In a time where an interactive online community known as “OZ” has become so popular that even the governments of the world participate in it and treat it as a second reality of sorts, a young high schooler named Kenji is roped into attending his classmate Natsuki’s family reunion. When a mishap sends OZ into disarray, its consequences ripple outward into reality, affecting people of all ages and showing that, while everyone has different priorities in life, they can all come together for the common good.
I gave the above description to convey just a little of what Hosoda Mamoru’s Summer Wars is about, but it is hopelessly insufficient on its own, as Summer Wars defies categorization. But to get some idea of what kind of movie it is, perhaps we should first look at the title of the movie itself. Summer Wars is designed in nearly every way to be a “summer movie,” and I mean that in the absolutely best way possible. When people talk about “summer blockbusters” that “the whole family can enjoy,” Summer Wars is it.
It’s all-encompassing, it’s down-to-Earth, it’s subtle and personal and yet also powerful and grand, simultaneously appealing to audiences young and old and of different values. There’s romance, there’s epic battles, and yet through all this the whole film never feels manufactured. Within the context of the movie, even simple actions take on incredible meaning as you relate to Kenji and Natsuki’s family. The characters are treated with the utmost care, and its story is solid and natural, even if it stems from a digital world.
Often times when a movie or a cartoon portrays any sort of “advanced technology,” it is very clear that the people responsible for these portrayals have no real or direct experience with that technology, but such is not the case with Summer Wars. Whether it’s an old countryside in Japan or the elaborate world of OZ, the animation is gorgeous and sensible and goes a long way in helping to make the movie as strong as it is. Clever art direction in both realms makes both OZ and the real world seem like separate entities, and yet I was never jarred out of the movie when it transitioned between the two. Its integration of various incongruous elements into a cohesive whole is so organic that everything just feels right, just like the entirety of Summer Wars.
In all truth, I almost don’t want to review Summer Wars, as there is so much to the movie that if I were to talk any longer I would give away too much or would risk spoiling the experience of watching it yourself. In fact, if you’ve read this far, there’s a chance I may have ruined the experience for you forever. And I know that Summer Wars isn’t just the kind of movie you can go and see easily, as I saw it as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, but if you can get to a theatrical showing or something at a con, I highly recommend you do so.
Speaking of the NYICFF, I had the fortune of being at a showing where Hosoda Mamoru himself was in attendance. After the movie was over, Hosoda went up to the stage for Q&A. I managed to ask him a question about the strong theme of closing generation gaps and his message to people of all ages, to which he responded that it was basically “to get along with one another.” But the real stars of this session weren’t me or Hosoda, but the kids. The children’s questions blew the adults’ questions out of the water, mine included. Many were surprisingly insightful and intelligent, and to me it showed me just how well-made Summer Wars is at communicating to both adults and children.
When I went to watch The Girl Who Leapt Through Time at NYICFF three years ago, I could hear the kids in the theater asking their parents, “What’s going on?” as the themes and topics were perhaps a little too mature for them. But such things did not happen with Summer Wars. Here, you have a movie which allows both adults and children to enjoy it without patronizing or insulting the intelligence of either. To me, that is the clearest sign that no matter your age or origin, Summer Wars is a movie which can keep you riveted through even the simplest of moments.