Jonathan Clements gets into the hidden meanings of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars.
“You know,” says Mamoru Hosoda, “I have been directing films for over a decade, and until now I haven’t killed off a single human being. I’m a little bit proud of that. I ask another director how they’re doing, and they’ve already lost track of the body count! I’ve made a lot of works for children with Toei Animation in the past, so obviously that steers me towards a certain resistance to death. But even in Summer Wars, I resisted the death that we had in the script, even though it was clear that it was a narrative necessity. It was a big challenge for me.”
After the worldwide success of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), the Madhouse production team was made an offer they could not refuse: the chance to make a new anime feature. Whereas TGWLTT had been based on an acknowledged classic of Japanese science fiction, known to every generation in Japan since its 1965 debut, this new film would be all-original. It was a tall order for screenwriter Satoko Okudera and director Hosoda, but the result is sure to become a classic of anime. That is, at least, precisely what the creators are aiming for – for all its immediacy and heartfelt sentiment, Summer Wars has also been carefully constructed as a ready-made family favourite, designed to take the place on future Japanese TV schedules that might be occupied in Britain by The Great Escape or The Wizard of Oz.
Summer Wars is Ghost in the Shell for the Facebook generation, with a self-aware artificial intelligence escaping from a sea of data and somehow attempting to influence the real world. But its inspiration is much more down-to-earth, said to commence shortly after the release of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, with the petrified director Mamoru Hosoda’s first visit to see his fiancée’s family, and the awful, overwhelming realisation that he faced a tsunami of information on family histories, feuds, and tragedies which was simultaneously nothing to do with him and yet the foundation of his life to come.
“My experience of marriage has been great,” he told the online culture magazine Cinra.net. “I’d been scared with stories of complexities and contracts, but they were wrong. But when I went to meet my fiancée’s relatives, people I had never met before suddenly became members of my ‘family’: that was something I found very mysterious and interesting. I wanted the film to convey some element of that experience.”
As in most other societies around the globe, the traditional kinfolk concept in Japan has been radically altered by modern life. The “average” three-child family fussed over by the long-running anime character Sazae-san now seems ludicrously large by 21st century standards – what started as a 1940s slice-of-life has been turned into a quaintly odd period drama by straightforward demographics. Half a century of capitalism, reprioritising and belt-tightening has had as drastic an effect on the Japanese population as China’s draconian one-child policy. Anime shows like Bubu Chacha reflect a new norm in Japanese society – children who grow up alone, not only lacking siblings, but also lacking uncles, aunts and cousins. The nuclear families of the 20th century have reduced to the minimum possible size, often rendered even smaller by divorce. With no space even for pets, an entire Japanese generation is growing up in solitude.
This has had many ramifications for the anime business. Most noticeably, there are simply less children around, no longer present in sufficient numbers to swell anime viewing figures to quite the extent enjoyed by Astro Boy in the 1960s. Moreover, it has encouraged some animators to offer rural imagery not as a reflection of modern children’s reality, but as an escape from it. Most famously, Hayao Miyazaki concocted My Neighbour Totoro as a virtual vacation in the lost countryside of his own childhood.
Himself an only child, Mamoru Hosoda conceived Summer Wars in a similar fashion, not merely as a film for all the family, but a film for those without such a family at all. Kenji, the protagonist, has a mother who is “busy at work” and a father working abroad. With no siblings, he is entirely alone, and swamped with the vivacious, noisy camaraderie of Natsuki’s relatives. To some viewers, the family itself is a nostalgia trip.
“You could call Summer Wars a family film, but it’s maybe better to call it a relatives film!” quips Hosoda. “There are lots of [nuclear] families in films, but not a lot of relatives. This isn’t the first time in action movie history that we’ve met the protagonist’s relations, I guess. But the thing that was constantly on my mind throughout production was the desire to make something that all the relatives would want to see.
“Once upon a time, the world of the Internet was cyber-solid, cutting edge – that was the impression that I had. But now the Internet world is much more mundane for us. So for a contemporary depiction, I played on the idea of the familiar, both in terms of the net and in terms of one’s relatives. I depicted them together.”
Hosoda allowed this dual nature to cross over into the animation styles he employed, using hand-drawn animation to give an organic quality to the real world scenes, and computer animation for the all-digital world of the web. “People argue about whether a movie should be CG, or if computers ruin something that was better done by hand. So I thought I’d compromise and do both!”
This is no mere artistic conceit. The idea of links both analogue and digital constantly recurs through Summer Wars. Great grandma Sakae may not even own a modern phone, but she sits amid a network that proves easily to be the match of World Wide Web – the endless round of gifts, kindnesses and obligations that has held East Asian culture together for centuries. When the young adults fail to achieve anything with orders and chains of command, it’s Sakae who pulls everything together, by calling in a lifetime of favours.
Summer Wars deliberately recalls the look of a departed Japan, not only in its visuals, but in its cinematography. Hosoda admits that his long tracking shots across tableaux of action are in imitation of Ozu. But other elements of Summer Wars reach even deeper into the past.
Summer Wars is set in the hills of Nagano, close to Hosoda’s birthplace in Toyama. “At first I wanted to set it somewhere else. But once you know the history and folklore of the Ueda region, you realise it had to be there. The territory was once ruled by the Sanada clan, and I’d learned that it was a historical fact that local forces had twice defeated Tokugawa Hidetada.”
During the civil wars that ended with the rule of the Tokugawa clan, the first Shogun’s son Hidetada had marched through Ueda on his way to rendezvous with his father’s forces. In 1600, he laid siege to Ueda Castle, hoping that the occupants would soon see which way the wind was blowing, and come over to his side. Instead, the locals held out, critically delaying Hidetada, who eventually abandoned the siege. But the damage was done, and Hidetada was late for the crucial, nation-building Battle of Sekigahara.
In a typically Japanese reverence for the nobility of failure, Hidetada’s absence didn’t make that big a difference. His father still won the battle, and Hidetada still ultimately became the second Tokugawa Shogun. But in the remote mountains of Ueda, there was an enduring sense that the locals had scored a moral victory. They had done what was right, even if they lost the war.
“Me and the other Ueda people are very proud of it,” notes Hosoda. “It inspired such a great local spirit, and impressively, the locals still have it, so I decided it was well suited as a setting for the story.”
No surprises, then, that another subtext in Summer Wars is the samurai past, as Natsuki’s family relate their ancient ties to the clans that fought in the civil war. This comes to the fore in other places, such as the suit of priceless armour that watches from the hall, or the naginata pole-axe that Sakae wields – the naginata is the traditional weapon of the stay-at-home samurai wife, designed to unseat attacking horsemen.
GRANNY KNOWS BEST
Despite our entry to the film through its juvenile leads, the hapless latch-key kid Kenji and his pushy love interest Natsuki (“Summer Hope”), the core of the drama revolves around two other characters – the 90-year-old matriarch Sakae and Wabisuke, the illegitimate son of her husband.
Character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto based Wabisuke on one of Japan’s most famous bad boys: the actor Yusaku Matsuda (1949-89). The son of a Nagasaki father and an ethnic Korean mother, Matsuda shot to TV fame as the tousle-haired rookie cop in Howl at the Sun (Taiyo ni Hoero, 1972) and again as the maverick, moped-riding star of Detective Story (Tantei Monogatari, 1979). International fame beckoned after his performance in the film The Family Game (1983), and his breakout role should have been as the villainous Sato in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989). However, soon after completing filming, he succumbed to cancer, turning him into on of the Japanese media’s candidates for a too-fast, too-young James Dean immortality. His memory lives on, thanks in part to his wife’s candid biography and the continued acting successes of his children, but to his role as an icon to anime designers. Most noticeably, Matsuda is the model for Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel, and now Wabisuke the prodigal son of Summer Wars, the soft-spoken, melancholy but confident boy that the family has never accepted, and who has been accused of running off with granny’s money.
As well as being Natsuki’s first crush, Uncle Wabisuke still appears to be the apple of Sakae’s eye. Despite his unwelcome origins and outsider status, he still has a scene in which he recounts his fond memories of his time with her, when she functioned in the place of his biological mother. Mamoru Hosoda, too, recalls times in his own childhood where he felt something akin to the young Wabisuke’s sense of distaff belonging.
“When I was young, I would often be left at my grandmother’s house. I guess I became a Grandma’s Boy and that experience is reflected in the work.”
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Wabisuke isn’t merely the black sheep of the family. He is a direct link to the world at large, with connections to the American military and international academia. When he arrives at Sakae’s mansion, he is the first sign that the remote Japanese countryside cannot pretend to be separate from the rest of the planet’s troubles. Soon after Wabisuke’s return, the supposedly benign virtual world begins to break through into people’s lives. Wabisuke is a local problem, an irritating family secret, who is also somehow the catalyst of a nationwide state of emergency. Similarly, his creation, the Love Machine, is a dangerous pet that has turned on its master.
The OZ virtual world allows Hosoda and his crew to examine the way in which Japan is connected to the wider world. The apparently harmless gaggle of online avatars, initially presented as little more than glorified Pokémon, are soon shown to have the ability to exert damaging effects on everyday life, disrupting traffic, shutting down vital amenities, and threatening to end the world as the characters know it. Hosoda recalls an interest in the understandably insular attitudes of the Japanese, whose geography, language and media often lead them to believe that they are somehow insulated from global issues.
“I worked in a sense of the Pax Americana,” says Hosoda. “How the minutiae of our daily life are entwined inextricably with globalism. I didn’t just want there to be a bad guy who was outside the family. Some family members cause enough trouble on their own. I wasn’t being political, just contrasting domestic and global issues, and the convergence of problems within the family. I mean, if our ‘family’ can’t deal with the problems it already has, how can it deal with the problems of the world around it?”
“In old American movies, the bad guys are easily depicted: Nazis or Communists, within a conflict-based formula… But I don’t think such diametric oppositions work in a Japanese context. Instead, I wanted to create an action movie for someone in Japan, that found the conflict born within themselves. Even now, I think, in American cinema, there is an increasing number of works like that. I think the big change came after September 11th.”
Summer Wars is a film of deliberate contrasts, juxtaposing low-tech, homespun pursuits with the high-tech digital world we live in. The centrepiece is the online world known as OZ, which Mamoru Hosoda based on his experiences of the Japanese virtual community mixi. A social networking site not unlike Facebook, mixi has a number of peculiarities – its text is Japanese-only and requires a domestic email account, effectively shutting out foreigners. Membership is by invitation only, and pages come with a Footprint function that tells a user exactly who has been looking at his or her data. Today, the service has 25 million registered users, perhaps one in every five Japanese people, although the statistic does not take into account users with multiple or lapsed addresses.
Hosoda denies any direct connection between the look of the OZ virtual world and the Superflat art-style of his former collaborator Takashi Murakami. Nor does OZ itself relate to the most obvious candidate, the Wizard of Oz.
“The name OZ comes from a big supermarket that used to be nearby back in the days I worked for Toei Animation. I lived in a boarding house, and went to work, and the third point of my daily life was this place called LIVIN Oz. That’s how it got dragged in. It’s gone now; there’s a cinema there.”
The warm nights and August vistas in Summer Wars make it harder for foreign viewers to see one of its most powerful resonances. At its heart, Summer Wars is a secular “Christmas movie” of the same stripe as Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers, snatching all the traditions of seasonal specials and repackaging them at a time when the Japanese are most likely to be with their families. Pointedly, this is not Christmas Eve, often a day like any other for most Japanese, save for a modern fad that expects shy boys to pop the question to their girlfriends on 24th December. Instead, the Japanese equivalent of the Western “holiday season” is the height of summer, with schoolchildren at home with nothing to do, and adults more likely to be taking their limited vacation time.
Summer Wars is riddled with memories of family gatherings – the awkward division of labour between newcomers in a stranger’s kitchen and someone else’s shed, sullen modern teenagers desperate to return to the online existence that defines them, or infants pushed into traditions and pastimes on which the older generation place a baffling value. It also reflects the aspirations of the Japanese media. So much Japanese television, particularly TV movies and summer specials, seem intended for an insanely wide-ranging audience, from grandmothers to toddlers. This, it has been argued, is the only possible explanation for the corny acting in certain programmes, as if the creators almost expect them to be only half-heard amid the din of a family gathering. Thank the fates, then, that we are not subjected to the usual lazy cliché of Japanese summer entertainment, which is to simply take a bunch of characters from a pre-existing show and pack them off to a hot springs resort, where tedious high jinks inevitably ensue.
Instead, Summer Wars pushes a media mogul’s idea of how a Japanese family should spend its summer vacation: watching baseball (and saving the world). Yomiuri TV, one of the movie’s backers, is the same corporation that owns the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, themselves the subject of the long-running anime series Star of the Giants. Clearly intending Summer Wars as a staple of summer broadcast seasons to come, the Yomiuri corporation makes sure that at least one family member is baseball-crazy.
The baseball on offer, however, is not that of the Yomiuri channel. It is the Japanese High School Baseball Championships, also known as the Summer Koshien. Despite in-roads by other games, particularly soccer, it remains the largest-scale amateur sports event in Japan. The Koshien competition unifies the Japanese like no other event (or so claim the broadcasters), featuring idealistic youths from every prefecture in Japan. Regional champions fight it out in mega-matches at the Koshien stadium in Hyogo, sometimes at a rate of four games a day. Crucially, it drags in the classmates and families of the participants as eager viewers – one of the few televised events that can expect to attract a cross-generational audience.
A critical part of the drama in Summer Wars rests not on baseball but on Hanafuda, a notoriously complex card game that has its roots in Japan’s samurai past. During the Tokugawa Shogunate that dominated Japan from 1603-1868, gambling was illegal and playing cards were a forbidden foreign import. This did not stop a number of games springing to life, often played with supposedly “decorative” cards that featured Chinese art images and no numbers. The eventual result was Hanafuda (“flower bids” or “flower notes”), a complex combination of Snap and Go Fish in which players matched combinations of particular cards. Behind the scenes, professional gamblers drew up score charts for Hanafuda combinations that made it possible to bet on the outcome, and card games persisted in secret.
The cards in Hanafuda are divided into twelve seasonal suits, each containing four images. For August, for example, the images include Geese in Flight and Full Moon with Red Sky. Players must get rid of all the cards in their hand by matching them to newly overturned cards on the table. Without a match, they must pick up the cards that they have turned over. A cry of koi-koi (“play on”) represents a player’s decision to force another round, instead of banking the points that he or she already has.
In 1889, after the fall of the Tokugawa clan and the liberalisation of Japanese society, Fusajiro Yamauchi went into business making newly-legal Hanafuda cards on bespoke mulberry bark paper. The cards took off in a huge craze, were soon adopted by both professional gamblers and amateur players, and spread across Asia, particularly to Japan’s growing colonies and expatriate communities. It made Yamauchi a rich man, and his company achieved great success. With a card-player’s trust in fate, he named his company “Leave Luck to Heaven”, or in Japanese: Nintendo.
It was Yamauchi’s grandson Hiroshi who took the Nintendo corporation into new areas, particularly electronics. But to this day Nintendo continues to manufacture Hanafuda sets, not only for sale in Japan, but in Korea, where the game is called Hwatu, and Hawaii, where it is called Sakura. Better known today for the Gameboy and the Wii, the Nintendo games company is also an investor in Summer Wars, and surely had a role to play in the collision of tradition and modernity that dominates the film’s final showdown.