The release of Summer Wars at the end of March can’t come soon enough for some anime fans. It is, after all, the latest work from director Mamoru Hosoda who directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. This time round Hosoda provided the story as well as directing the feature-length anime, although Satoko Okudera actually wrote the script.
The main protagonist in Summer Wars is 17-year-old Kenji Koiso who spends his free time moderating the social network OZ with his friend Takashi Sakuma. In school Kenji is a maths whizz who only just missed out on the national Olympics.
While highly intelligent, Kenji is also very shy. When asked to take on a job over the summer by his pretty and slightly older classmate Natsuki Shinohara, he is both forthright and shy at the same time. He is eager to help, but feels uneasy in the presence of such a beauty. Ultimately he decides to leave his post of OZ mod and follow Natsuki to the countryside.
What Kenji doesn’t realize is that the job involves pretending to be Natsuki’s fiance at her great grandmother’s 90th birthday. But after agreeing to go along with it Kenji’s problems are only just beginning.
While visiting Natsuki’s great grandmother he receives a difficult maths puzzle in a text message from an unknown source and proceeds to solve it overnight. It later turns out the answer was used for hacking into OZ. Now he is accused of breaching the system while the real hacker slowly starts to take over the social network by way of an AI known as Love Machine.
The whole population of Japan seems to have an OZ account and spend their days in there just like a lot of MMO players do today. But with the system breached, those accounts are disappearing, being used by the hacker to become ever stronger in the online world and start to influence the real world.
Kenji has to try and fix OZ while his face is all over the news and Natsuki’s family are more than a little suspicious of him. Ultimately the battle not only brings Natsuki’s family closer together, but sparks something between her and Kenji.
Summer Wars is one of the most varied mixes of locations, characters, and technology I have seen for a while. The main setting is Ueda, Nagano which is little more than a large rural house surrounded by fields. This is combined with OZ (best imagined as Facebook on steroids) and scenes from a gridlocked Japan struggling to cope with the loss of an important digital world.
While an entertaining watch, the film also reminds us that our reliance on digital services and gadgets can be dangerous. The switching from real-world characters to the clean digital avatars of OZ reinforces that feeling of disconnect between the two, while at the same time showing how one relies on the other.
There are a few twists and turns along the way that divert from the main story thread, and it does not get boring. The mix of skills within the Shinohara family is a little unbelievable, but is necessary for this story to work. While it’s believable that a 90-year-old woman can have important social links across Japan, it’s less so that one of the grandsons who runs a computer shop has access to a military-grade server at the drop of a hat.
What you can’t fault are the visuals and voice acting, and with the story maintaining a decent pace, this anime is very watchable. Whether it’s a buy or not will depend on your previous experience of Hosoda’s work, and your preference for technology in anime. The best way I can describe it is that this is an anime for those who enjoy Ghibli’s work as much as a series of Ghost in the Shell or .hack.