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Mamoru Hosoda Retrospective: Summer Wars

Natsuki Shinohara and her enormous family, the Jinnouchi clan.

Looking back at director Mamoru Hosoda’s 2009 movie Summer Wars (his second, and final release with Studio Madhouse after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), it’s interesting to see how plainly his later films remix and reference his earlier work. Take the opening sequence of the recently-released Belle, for example. Beat-for-beat it matches Summer War’s inaugural virtual world introduction, omniscient narration and all, before we’re even introduced to a single main character. Hosoda’s first intention is to introduce the concept of the clean, white-backdropped one-billion-subscriber strong metaverse “Oz” in Summer Wars, and the altogether more disorienting and busy 5-billion-subscriber strong “U” in Belle.

The clean-lined, solid coloured world of Oz.

Hosoda’s been gently ribbed for self-plagiarism before. The plot of his 40-minute Digimon Adventure short Our War Game! from 2000 is extremely similar to Summer Wars, so it comes as little surprise that his third cinematic outing to the virtual space would elaborate upon his previous journeys. Whereas Belle is a film primarily about adolescent identity, self-actualisation, and healing from grief, Summer Wars is a little more difficult to define. It’s a weird mix of rom-com, family drama, and The Matrix/War Games-like AI conflict.

Kenji Koiso (left), with friend and fellow computer geek Takashi Sakuma.

Hosoda’s never been shy about admitting much of his filmaking inspiration comes from personal experience, or at least from the various stages of his life. Whereas The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was primarily concerned with protagonist Makoto’s attempts to fix her (mostly non-home-related) adolescent mistakes, Summer Wars moves on to consider more serious romantic relationships and their synergy with extended families. Hosoda claims this was inspired by the first time meeting his fiancee’s enormous family.

“You’ll help me, won’t you?” winked the cute but terrifyingly manipulative teenage girl.

I can very much relate to how overwhelmed Summer War’s protagonist 17-year-old Kenji Koiso feels when he’s thrust into the midst of his (pretend) 18-year-old girlfriend Natsuki Shinohara’s overbearing, multitudinous family. At age 17, I, as the eldest son of a small two-child nuclear family, experienced the overwhelming confusion and anxiety of meeting my then-girlfriend’s (now wife) enormous Roman Catholic family. She is the youngest of eight, now all with countless offspring and offspring’s offspring that require a spreadsheet to track. Believe me when I say I heartily identify with poor, beleaguered Kenji.

“Yes, of course I will do everything you ask me. You are Cute Teenage Girl after all, and I am but Weak Teenage Boy Who Is Putty In Your Hands.” How depressingly realistic.

Kenji is a high school computer and mathematics geek who works part-time as a moderator for the virtual world Oz, which appears to be a fictional amalgamation of Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Second Life. As the introduction states, much online commerce and business, as well as personal interaction, is integrated with and proceeds almost entirely through Oz. Oz’s infrastructure might as well be the world’s infrastructure, and it requires an army of moderators to keep it functioning. Oz can be accessed not just via PC but smartphone too, so when Kenji’s attractive, mischievous female friend Natsuki asks him to accompany him on a little trip into the country, he’s happy enough to attend. It’s not until he arrives at her family’s enormous ancestral home does she admit that he must pretend to every gathered member of her clan that he’s her fiancé. Obviously, hijinks ensue.

Granny goes on to prove she can essentially run the entire country single-handedly.

Natsuki’s elderly great-grandmother is the imperious matriarch of the Jinnouchi family, and plays a central part in the narrative. She’s a formidable woman, a good judge of character, and the glue that keeps the family together. Respected, loved — and feared — by her descendants, much of what motivates them is keeping her happy. (Again, this all sounds very familiar and true to life…) An inspiring, driven character, she’s instrumental in leading the initial real-world response to disaster in the virtual space, because of course when the virtual world essentially collapses, so does society’s infrastructure.

Furry boys unite! The beginning of a disturbing obsession for Hosoda…

After apparently solving a random mathematics challenge texted to him (a thinly-veiled cyberattack), Kenji is horrified to discover he’s been locked out of his Oz moderator account and an online troll is masquerading as him, spreading chaos in its wake. He becomes public enemy number one, and the disaster only spreads from there, with Japan’s communication, traffic, water and emergency systems breaking down, causing widespread societal disruption. Kenji teams up with Natsuki’s hikikomori-esque cousin Kazuma who (of course) is behind renowned Oz fighting game avatar “King Kazma” (and is a clear antecedent for Belle’s “Beast”. He’s also furry, which is a recurring theme we’ll get into when I look at some of Hosoda’s later films, another time.)

He’s not exactly going to be a good guy looking like that, is he?

They discover the entity who stole Kenji’s avatar (and who is in the process of stealing millions more) is in fact an out-of-control military-grade AI “Love Machine” developed and sold to the US Army by Natsuki’s outcast uncle Wabisuke. (Of course. Look, you’re going to have to accept that a huge number of contrivances are required to keep the plot moving. Just go with the flow and you’ll be fine, there is absolutely no point attempting to criticise this otherwise very fun movie for constantly pulling coincidences and solutions out of its ass.)


Uncle Wabisuke, black sheep of the family.

Wabisuke is a kind of “cool, dark, mysterious uncle” character through whom is demonstrated how magnanimous and forgiving Natsuki’s great-grandmother is, despite her strict, formidable exterior. It makes us miss her all the more when Love Machine’s disruption of her medical monitoring tech leads to a heart attack and her death. (Although as the characters point out, she is 90 and her death may have been unpreventable anyway.)

Behold the new innovation in PC ice cooling systems

What I particularly appreciate about Summer Wars is despite all the madness happening online with digital avatars beating the crap out of one another, smashing through virtual buildings like they were made of tissue paper, it’s an intimate family drama focusing on grief, love, anger, separation and reconciliation. Everyone has realistic but differing responses to the death of their beloved grandmother, and the film gives space for so many of these characters to emote and interact. Funnily enough, the women get to food preparation in the kitchen, and other funeral preparations, while most of the men start to rally round Kenji, Kazuma and Wabisuke’s online “war” against Love Machine. That neither group appreciate or understand what the other is doing adds to the sometimes slapstick comedy. (I particularly like the part where the enormous ice blocks helping to cool the improbably enormous home supercomputer are stolen and are instead employed to help preserve Granny’s corpse from the beating Japanese summer heat… Morbid but hilarious.)


Kenji attempts to out-calculate a military AI using nothing but paper, pen and his brain. No wonder the poor boy keeps suffering nosebleeds.

As all such AI conflicts must escalate to nuclear levels, so Love Machine arms itself with a satellite/asteroid probe as a massive bomb aimed at a nuclear power plant, bringing the virtual war very much into the real world. Summer War’s climax is tense and exciting, especially when it comes to Natsuki’s real role. I’d been worried that our main female character had been sidelined for much of the movie, but her previous scenes playing traditional Japanese card game Koi-Koi with her grandmother are brought to world-saving prominence in a tense, climactic match with the rogue, game-loving, online AI monster. I found this particularly poignant because I remember playing similar card games with my own elderly grandmother often as a child. I can’t imagine defeating a world-threatening Artificial Intelligence with Whist or 3-card Rummy though.

Such a cute scene. Except for the haemorrhaging.

Summer Wars ends with a tidy resolution of most of its interpersonal conflicts, with forgiveness and joy despite bereavement. It paints a convincing, humorous microcosm of extended family life — messy, sometimes fraught, but always underpinned with love. Natsuki and Kenji’s relationship progresses cutely, encouraged most aggressively by her family. It concludes on a wonderfully sweet, upbeat note that left me smiling.


Even Natsuki gets in on Hosoda’s trademark furry ear action.

I like all of Mamoru Hosoda’s movies. I respect his high quality presentation, from the detailed character animation to the beautiful backgrounds, engaging action and emotive music. I appreciate his ability to wring un-contrived, real emotion like few other anime directors can, from sympathetic characters with recognisable motivations and genuine pain. Where his films tend to fall down for me is in their plotting and structure, the often contrived or arbitrary way they progress. For me, Summer Wars is his one film where that doesn’t matter too much. It’s the one Mamoru Hosoda film I can unreservedly say I love. Summer Wars is so much fun, with a real heart that speaks to my own experiences. My 10-year old son also enjoyed it, far more than The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I wonder how he’ll get on with the next film on our itinerary, Wolf Children? I’ll hopefully be back to talk about that soon.

Summer Wars
Director and original story: Mamoru Hosoda
Screenplay: Satoko Okudera
Character Designer: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Music: Akihiko Matsumoto
Production Studio: Madhouse
Japanese cinematic release: August 1st, 2009
UK blu-ray/DVD release: March 28th, 2011
Runtime: 114 minutes
BBFC rating: 12

“Right. The next mean furry-baiting commenter gets their face smashed in.” Just as well that’s the end of the review, then…

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Physician. Obsessed with anime, manga, comic-books. Husband and father. Christian. Fascinated by tensions between modern culture and traditional faith. Bit odd.

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