Summer Wars, the Anime

This is an outstanding movie for the whole family. Summer Wars (サマーウォーズ, the Japanese spelling of the English phrase) combines the family interactions of films like My Neighbor Totoro with the SFnal renderings of the web inspired by books like Neuromancer (only without the books’ grit and crime), and Artificial Intelligence run amuck, as in War Games. The anime plays out on three different levels — the interactions of a big family and its personal networks, the world of the future Internet, and the gaming ethos of people (adults and children) who have grown up playing video games. (1) (2)

Summer Wars

Kenji meets the family

Summary, with spoilers.
Setup: It is the summer of 2010, and Koiso Kenji (your typical anime insecure and clueless HS student, in this case also a math whiz) has been asked to accompany Shinohara Natsuki (good-looking and popular HS girl from an aristocratic family) to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. It’s a totally random choice — he was one of two fellow students she came across, and he won the rock/paper/scissors game with his friend. Natsuki’s hidden agenda, which forms a short story arc, quickly disposed of, is to present him to her grandmother and family as her college-student fiancée. The reason is she is afraid her great-grandmother will die soon, and wants to have her meet a fiancée before that happens.

The Family
: The Jinnouchi family is an old one, dating back to the 16th Century, but has fallen on hard times — their only assets are essentially their land and the web of personal network connections they have built up. It’s huge by modern standards — brothers and sisters and their wives and husbands and their children. Part of the fun of the film is watching the interactions among such a large group of relatives. It reminds me of my East-Coast relatives on my mother’s side, and their neighbors — Orange Irish, with lots of cops and firemen. Unlike most other large-family films, this group isn’t particularly dysfunctional. It does have a black sheep, Jinnouchi Wabisuke, the adopted illegitimate son of one of the elders, who ran off to America to work on computers so that he could come back rich and make clan matriarch Great-Grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi proud of him. Another member is second cousin Ikezawa Kazuma, younger than Kenji, more reclusive, and an avid gamer. Despite Kenji’s fraudulent introduction, Great-Grandmother Jinnouchi, over a game of Koi-Koi, decides he is a real person, and asks him to take care of Natsuki.

The Internet: Imagine, if you will, that Facebook and Twitter and Skype and Amazon and Second Life and The Cloud have all been amalgamated into a single Internet-of-Things that provides access to all aspects of life — Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web writ large. It’s like a Disney vision of Gibson’s cyberspace (where the bank keeps your money), but you don’t have to jack in, and it’s accessible from (and provides services to) everything from GPS receivers to cell phones to PCs. In SW, it’s called OZ, and people shop and play games there, and the government uses it to run the country and control spacecraft. It’s safe, though, because they have a super security setup that uses 2056bit encryption. In OZ, Kenji and his friend are low-level sysadmins, and Kazuma is a super-gamer who heads the leader-board for the currently popular P2P fighting game.

The Maguffin: A rogue AI has broken loose in OZ and is assimilating everyone’s avatars (and their accounts and their privileges — like controlling all the red lights in Japan, or all the reactors). Kenji comes under suspicion because he’s one of the people who cracked the 2056bit key (overnight, using pencil and paper, yeah right). Now, Kenji and his friend, and Kazuma are fighting it, but without success. It turns out that the AI was designed by Wabisuke for the Pentagon, and was turned lose on OZ by the US Army as a field test. (As an aside, it says something about our recent actions as a country that our government and military have become the go-to, easily-believable bad guys in situations like this. We saw the same thing in HOTD — “Worldwide zombie breakout? Yeah, probably just a US biowarfare experiment gone wrong.”)

MidGame: The AI brings down the world’s infrastructure. Once they find out it was a family member who did it, the entire Jinnouchi family — well, mostly the menfolk, the women are busy with the birthday preparations — decides to take on the AI. One of the fun things is to see Great-Grandmother Jinnouchi calling up all her contacts (now high government officials), in order to get things moving. Tragically, one of the AI’s actions breaks Great-Grandmother Jinnouchi’s medical link, and she has a heart attack and dies, without an alarm going off. The men redouble their efforts, while the women immediately turn-to and start converting the birthday arrangements to arrangements for a wake.

It turns out that an extended family like that is capable of bringing together some pretty significant resources — supercomputers, generators, cooling … er…resources (3). They all gather in one room to fight the AI in OZ. Kazuma is using the supercomputer, and the uncles are using their Game-Boys. They almost win, but the AI beats them in a cliff-hanger.

EndGame: The AI reprograms an asteroid probe to strike at a nuclear plant, the exact one is unknown. Inside OZ, Natsuki challenges it to a game of Koi-Koi (4), and manages to win, with the help of the family and most of the rest of the world. Bad loser, as AI’s always are, it reprograms the probe to hit their house (5). Now, Kenji has to break multiple passwords, while Wabisuke works to rewrite the AI’s code so that he can insert an error into the probe’s guidance. Since this is a family flick, not Mad Max, you know how that works out.

Overall, it’s a great movie. Kids will like it for the kids in it. High Schoolers will like it for the video games. Adults will like it for the family.

It’s by no means perfect. Great-Grandmother Jinnouchi’s final letter is puff piece for “the family” as a concept (and spends far too much time on one person), while it strains my suspension of disbelief to hear that no-one died as a result of all this. Really? Nobody died in an ambulance stuck in traffic? No-one besides Great-Grandmother Jinnouchi had their medical telemetry go wonky?. Nobody’s house burned down while the fire department was at a false alarm? But still, given anime logic, it’s pretty good.

(1) Hosoda Mamoru, the director, also did Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The house brand is obvious. Natsuki looks very much like Konno Makoto. The artwork is similar. The clouds are identical.

(2) The anime is available in a two-disk set. The first disk is the movie itself (about two hours long). The second is mostly cast interviews, and is worth watching just to see the cast of the family at work and to see the interview with Sumiko Fuji, who did the voice of Great-Grandmother Jinnouchi.

(3) One of the uncles, Jinnouchi Mansuke, brings in his squid-fishing boat to provide power. It has so many lights on it because that’s how you catch squid – you lure them to the surface at night. When the squid fleet is out in the Sea of Japan, the lights are visible from space.


(4) Koi Koi, the hanafuda card game that features prominently in SW, can be found on the web in a mildly-addictive flash version from GameDesign. As an aside, an early hanafuda card producer was Nintendo Games, in 1889.

(5) The coordinates of the house, as shown on the OZ imagery, are 36.71333N 138.71333E, which plots into a remote, uninhabited, hot-spring-laden region of Gunma Prefecture, northeast of the town of Ueda. Google Earth shows no structures or roads anywhere around.

Did I say mildly? I meant highly.

For my other reviews, click on the Anime tag below


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