Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009)
In modern terms, Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009), directed by Mamoru Hosoda and animated by Madhouse Studios is a story about families, the foundation stone of society. Joining a family is easy when you’re born into one. The obligation to help your relatives by blood is hard-wired into the human species. We consider filial behaviour a key duty, and the refusal to respond to the needs of a parent or sibling unnatural. But the social mechanisms for joining a family are far more complex and the outcomes less certain. It requires real commitment on both sides and shared interests to make it work over the long term. Marriage and the adoption of older children are social institutions. We all understand how they are supposed to work, but the bonds formed in the moment are easily broken, trust is lost, recriminations and feeling a need for revenge are quite common. Even when there’s an emergency, it takes generosity of spirit to overcome the sense of betrayal, for a family to forgive someone who has turned away from it, and for everyone to stand together.
Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is a shy seventeen-year-old maths genius who naively agrees to accompany the most popular girl in the school, eighteen-year old Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba), to Ueda where the family is to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Sakae Jinnouchi (Sumiko Fuji), her great grandmother. He’s disconcerted to find himself allocated the role of sherpa, carrying all her baggage on the journey. Worse, on arrival, he’s surprised to be introduced as her boyfriend. Kenji is like most of his peers at school and attracted to Natsuki, but he’s never had the courage to do anything about it. The only reason she holds him out as her boyfriend is to get a little peace from the endless nagging she receives from the family who expect her to marry and contribute to the next generation. She doesn’t see Kenji as a person. He’s merely a convenient bag for her to carry home with her, as something to be shown off on her arm as a fashion accessory.
As a family, the Jinnouchis are descendants of a samurai who challenged the Tokugawa clan in 1615. Through time, families in different cultures have only had the strength of the few relatives but, if they formally band together in a defensive unit, their strength rises significantly. That said, the history of Japan is littered with examples of individual samurai or close-knit families who were able to rally support from the community in an emergency. This shows real leadership ability. In this family, great grandmother can pick up the telephone and motivate hundreds of key people to pull together in a crisis. She’s the epitome of the historical figures that could rally the villages to stand together when harvests were bad, or floods threatened, or warlords demanded tribute. Through her, we see a balance struck between the actual strength of an extended kin group and the potential strength of the tens of thousands of people who make up social networks. All it takes to promote the can-do spirit to work together is someone inspirational to reach out and touch the hearts of the people.
Wabisuke Jinnouchi (Ayumu Saitō) is an orphan who was adopted into the Jinnouchi family and has repaid their kindness by stealing their money to fund the creation of an artificial intelligence he ironically calls Love Machine. While it’s being tested by the US military, it asserts its independence and infiltrates the Oz network that not only connects major IT systems together around the world, but also operates as a gaming platform. Wabisuke is an older version of Kenji Koiso: both are somewhat introverted but brilliant. Kenji’s only social outlet is working as a moderator and code monkey on the Oz network. He’s merely adequate as a coder but has been picked to represent Japan in the next Maths Olympiad. Separated by age, they represent old and abandoned family loyalties and potential family loyalties based on a misrepresentation.
The dynamic for the narrative is the programmed self-help routines built into Machine Love. As an artificial intelligence, it’s to learn how to fit into and then take control of all the different systems it finds. While this works well when it comes to conventional IT systems, it proves more of a challenge when it comes to avatars on the gaming platform. Although the avatars are merely pieces of code, they represent human beings who object if their virtual identity is stolen. In other words, Machine Love is a metaphor for the process of making acquaintances and forming friendships. You can collect hundreds of “friends” on a social site. Indeed, you can buy “likes” on Facebook through the use of bots and sock puppets. But when the virtual meets the real world, there’s no necessity for the humans to be friends or actually like each other. To show the problem of translating an individual into a virtual person, we’re offered the youngest member of the Jinnouchi family Mansaku (Tadashi Nakamura). He’s physically small and has been bullied at school. Hence, online, he’s become nationally famous as a fighter. He’s King Kazma, the beat-em-up champion and the most devastating rabbit of all time. When Machine Love finds the disconnection between the virtual and the real world, it decides to strike directly at the real world. It takes over the system controlling an asteroid probe sitting in Earth orbit ready to leave, and sets it on a course to crash into a nuclear power plant. If the family did not have a reason to work together before, it has one now.
As a story about the love people have for each other, both within families and in other relationships, this is a great story showing how problems of alienation can be overcome when the need is great. Indeed, the depth of characterisation is remarkable, showing us multiple generations of the Jinnouchis. The quality of the animation is wonderful, not only when showing us the human world, but also in capturing the essence of the virtual environment. But the plot fails to cohere completely in the second half with far too much time taken up with battles inside the virtual world. This unnecessarily dilutes the strength of the human story. One or two short fights would have been sufficient. Despite this, Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu remains visually arresting and of high quality. It’s well worth watching.
The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)