Any 5-Year-Old Can Tell You Why Summer Wars is Great

As of late, it seems like podcast after podcast is discussing Summer Wars. Speakeasy podcasters Hisui and Narutaki use the movie as an impetus to talk about how getting taken out of a movie causes you to more readily notice its faults. Andrew on the Veef Show talks about how the hype for Summer Wars is met by backlash, while also stating that he finds the movie to be good but not great. Anime World Order’s Daryl and Gerald also disagree on the merits of the movie. Overall, the two big questions seem to be 1) Why do the people who love Summer Wars love it and 2) Why do the people who hate it do so?

Now I am on the side of thinking the movie was fantastic, so the best I can tell you about why critics deride it is hearsay and conjecture, but I can tell you about why I think Summer Wars is a very strong movie on par with Hosoda’s previous work, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

Summer Wars‘ greatest strength comes from its overarching theme, centering around the idea of closing gaps, be they generational, technological, or even familial. A super advanced online world is contrasted with old-fashioned ways, the celebration of family is contrasted with the desire to move beyond the home, and young is contrasted with old. But in every case, Summer Wars doesn’t say that one is better than the other, instead giving a message that each is equally useful and that everyone can work together for the common good. It’s a very optimistic view of where we’re going as a society and as a planet, and I think that optimism is what keeps people cheering and praising the movie.

A lot of reviewers seem to neglect mentioning these themes, and I find that to be quite odd. It’s pretty much the heart of Summer Wars and for all of the praise and the criticism, how is it not mentioned more often? And it’s not like the themes are particularly subtle to the point of invisibility either. When I went to the New York Children’s International Film Festival showing of Summer Wars, there was a Q&A session with director Hosoda. In every case, it was the kids who nailed the most important theme of the movie, as well as a lot of the lesser themes. Now, these kids had to be fairly smart, being able to keep up with the subtitles on-screen, but they were still about eight years old on average. Surely the great minds of the anime internet can’t be outdone by a bunch of elementary school kids, right?

Re-reading my glowing review of the film, I am forced to realize that I too forgot to mention the overarching theme of Summer Wars and so am just as guilty of obfuscating the discussion as anyone else. Looking at my own words, I get the feeling that I was so caught up in trying to describe the enormous amounts of effort clearly put into the film and its potential for wide appeal through juggling many different elements that I simply forgot to actually say why I think the film is great. Perhaps everyone else experienced the same problem, like a collective mind fart from thinking too much about anime without actually thinking about it.

And so in the end, we were bested by third graders.

Everything That is: Summer Wars

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.

Summer Wars Tomorrow in NYC

Regretfully it’s too late to buy tickets now so for those who were unaware of this event in the first place I extend my apologies, but I will be attending the New York International Children Film Festival‘s opening night showing of Hosoda Mamoru’s Summer Wars. I’ve been highly anticipating this movie, especially because the year I attended my first NYICFF was when I saw his previous film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

I am going in blind. I have no knowledge of Summer Wars whatsoever, not even its basic premise, which should tell you a thing or two about how high my expectations are for this movie. Am I setting myself up for disappointment? I highly doubt it, but we’ll see.

Hosoda Mamoru himself will also be there, and it will truly be an honor. The last time I went to a showing where the director was there was for the Otokojuku movie. While I don’t expect Hosoda to be putting on a display of swordsmanship, I really hope the audience is able to deliver some solid questions. I know I’ll be there with my hand raised.