(May contain spoilers. And English mistakes. Sorry about that.)
Summer Wars is a feature-length anime, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) in 2009. It was produced by Madhouse Studios.
Summer Wars tells the story of Kenji, a shy boy who one day is “recruited” by Natsuki, an older coleague, for a summer job at her family's home. However, as he arrives at her house, Kenji finds that the job he is required to do is to pretend to be engaged to Natsuki during the anniversary of her grandmother. It is during this ordeal that Kenji receives a strange message on the phone, a code that he, being good at mathematics, quickly resolves. Little did he know that the solution would cause chaos in OZ, a virtual world that everyone has access to and is extremely dependent on.
The animation is quite good, worthy of a feature film and it definitely does not disappoint fans of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Although the design of the characters can be somewhat plain, it is essentially the sets and the scenes that unfold in the virtual world that bring to our attention the brilliance of the art and the animation. However, when it comes to the plot and the characters, the film leaves something to be desired.
The major flaw of the movie is that it opens many doors and ends up not closing them. The film presents us some excellent ideias that are never fully developed. The virtual world had a huge potential in terms of plot, serving as an analogy, even if a bit extreme, to the current phenomenon of online communities and to our current and growing technological dependence. Just the name given to the universe, OZ, would also be a great metaphor, taking us back to the fantastic and unreal world of the Wizard of Oz. The very existence of the virus, the villain, could give us an interesting perspective on the desire for learning and knowledge, making something so valued by our society into something that can have negative consequences. But instead of developing all this, the director prefers to give more emphasis to the rural environment and the family, giving the film a more personal touch. This is especially noticeable in the first thirty minutes of the film. After an initial explanation of the virtual world and how technology evolved, it follows a long introduction to the rural scenery and Natsuki's family history and worse, without showing a connection between those two different worlds - almost making one wonder what influence one has on the other. Although the intention was to compare and contrast these two worlds, it takes so long to bring the together that this link loses all meaning. It is also noticeable throughout the film that the director tried several times to establish some comparisons, contrasts and parallels, but only once was he successful. The baseball games that runs in parallel on television just for once is successful in mirroring the main action.
In terms of character development, Summer Wars falls far short of its predecessor, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. While in the latter, there is a great emphasis on the main character and its development, in Summer Wars that does not happen - sometimes it is even difficult to know which one is the main character. Everything indicates that it might be Kenji, who is first introduced as a shy and weak figure with some socialization problems, but with a clear potential for development. However, the background of the character, which is usually necessary in order to understand his actions and reactions, is completely neglected, and again fails to establish a contrast. With the explanation of Kenji's past boiled down to just two lines of dialogue, the intention of contrasting his solitary life with the joy of having a huge family ended up causing no impact on the viewer. The improvement of the character is also too inconsistent. When Kenji seems to finally get some courage and determination, he then is presented as the weak and timid boy he was at the beginning. Even the film's climax, that should belong to Kenji, showing how he has grown and is now able to rise to the situation, is unjustly taken away and ridiculously given to Natsuki, a completely flat character whose role in the story, especially during the first half of the film had been rather secondary and passive.
As for the other characters, unfortunately the sheer amount of them does not allow them to have complex backgrounds. The grandmother, as the matriarch of the family, seems to have a great influence on other characters, as we are given to understand through the numerous phone calls she makes at the moment of chaos caused by failure in OZ. This scene is indeed the most accomplished one in the film, showing that the leader of the family who fought in past wars is worthy of its name and its title and, like any leader, is perfectly capable of commanding and encourage their “troops”. However, you never realize exactly why she is capable of that influence. What did she do in the past, what kind of life did she take to get everyone around her to respect her and listen to what she had to say? And as for Wabisuke... again, the character had some potential, but in the end, he was poorly developed, even becoming incongruous. What was the motive of his actions? Why did he steal the money, why was he absent for ten years, devoting himself to developing a project which he though would make the grandmother proud of him? She accepted it immediately when he was a child and it is quite explicit that she was always proud of him being part of the family. Why then did he feel that it had something to prove?
It is therefore the concept of family and how important it is to protect it the main message conveyed by the movie. It's an interesting message, no doubt about that. But what does that have to do with technology and the virtual world? Why extend the plot to such a global universe? One can try to make a connection and conclude that OZ is a community, a sort of a giant virtual family, but this parallelism, like many others, is never fully developed in the film. As it is a message that can be discovered in many other ways, and even more obvious ones, it just feels that the whole concept of the virtual community was there for nothing, not serving any purpose.
Though the content is a little inconsistent, Summer Wars it is still a nice movie with great entertaining value. The animation is quite good and we are left with a feeling of satisfaction in the end. It is just that we never really feel that much empathy for the characters or are completely entangled in the plot. Everything ends up falling short, which causes the movie to lack the necessary depth to be a masterpiece.