Summer Wars

Hello, readers. Welcome to 2014. Let us begin.

Yesterday I made my way down to the International Film Center (or IFC as the cool kids call it) with a friend of mine to see a film called Summer Wars. And no, the irony of going to see a movie with “summer” in the title right as a blizzard was hitting New York did not escape me. The film is an anime directed by Mamoru Hosoda who is known for the films The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children, as well as his work on films for the Digimon Adventures and One Piece franchises.

The story opens with an introduction to OZ Net, a sort of MMO Virtual Reality that almost everyone and everything in the world is connected to. Those who have read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One will see many similarities between OZ and Cline’s MMO world the OASIS, but more on that later. After that we are introduced to our protagonist Kenji Koiso, a math genius who is a student and part time administrator for OZ Net. He is invited by Natsuki Shinohara, the most popular girl in school, to her a family reunion under the guise of having to do a job. However, “the job” Kenji was hired for is to pretend to be Natsuki’s fiancĂ© for the weekend. Natsuki’s grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi is old, in fact the family get together is to celebrate her 90th birthday, and not in the best of health, so Natsuki wanted to show her that she was in a relationship before she passed. Kenji isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, being a very awkward young man, but he eventually agrees to go along with it. But aside from the lie he is living, there is more trouble coming. While he is staying in the Jinnouchi home, Kenji receives a math problem from an unknown sender, and he ends up compulsively solving it. What he doesn’t realize is that by solving the problem he opens up OZ’s backdoor and allows a mysterious hacker to usurp the entire system and begin to wreak havoc all over the world.

The movie alternates between the family drama that Kenji becomes embroiled in and the ongoing problems caused by the OZ hacker. Of course the hacker issue is tied into the family (in a way I won’t spoil) and on top of that, the massive Jinnouchi clan is actually in a unique position to be able to challenge the hacker, with Kenji’s help of course. I think at points, this movie does feel a little disjointed because of these two dynamics. They don’t always balance well, and there were points where I felt more focus on the problems developing in OZ might have been more warranted. After all, the disastrous influence of the hacker leads to a lot of worldwide problems.

Another issue I had with the movie was how drama seems to continue to mount towards its finish. The group figures out a way to defeat the hacker, but then something goes wrong, and they have to come up with a new solution…and this happens several times. It does allow for all of the major characters to display their unique talents and have a chance to save the day, but as a viewer it is also a little draining. I think I would rather that the story built to a singular final battle instead of the more drawn out sequence that transpired.

However, all that being said, I did enjoy the film quite a bit and am happy I saw it. It is a lighthearted story about a family that manages to come together in a time of crisis, and through their love and cooperation are able to overcome the challenges before them. The characters are engaging, and there are many nice comic elements throughout the film. If you have the opportunity to see it, I would recommend it.

But now on to some other business. As I mentioned earlier in this post, we have to get back to Ready Player One and the similarity between OZ and the OASIS. The stories themselves are very different. Ready Player One follows more a hero’s journey arc as its protagonist, Wade Owen Watts or “Parzival”, goes on a quest to try and save the OASIS. The story is about his journey and his development throughout. Summer Wars is really about a family coming together and being able to change things because they work together. But, the opening description of OZ reminded me a great deal of the OASIS. Summer Wars was released in Japan on August 1st, 2009. Ready Player One was published in America on August 11th, 2011. Given that books are written well ahead of when they are published, it’s difficult to say if Cline saw Summer Wars before he began writing or if his story just happens to have a setting similar to that of the film (and let’s be real, viewing the future internet experience as an all-encompassing MMO isn’t the biggest leap in the world).

Why do I bring this up? This isn’t the first time that I have seen American stories that seem to draw a lot from Japanese stories. Firefly, one of my favorite TV shows, was released in the fall of 2002. It is similar in many ways to Shinichiro Wantanabe’s classic anime series Cowboy Bebop, which was released in Japan in 1998. Then of course there is The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’ famous YA trilogy has a concept that is essentially the same as the Japanese novel Battle Royale, which was written by Koushun Takami and published almost a decade before The Hunger Games release. This summer Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt will be starring in a film called Edge of Tomorrow, and I’m guessing that a lot of people who go see it won’t realize that it’s based on a Japanese novel called All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

I’m not bringing any of this up to suggest that American authors or directors steal from or plagiarize Japanese authors or directors. Summer Wars is distinctly different from Ready Player One, just like Firefly is very different from Cowboy Bebop, and The Hunger Games is again different from Battle Royale. However, as a reader or consumer you may want to start paying some more attention to Japanese narratives across all mediums. It seems to me that many American content creators are inspired by the work coming out of Japan, and I think it could be valuable, or at least interesting, to see some of the “source material” before it appears here in a different form.

Just a thought to kickoff the new year.

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