Secret Santa: Summer Wars

When I received my three choices of anime to watch before Christmas via the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa project, my gut response was: I need to see ALL of these. One choice was Air; another, Legend of Black Heaven, intrigues me perhaps the most of the three suggestions, and was a show I’d never heard of. If I didn’t have such a heavy teaching load this semester, it would probably have been my choice. But since my time is limited this term, I decided to watch the celebrated feature-length film Summer Wars. TWWK had already written a piece on this show back in February, in which he took a somewhat different direction from the one I plan to take. Naturally, so I told myself, since watching anime has so destroyed my attention span that I cannot absorb anything in chunks lasting more than 24 minutes, I would watch this movie in five or six sittings.

I watched it in two. And now I know at least something of why it’s so celebrated.

Before anything else, I need to say what everyone else already knows about this movie: it is of high quality. Here I refer not only to standard production values such as the animation itself and the script, but also to the themes and ideas presented. Summer Wars does about a hundred things, and does them all well. Considering that this movie manages to fit all these hundred things into a feature-length film, I think it is fair enough to call this work both ambitious and successful.

It is not far into the movie when the protagonist Kenji, a math genius who is otherwise a typical anime high school student with few friends and little interaction with his parents, is thrown into the largest and wildest family he has ever met. The premise that he is masquerading as the boyfriend, even the fiance, of the lead female character Natsuki, somehow seems plausible. Kenji tries his best to fit in as the family prepares for the matriarch’s 90th birthday in a week.

When a vicious cyberattack leaves the internet (or what the internet has by then become) paralyzed worldwide, it at first seems that it is Kenji’s fault. Although Kenji is soon cleared, it is the family matriarch Sakae who first decides that she will not take this situation lying down. Getting on her old-fashioned rotary phone and opening her old-fashioned phone directory, Sakae calls every family member, every old friend, every old enemy, everyone she can think of who might be able to contribute to solving this problem. And in words carefully crafted for each one, she makes it clear to each person she calls that the need is dire, but he or she has an important role to fill in meeting the need. The lesson is clear that, whether in the world of anime when one formidable 90-year-old woman may very well start the process that saves the world, or in the real world when an 86-year-old man composes an autobiographical “rage comic” that gets more than 10000 hits, old age by no means equates to passivity and uselessness.

A matriarch who leads by example

When Kenji returns to Sakae’s mansion, he quickly puts his own skills in math to work in solving the problem, navigating cyberspace together with Natsuki’s young relative Kazuma. By the time Kazuma attempts to intervene as only a genius at gaming can, by using his (apparently famous and respected) avatar “King Kazma” to do battle with the forces that have taken over the internet, things have spun quite out of control.

Over 9000 accounts stolen? Yes, you might say that!

The thing we must not miss at this point is that Kazuma is defeated. To someone well used to the standard shounen fare of fighting ridiculously powerful enemies by spamming the same attack move again and again until it works, this turn of events is almost refreshing. Kenji, however, is undaunted — and enlisting Natsuki’s help, the family tries again to face down the cyberenemy. Natsuki is a genius in her own right, at the traditional card game hanafuda. The enemy accepts the wager of cyberspace accounts on a card game. And one by one, the rest of Natsuki’s family stops bickering, stops their frantic planning, and joins forces as one unit. Soon the card game on which the fate of cyberspace rests attracts the attention of the rest of the world. When Natsuki ultimately prevails, wresting control of the internet from the enemy, it is a victory for mankind, for Natsuki’s family — and for her great-grandmother who started it all on her rotary dial phone.

The winning play for Natsuki, her family, and the world (both virtual and real)

Anyone who knows my tastes in anime at all, knows how I feel about this wonderful word nakama 仲間 which roughly translates as “comrade.” My sense, though, is that it doesn’t go very easily into English, and that one gets more out of watching Sai learn from Naruto about this word than by looking it up in a dictionary. Watching Summer Wars helped me to see the possibility of one’s own relatives being nakama also. But what of hapless Kenji, thrown into this family against his will and with no concept of where it would lead? By now, it almost seems he had better plan on marrying Natsuki, because he is family now regardless.

It's just a kiss on the cheek, Kenji! A fine progenitor YOU'LL make!

With the battle won, we can leave Kenji with his “new family” in good conscience. I have touched on only a few of the main events of Summer Wars — I did say that there were a hundred things that happened, and I didn’t want to spoil all of them even if I had the space to do so. But to say that Summer Wars is worth seeing, and that I am grateful to my Secret Santa for encouraging me to see it at long last, would both be understatements.

8/10 at MAL — only because I couldn’t give it an 8.5, because it was enjoyable but not life-changing, and because (as everyone knows by now) I am a tough grader.

R86

R86 is a chemistry professor, which is the sort of job that probably made you stop reading already. He teaches at Texas A&M University, also known to Austin dwellers as "Enemy Territory." In his spare time, he enjoys music (flute/saxophone/clarinet and MIDI/Vocaloid synthesis), gaming, and watching anime.

6 thoughts on “Secret Santa: Summer Wars

  1. Summer Wars- a great film, one that I love to pieces. Second only to Spirited Away. Glad to know you liked it! Of course, your rating also brings up the question of what didn’t work for you, because it was “only” an 8.5. And, of course, mention must be made that the moment that really spoke to me in the movie was when the letter from Grandma was read- tears welled up in my eyes.

    I’ll be excited to be doing the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa that they set up on MAL, but I won’t be getting my recommendations until Christmas! MAL is better for me, since I don’t have a review on everything I’ve watched on there.

    1. Summer Wars is definitely something I put off seeing for far too long. Another movie in that category is Totoro. (also looks at both Evangelion movies sitting on shelf)

      It is not that anything in particular didn’t work for me in this movie. It is simply that it didn’t rock me to the core of my being. I reserve 9s and 10s at MAL for anime that has this effect on me and is of superior quality. Summer Wars is certainly the latter at least.

      (I may very well rethink how I rate things at MAL, since I have given only two 10s ever — to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and to the second season of Oofuri. Then again, I don’t have anything there rated under 3, my idea being that I would find anything that would get a 2 or a 1 to be unwatchable.)

      Different anime series have different effects on people. TWWK and I have a long-standing disagreement on Cross Game, for instance. Summer Wars is something that I will probably watch again someday, and who knows? I might notice some things that hit me hard, that I missed before. I have also been changed forever by very mediocre shows such as Onmyou Taisenki, so I suppose there’s no accounting for taste!

      I remember the letter you mention, starting Kazoku e. That was indeed a stunning moment. However, I left out quite a few other pretty important plot points involving Natsuki’s great-grandmother, both for the sake of brevity and because I didn’t wish to spoil too much. 😉

  2. You asked me before about watching Digimon – even though you generally avoid movies, you might want to watch the Digimon movie. I think I must’ve mentioned this before – the creator of this film also did the last (and longest, if I remember correctly) part of the Digimon film. The movie is the best part of series involving characters from the first two years and I think you might like it, because the fight scenes in Summer Wars had their birth in similar scenes from the Digimon film.

    1. That’s probably a good idea — I’ll have to look around for it. You know I have both Evangelion movies in my backlog too anyway, and recently finally got around to watching the Haruhi movie. 🙂

      It would be a similar idea to your watching that Saint Seiya movie, “Saishuu Seisen no Senshitachi.” I think it would do a fine job of introducing you to the flavor of the whole series, without your watching the whole series, which would be a huge (and unnecessary) time commitment.

      After all, don’t forget that I gave even Saint Seiya only an 8. 😉

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