Alternate Perspective: Summer Wars by JH

“Anime? You mean the Japanese cartoons like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!” or “Anime? You mean the Japanese cartoons full of sex and violence?” are probably the two most common responses by “normal” people when they find out that someone watches anime; I can’t help but find the polar opposite associations rather hilarious. Nobody would ever say “oh, you read poetry, you mean that stuff about flowers?” or “oh, you read poetry, you mean that stuff about wars?” The Association stem from the confusion that anime is a genre rather than simply animation from Japan; it’s no more a genre than French films are a genre. Once I’ve explained that to people unfamiliar with anime the next question is inevitably “why do you watch cartoons?”.  Indeed, the stigma against animation has something only suited for kids or outrageous satirical comedy is pervasive in most of the West. The simple answer behind why I watch it is that the creative freedom inherent in animation, and frequently expressed through animation, far outweighs that in the vast majority of live-action films, and Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars is a prime example of that imaginative explosion.

Kenji Koiso (Japanese: Ryunosuke Kamiki, English: Michael Sinterniklaas) is a 17-year-old math whiz who works on the ubiquitous, immense and immersive virtual realm of Oz, until he’s invited by Natsuki Shinohara (Japanese: Nanami Sakuraba, English: Brina Michelle Palencia) to accompany her to her family reunion for her great grandmother, Sakae Jinnouchi’s, (Japanese: Sumiko Fuji, English: Pam Dougherty) 90th birthday. But Natsuki doesn’t reveal to Kenji until he’s there that she’s actually brought him along to play the role of her fiancé so her grandmother will know she’ll be taken care of. At the reunion, the nervous and confused Kenji also meets Wabisuke Jinnouchi (Japanese: Ayumu Saito, English: John Michael Tatum) and estranged uncle, as well as the 13-year-old Kazuma Ikezawa (Japanese: Mitsuki Tanimura, English: Maxey Whitehead), whose avatar is the legendary fighter King Kazuma in Oz. After Kenji receives a mysterious number code on his phone and solves it, Oz is thrown into chaos as an AI begins eating up avatars and taking control of all the electronics and businesses connected through Oz.

While anime might not be a genre itself, perhaps no medium has more thoroughly explored and subdivided up the realm of fantasy and science fiction. It’s a medium where films as diverse as Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Urotsukidōji, Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, ABe’s Haibane Renmei, and Serial Experiments Lain all superficially fall under the label of science-fiction and/or fantasy. Summer Wars falls under the label of science fiction too, but such a label hardly expresses the complexity of genre influences upon it. Romantic comedy, Ozu-like family drama, Dragonball-like fighting action/adventure, Yu-Gi-Oh-like card playing game suspense, War Games-like battles with an AI bent on mass destruction, Hoosiers-like “rara go team!” sports film, Lain, Avatar, or Matrix-like immersion within a fully realized digital realm all vie for prominent focus within the narrative.  The themes are just as liquid and dynamic; it’s at once a film about tradition VS modernity, analog reality VS digital reality, technological advancement, the ubiquitousness of social networking, estrangement, acceptance, self-worth, coming-of-age, After a single viewing it’s easy for all of this to come off as an unfocused, scattershot mess.

It’s telling if we make a rather odd comparison to perhaps the most notable live-action take on social networking in Fincher’s The Social Network. Many Facebook users complained that the film didn’t really represent life on Facebook, missing the entire point of what made the site so massively popular, instead creating fiction out of the facts of how Facebook came to be. It raises an interesting question; how does one represent digital life? It’s not as if you can simply turn a camera on someone sitting at a computer, no more than you can turn a camera on someone reading a book. The internet, like literature, is merely a catalyst for transporting your mind elsewhere, even if that’s amongst other people. In comparison, Summer Wars gets much closer to the reality that life online feels like. You may not physically interact with people online, but the effect that mental mingling has can be just as stimulating. After all, when teenagers are committing suicide about what’s said about them online, there is no longer a barrier between analog reality and a digital world.

The erosion of that barrier between online and reality seems to echo the erosion of genre distinctions. Indeed, if everything from government to businesses to everyday people can co-exist online into a kind of cached oneness, why can’t genres co-exist too? But it’s not just genres that Hosoda pulls into this Borg-like assimilation, as past & present and individuality & collectiveness get thrown in there too. Unlike most artists who see a disconnect between those holding on to the past hopefully out of touch with a modern world where technology has far surpassed them, in Summer Wars the past, from the ancient ties to the Jinnouchi  clan to the matriarchal great-grandmother, are inextricably tied up in a world that technology directly affects. When Japan descends into chaos after the AI first cracks Oz’s security, it’s the grandmother who rallies everyone together the old-fashioned way (by actually calling them). Although, not everyone is as quick to realize the real-world implications of life online; the buffoonish Shota chides Kenji, Kazuma, and others for “playing a game” after the grandmother’s death, while some of the remaining women remain puzzles about whether or not it’s JUST game or something real.

In that sense, Hosoda marks a radical departure from the wistfulness of Ozu, who observed the separation of youth from culture and tradition as something to lament. For Ozu, this equally signaled the more Westernized emphasis on the will of the individual over the collective good, but Hosoda presents a world that, even if more Westernized than Ozu’s pre-War Japan, is nonetheless still a tightly nit unit. It’s a unit willing and able to come together when needed, willing and able to utilize the lessons of the past in the present. Both of these are on display in the two means the characters use to defeat the AI. The first involves using the same strategies the Jinnouchi clan utilized to defeat an invading army back in the days of the samurai, and the second involves everyone banding together to challenge the AI in a traditional game of Hanafuda.

The ultimate result is a film that is impressive in its ambition and scale. Summer Wars is almost like William Blake in its omni-incorporation of the past that’s used to invent a new mythology. But just as Blake was ultimately crushed under the weight of his own vision and predecessors, Summer Wars is equally crushed. Of course, if your ambition is doomed to failure, it’s better to “fail” as grandly as William Blake, so at least you still give yourself headroom to still be great, and Summer Wars definitely borders on greatness. Although, unlike Blake, Summer Wars is much spottier in its greatness. The real surprise is that its biggest failure is in its human elements; I say “surprise” because it’s that human element that worked so superbly for Hosoda in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, one of the greatest anime films of the last decade that didn’t have the studios “Ghibli” or “Pixar” attached to it.

In particular, the entire Wabisuke subplot doesn’t work. His story is one of estrangement and attempted redemption that simply needed much more time devoted to its development to work emotionally. Although, none of the other stories are much better developed or three-dimensional. The romance between Kenji and Natsuki that begins the film doesn’t really pick up until the end; Kazuma’s determination to be great at his online “sport” is flippantly dismissed as his reaction to being bullied; the grandmother is little more than a cheap emotional fulcrum, with her death feeling manipulative and lacking in real pathos. I’m almost inclined to say that Hosoda is using shallow, archetypal characters almost in the same way he’s using genres and themes, just throwing them all into a blender to see what comes out. This would be less of a problem if Summer Wars had the sly, winking, cool, metafictional awareness of a Tarantino, but Hosoda seems to be presenting his characters and emotions as attempts at genuine identification and tragedy, making the film’s worst moments all the more corny. Afterall, if the way you write comedy is to make the characters believe they’re in a tragedy, then the way you write unintentional comedy is to believe you’re writing a tragedy and fail at it.

But Summer Wars’ failures are, thankfully, less frequent and less glaring than its successes. I’ve often remarked that anime soundtracks and composers are superior to the vast majority of their live-action counterparts, and Akihiko Matsumoto’s electric, riveting score has a galvanizing effect when laid over the action sequences. But, really, those images, courtesy of the art, animation, and cinematography, are the heart and soul of Summer Wars. The of Oz is something to behold; Everything from the neon arenas to the kaleidoscopic colors bursting through the white backgrounds to the giant blue & pink sentinel whales of John and Yoko, to the design of AI monster just screams WOW. it has the same sense of scale that Cameron conceived Avatar on, but while Avatar suffered by teetering into the Uncanny Valley, Summer Wars has no such trouble. It reveals that the real strength of animation isn’t in its ability to imitate reality, but in its freedom to abstract reality and create something new but still “real” on a deeper, more experiential level.

It goes back to anime being able to conjure up the world of imagination better than live action film. Even the pervasiveness of CGI in modern science fiction films is a (frequently lame) attempt to incorporate that abstract and creative freedom. But what most Hollywood studios haven’t figured out is that the reality in front of a camera’s lens and the reality created out of a nothing on a blank page will inevitably clash. The more they integrate, the more we fall into that nasty Uncanny Valley. I simply couldn’t imagine the finale of Summer Wars, which features an enormous hulking shadow monster of the AI battling against Kazuma, Natsuki, and Kenji, ever being replicated in CGI-integrated live-action. Even Avatar with its grand conception seems to pale in comparison to the sense of scale and kinetic action captured in the best of anime, particularly the apocalyptic sci-fi entries like Evangelion, Akira, or Hosoda’s Summer Wars. While I can’t help but lament that Summer Wars falls well shy of its ambition, the visual inventiveness and sheer excitement and energy that pervades the film is something that modern Hollywood could only dream of producing.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

6 Responses to Alternate Perspective: Summer Wars by JH

  1. Stefan D. Byerley says:

    I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I can’t help but cheer “YES!” to your first paragraph. Interesting factoid, though: The definition of “cartoon” actually has nothing to do with animation, but actually comes from an Italian and Dutch word that refers to a strong, heavy paper or pasteboard, which is NOT used in the creation of funny paper, picture books, or any form of animated film.

    I’d make a bigger sting about it, but I’m not gonna be the one to tell kids that they don’t actually watch “cartoons” every Saturday morning. If the term is gonna be used to label one form of stylistic animation, then it might as well be applied to all forms of stylistic animation, since the definition of that term has just as little to do with one form of media as it would the other form of media.

  2. Stefan D. Byerley says:

    Okay, NOW I’ve seen Summer Wars. I can’t help but agree with most of your points on the archetypal family construct. I personally, felt more greatly impacted by it, simply because that IS how my family was constructed before the death of my Great-Grandmother on my mom’s side, though my dad’s side of the family still kinda operates this way, with my grandmother taking the family helm. Those things definitely helped me enjoy the movie more, but I can’t help but feel that, if that substance wasn’t already present in my own life, I wouldn’t have been as emotionally effected by this film. Still a great movie, though.

    One of the things I would say about how Hosoda constructs the emotional ties in the family, is that he doesn’t necessarily leave out any and all character depth entirely, but rather he writes it from the point of view of Kanji, who’s had little time to know the family anyway. Hosoda would even write in elements where Natsuki would have to be alone for a minute to sort through some things. Since Natsuki isn’t the main character, is really doesn’t matter HOW she’s effected by the situations, but simply that she IS being effected by the situations. I think that in it of itself is a clever way to “write out” any character depth without abandoning it entirely. So even in that regard, the film allows for me to overlook the lack of present character depth and just focus on Kenji’s story and point of view throughout the film.

  3. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Thanks for the taking the time to read and comment. Actually, my family on my mother’s side was also very much like that before my great-grandmother died. Christmases were great because we had these immense family reunions and, as a kid, I got lost trying to remember everyone’s names and relationships. So I can definitely empathize with Kenji there. I can buy that Hosoda MAINLY writes from Kenji’s perspective, but I still think he’s trying to bring us into the family more deeper than he succeeds in doing.

  4. Stefan D. Byerley says:

    Well, it’s an odd situation in film. The audience has only known the family for as long as the main character, Kenji, has known them, which wasn’t long enough to build a strong emotional connection with that family. But the family members surrounding Kenji needed to have a severe emotional reaction when the matriarch of the family dies, and that needs to be shown as legitimately as possible. I think the viewers having a reaction to the death similar to Kenji’s is acceptable, as his was not as severe for the same reasons the viewer’s reactions were not as severe. I would have liked to have a stronger connection with these characters, and I certainly think it would have helped things become truly as dramatic as it probably should have been in the middle of the movie, but because of the way Hosoda wrote and directed the film I can honestly say that it probably wasn’t as necessary as other film structures would require it to be either, in that he at least provides Kenji’s perspective for the viewer to to latch onto during those scenes.

    I think the ultimate issue was that, with the whole family included, there was 30+ “main characters” in Summer Wars, and that’s just WAY too much for a 115 minute film to fully explore in a way that doesn’t resort to heavy archetypes.

  5. Jonathan Henderson says:

    ^ I actually think that’s a good point. I guess my only remaining criticism would be that if we’re supposed to experience everything from Kenji’s perspective, then it probably wasn’t such a good idea to divert focus from him as much as Hosoda did. A good chunk of Summer Wars is spent focusing on other characters in the absence of Kenji, which is atypical for a film shown from one (or one primary) perspective.

  6. Stefan D. Byerley says:

    I agree. I also think your point about Hosoda trying to load too much into his movie is a valid one. I can certainly see how that was also playing a part in the lack of character depth with the family individuals. I also agree that the whole Wabisuke plot twist was perhaps underdeveloped, though my thoughts on that are similar to the whole “Kenji’s perspective” thing. but even then, the Wabisuke plot twist was under-explored to the point where Hosoda should have probably either further explored it, or just cut it out entirely. Even how it stands in the film, I can find it somewhat acceptable in that there’s still play with the family relationships in it. It’s just the whole “He made the Love Machine” bit felt a little forced to me.

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