After tackling time travel in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda returns in Summer Wars to the more provincial and realistic world of the Internet. Luckily the Internet here is not the boring, text heavy internet of our time, but a more garish and interesting Internet of a not-too-distant future. Pastel colored avatars, corporate headquarters and shopping centers dominate the internet world of OZ.
This story begins with Kenji Koiso, an awkward high school student who works part-time as an admin for OZ. Kenji’s otherwise boring summer doing grunt work is interrupted when Natsuki Shinohara, Kenji’s secret love and the most popular girl in school, asks Kenji’s help with an errand. Kenji agrees and finds himself dragged off to Ueda to bring presents to Natsuki’s great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. Kenji arrives at the great-grandmother’s house and learns that Natsuki’s family is rich, huge and eccentric, and that Natsuki wants Kenji to pretend that the two of them are engaged.
Kenji gamely goes along with Natsuki’s plan but his shyness makes it difficult for him to feel comfortable with Natsuki’s family. He muddles through as best he can, dodging young children and energetic baseball-loving mothers. Just as Kenji is hitting his stride, a virus hijacks his OZ account and starts destroying the virtual world. Since this is the future, destroying the virtual world means the real world starts to fall apart as well. Kenji has to join forces with the Natsuki family to fight the virus and save the world.
If this sounds familiar, a virus attacking the real world by taking over the virtual one, it is also the plot for the movie Digimon Adventure: Our War Game, directed by Hosoda and released in March of 2000. If you were like me and avoided everything Digimon/Pokemon and didn’t catch this movie (notwithstanding that my interest in Dragon Ball Z at the time hardly redeems me) you can catch up on YouTube. Still I’d watch Summer Wars before taking the time to watch Our War Game. If you find you really like Summer Wars and you want to see an earlier, rougher, Digimon version, then Our War Game is waiting for you on YouTube.
Now, ranking Summer Wars as better than a Digimon movie may not motivate you to actually see the movie. What should get you to tune in is the OZ virtual world. Hosoda stuffed OZ full of a little bit of everything whimsical. There are brightly colored creatures of all shapes and sizes, including two guardian whales, aptly named John and Yoko. The result is that Oz is one of the most beautiful virtual worlds I have ever seen. All of the objects stand out in stark contrast to the white, blank backgrounds. You can get a sense of what OZ looks like by watching a short film that Hosoda directed for Louis Vuitton, called Superflat Monogram, linked below. Good anime about saving the world needs good fight scenes and those in OZ were my favorite part of the film. The fight scenes in OZ are a pleasure to watch, full of kicks, counters, flips and feints.
I understood Summer Wars as a reflection on a world that is increasingly virtual. The risk of a purely digital-based life is that it serves to isolate us and encourages us to hide behind barriers such as avatars. These guises are convenient and comfortable and they protect us from having to open up and reveal our true selves to others online. This makes it easier to function because anonymity means that we don’t have to worry about what people think of us. Relationships in the real world are more difficult, and sometimes more frustrating to develop, but ultimately they are more rewarding, something Hosoda experience, and related to ANN, when he had began forming relationships with members of his wife’s family. By creating connections with family members, friends and strangers, we are more capable of getting things done. Of course there is still value in online relationships, the characters achieve victory in many of Hosoda’s by joining forces with a large number of online counterparts. I also recognize the irony in making these judgments while hiding behind my own avatar. But I think that it in the end it is the personal, rather than anonymous, relationships that are the most valuable.
(title shamelessly stolen from steampowered…)