Anime Review – Summer Wars

Hosoda Mamoru, director.  Samaa uōzu, 2009.  Translated as Summer Wars, subtitled DVD.  NTV/Funimation, 2011.

Real World, Virtual World: One World is Enough for All of Us

Jonathan E. Abel

Summer Wars is like that pop song you can’t shake from your system.  At first it is subtle, even a bit annoying, like every other song out there—nothing really new.  Later, its catchy differences appear, and you begin to understand why it is so infectious.

The hackneyed main idea of the film is that culture matters.  We are presented with an all too familiar two-world division between our world and a virtual one.  Our real world is contrasted with the virtual online world of OZ (the bastard child of an orgy between Facebook, Second Life, and Paypal) where in the flashy opening sequence a suitably disembodied feminine robotic voice tells us “you can customize your avatar,” “inside the shopping mall you can find music, movies, furniture, food, cars, real estate, vacation plans, and more,” and “OZ supports simultaneous translation for every language.”  OZ is visually stunning, combining a superflat style with dynamic Second Life-inspired camera movements through its virtual space.  This contrasts very clearly with the more standard portrayal of the real world in a traditional or at least Ghibhli-esque anime style.  The hard line between the two visual styles and the disembodied voice’s reassurances that “all of your personal information will be safely protected” establish the two-world divide in the opening minutes of the film.  But as with all good two-worlds fiction, the fun comes when, in George Costanza’s parlance, “worlds collide.”  No matter how many assurances to the contrary, what happens in OZ will not stay there!

In the end, (surprise, surprise) the extended family and the extended internet society (friends?) must work together to overcome the virus (damn the virus, not the global messaging system).  The narrative conforms largely to the sekai-kei (world-type) fiction genre in which a nerd falls for a girl who in the end saves the world.  In this version, the mysterious girl Natsuki will defeat the hacking-virus Love Machine at Koi Koi, a hanafuda card game.  What is different about this version of sekai-kei is the fact that Love Machine must suffer a number of deaths, and not all are at the hands of the final girl. Everyone must join in to help out saving the world.

These “we’re all in the same boat” sentiments may be schlocky, but they provide the film its most interesting opportunities—to present a number of different characters.  All of the players are thin caricatures of sociological types: Natsuki’s cousin Ikezawa Kazuma is the typical hikikomori fragile student, who, having been bullied at school and consequently committed to solitary computer use, becomes the highest scoring fighter of the virtual space—King Kazuma.  Similarly Jinnouchi Wabisuke is Natsuki’s long-absent cousin who lost his moral compass while studying abroad in America. And the grandmother, Jinnouchi Sakae, is the aged matriarch who keeps in touch with her network of well-connected friends and acquaintances using older social media of snail mail, New Year’s cards, and telephones.  Even the non-human character, the Love Machine, is familiar—part hacker group Anonymous, part Stuxnet, and part Watson, teamed up here to form a super-villain.  We have seen all of these types before, but in their sheer numbers the well-chosen stock characters really do seem to suggest a sense of social completeness.  So with its notion that everyone must pull their own weight in the fight against the Love Machine, the film can be thought of as one in a genre of uplifting tales of global and national unity.

The problem is that the global component drops away all too quickly. This becomes a Japan saves the world scenario, which is supported by the fact that the developer of the Love Machine is non-other than (dun-dun-dun) the prodigal Wabisuke who worked on it for the US military. Plausibility aside, it is the underlying parochialism suggested by the images of a “traditional Japan” that is most irksome in a film that could have so easily gone another familiar and possibly less reprehensible route—the global one.  After spending the first half of the film connecting the personal and social to the global, the latter half of the film virtually ignores these levels, settling on the national as the important realm.  If recent government and corporate abuses in the wake of 3-11 have taught us anything, it is that we are more likely to win out by trusting alternative information sources and social media networks than the deceptive raw feeds on NHK and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano’s seemingly forthright reports.

If the plot of Summer Wars is rather predictable, the lavish images of both the virtual reality and the everyday one make the two hours worthwhile.  Though the combination of styles (particularly using superflat as an alternate universe) has been with us for well over a decade now (see director Hosoda Mamoru’s turn of the century Digimon films (1,2,3), Summer Wars seems like the best use of this style-switching format to date, not so much because the art is better (though it is), but because the form finally meets style here.  In Digimon, the superflat realm described a vastly different digiworld where fantastical creatures are conceived gestating in digiEggs before hatching into our world through the internet.  Summer Wars is Digimon without the monsters.  Or rather, the monsters have been transformed into an Artificial Intelligence computer virus bent on exposing the interconnections between the virtual world and this world.  Here the superflat realm is used to evoke some place familiar and now even boring—cyberspace.  Superflat stylistics are more suited to represent this form of connectivity for the simple reason that they are not all that different from traditional anime aesthetics.  To borrow Thomas LaMarre’s language, superflat style is multiplanar but with slightly fewer planes than Ghibli-style animation, thereby merely heightening the vertiginous effects already present in regular animation.

If Digimon with its monsters and magic seemed otherworldly and fantastic, Summer Wars with its avatars, psychological stereotypes, and virtual spaces is downright realistic.  The real fear of identity theft and its repercussions on the most enduring virtual world of all — money — are clear enough in the daily news. Summer Wars merely has to reference the threat to re-expose us to the reality of the virtual nature of money.  The philosopher otaku might have picked up on this in Murakami Takashi’s Monogram/First Love Louis Vuitton commercials, on which director Hosoda Mamoru also worked.  Yet whereas, in the Vuitton commercials, the superflat world is equated with the commodity fetish, here there is more meat for those less concerned about Marxist readings of advertisements than about the sociological implications of living real and living virtual.

It is unfortunate that Summer Wars so quickly shuts down global concerns in favor of the more local and nationalistic.  The burgeoning global nationalism evoked by images of a globally united internet citizenry gives way, in a series of particularly irksome moments, to a much narrower nationalism in which Japan must go it alone yet again.  Though we are told the world is binding together, in the end, it is in the local and nostalgic virtual hanafuda game where the ultimate battle must be fought.

Naturalizing the differences between old and new media, real and virtual world, the film pushes us toward the view that everything is interconnected.  But in the end, what matters is what happens in unmediated real relations between people, and in that the film fails itself.  This is because stealing, lying and cheating in the cultural world are just as immoral as in the real world.  Why this was important when the film debuted in 2009 was one thing; after a decade of moments stolen by untouchable elites, the casting of Wabisuke as a sort of neocon stud who denies responsibility for the virus he set in motion is a direct criticism of Rumsfeldian worldviews.  But the Japanese nation alone (and not the world together) unites to defeat the American threat injected via Wabisuke’s brilliant design into the internet.

The film has gained renewed importance since the triple catastrophes in Japan of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns beginning March 11, 2011.   Unfortunately, this is because it suggests that to some extent the disaster narratives and save-the-world scenarios so prominent after the Aum subway attacks and the Kobe earthquake served in the mid-1990s, if not to prepare the viewing populace, at least to provide a convenient fall-back narrative for discussing the still unfolding crisis.  If only the film had capitalized on its latent one world-ism, Summer Wars might have laid a brighter path to national and global recovery.