuma, one of Natsuki’s cousins (and a champion online gamer).

They will try to fight the AI head on and fail. The stakes grow until the AI programs a satellite probe to crash onto a nuclear power plant. They realize the AI’s worldview that everything is a game and decide that Katsuki will gamble her family’s OZ accounts with the AI in a game of Koi-Koi, while Kenji and others try to prevent disaster from happening, but the AI is a sore loser and manages to redirect the probe to crash on the family household before losing control of it. It’s then up to Kenji to crack the password and divert the probe away.

There’s actually a lot more to Summer Wars than the above text would imply, in other words, I’m hardly doing it justice. The trailer hardly helps explain just how good this film is, but is still worth watching.

One of the things that makes this film different from so many others with a similar plot is how much of the action take place outside of cyberspace and without computers. Summer Wars is about the interactions between family members and the lengths people go through to create and maintain their family ties.

There’s a scene early in the film where Natsuki introduces her family to Kenji as they sit around the dinner table, and, like Kenji, we are confused by all the names and relationships mentioned in a few confusing minutes. To really get to know these people, Kenji will need to spend time with them and build new relationships, while learning about existing ones.

Over the next four days the following events occur: Natsuki’s lie about Kenji is uncovered, Sakae confronts Kenji afterwards, Sakae’s adopted son Wabisuke returns unexpectedly after a 10 year absence, and finally, Sakae dies. These and other events allow Kenji to learn more about Natsuki and her family.

The family’s closeness contrasts with the AI’s uncaring attitude and destructiveness. In many ways, the AI represents the worst aspects of online interaction and the film argues that the positive sides of human relations can overcome the negative side often seen when people can act anonymously.

Director Mamoru Hosoda’s previous film was The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (時をかける少女) which concerned itself with the relationship between three people. With Summer Wars, he wanted to create a film that would explore a larger group dynamic and appeal to as large an audience as possible. While this may sound like a recipe for a disaster, in this case it isn’t. Summer Wars is an excellent film and deservedly won the top Audience Award in the Best animated Film category at Fantasia.

René Walling is a fan of SF, animation and comics, this has led him to co-chair Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, be involved with fps magazine for more than a decade, and start Nanopress, a Canadian small press. He looks forward to living on Mars where he would benefit from having more than 24 hours in a day.

William Frank
1. scifantasy
I assume the timing (Funimation announced this weekend that they've licensed Summer Wars for US distribution, including a theatrical run) isn't a coincidence.
2. spoiler_cop
Nice spoiler. You should warn people who haven't seen the film yet.
3. Webcudgel
My wife and I just saw this film at the 2010 Asian Film Festival of Dallas ( last Sunday and LOVED it. It was hilarious with a very inventive plotline. Glad to see it's getting exposure on your blog.

However, as spoiler_cop points out, there were quite a few spoilers in this post.
4. wandering-dreamer
I'm pumped about the license for this and can't wait to see the movie, but I admit that I wasn't expecting spoilers since the jump cut line didn't mention them.
Ranjan Asrani
5. Allchaos
I'm surprised no one compares this to Digimon, as the plot is similar to the second Adventure is the same director, after all.
Evan Langlinais
6. Skwid
It's really hard to believe this is good, frankly...every bit of the above description sounds either trite or unbelievable or both.
7. Grady Hendrix
Don't let the breathless plot description above steer you off course. SUMMER WARS is a really terrific movie that is - more importantly - not afraid of the future. In fact, it loves the future and wants to have a totally chaste, completely cute snuggle-session (maybe with a little kissing and above-the-belt petting) with the future.

So many filmmakers spend so much time pulling out their hair and going, "Argh, these kids! That internets! Why can't they go outside and play stick ball with their RL friends like I used to do in meatspace! We is dooommmeeeddd!!!" that when a director like Hosoda comes along, who isn't terrified of technology, he feels more forward-thinking than he really is. For Hosoda, technology is inevitable and the internet is just another way of forming connections and social networks the same way the telephone was, and the same way letters were before that. The extended family unit is just a smaller node of Facebook and the people on the internet aren't predators, they're just potential family members you haven't had dinner with yet.

For me, the ultimate endorsement of Hosoda's talent is that Hayao Miyazaki (the ultimate technophobic, conservative, reactionary grump) fired him off HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. When Hosoda's GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (which is also extremely awesome and, like SUMMER WARS, a perfect summer blockbuster) beat Miyazaki-produced snoozer, TALES OF EARTHSEA, like a redheaded stepchild at the box office a few years ago pretty much everyone in Japan stood on their chairs and pumped their fists and screamed, "Hells yeah!" and once you see it, you will too.

Miyazaki was great once, and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, is a classic that deserves to be on every top ten list in the world, but his time has passed. Fortunately, whether he likes it or not, his torch has passed to Hosoda.
Eugene Myers
8. ecmyers
I just sort of skimmed this article to avoid spoilers, but once I read it was from the director of the excellent The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I was sold. I'm looking forward to seeing this whenever it hits the States.
Eugene Myers
9. ecmyers
New Yorkers, the NYICFF is screening this on August 28 and 29th!
10. Manga Therapy
I caught the English-dub premiere this past weekend in NYC. Great, great movie and it deserves to be nominated for an Oscar.

I actually wrote the movie, which you can read at:

I wonder what will happen if we do have a world like Oz in the future...

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