Animated films are filled with nontraditional families. Pick a Disney movie, any Disney movie — chances are the protagonist is an orphan. More often than not, they are raised by a single parent, by grandparents, or by that perennial storybook favorite, an aunt or uncle. These characters are usually shoehorned into familiar archetypes — the mentor, the workaholic, the hard-to-please parent — and very rarely do they deviate from that role, or play an active part in the protagonist’s journey.
In this regard, Summer Wars (2009, dir. Mamoru Hosoda) is an anomaly, as preternatural as its hapless star Kenji is around the loud and steadfastly loyal Jinnouchi family. Unlike the abundance of found families in animation, Summer Wars celebration of the traditional family is wholly unique. One of the ways it accomplishes this is by giving the family in question direct involvement in the adventure. Every member of the Jinnouchi family is a protagonist in their own right; moreover, they all feel like people you might have in your own family. For anyone who’s knows what it’s like to spend summers going from one family reunion to the next, sharing a dinner table with twenty other people having their own conversations around you, the Jinnouchis will be familiar. You likely have at least one of them in your extended family: the boisterous uncle who proudly (and loudly) tells the same stories over and over; the quiet cousin who would prefer to be by himself; the black sheep who pops in and out of your life, sometimes for years at a time. Summer Wars takes these relatable dynamics and filters them through the lens of an epic adventure. Underneath a high concept movie about a rogue AI is a story about a family coming together in a time of crisis.
In the world of Summer Wars, the internet has evolved into a massive virtual-reality platform called OZ, with people all over the world relying on it for everything from shopping, to paying bills, to managing their governments. Eleventh-grade student and math prodigy Kenji Koiso has just taken a summer job as a moderator, but his plans are cut short when his classmate Natsuki invites him to a family reunion. Sakae, the matriarch of the Jinnouchi family, is celebrating her 90th birthday. Believing this may be the last time she gets to see her grandmother before she dies, Natsuki ropes Kenji into posing as her fiancé so she can show him off to her family. Kenji goes along with the scheme and hilarity predictably ensues — right as Love Machine, a malevolent AI, is released into OZ and begins wreaking havoc on a global scale. With the help of Natsuki and her family, Kenji launches an attack against Love Machine, racing to stop it before it causes any more chaos.
The juxtaposition between traditional values and the modern world is suffused throughout Summer Wars. While the Jinnouchi family is large and gregarious, Kenji’s family is small and it’s implied that they don’t have an active presence in his life. Natsuki’s backstory for her fake fiancé also informs a great deal about what her family — specifically her grandmother — looks for in a suitor: a prestigious family background, an education, and a strong work ethic. Kenji’s life parallels the one experienced by many children and young adults growing up in the 21st century, but it puts him at odds with the more conservatively Japanese Jinnouchi family. The conflict between the contemporary world Kenji represents and the old school traditionalism of the Jinnouchis permeates the story to the point where, when both sides finally begin to come together, it feels less like a resolution between the characters and more like the bridging of two distinct generations.
On the extreme end of the modern world Kenji comes from is OZ, a world of bubblegum colors and adorable creatures that users can customize into personal avatars. OZ sits at the heart of the internal and external challenges the Jinnouchis face. Love Machine endangers the family, but it turns into a much more personal foe when its creator is revealed to be one of their own, Wabisuke, the illegitimate child of Sakae’s late husband.
For the circumstances of his birth to his seemingly selfish reasons for abandoning his family to move to America, Wabisuke is treated with disdain by everyone but Natsuki and his adoptive mother Sakae. Rather than putting all of the blame and thus the responsibility of stopping Love Machine solely on him, the Jinnouchi family under Sakae’s guidance takes culpability for Wabisuke’s mess. “A family tends to its own messes, and this one is no different,” Sakae sternly intones, echoing the independent philosophy that runs deep through all areas of Japanese society.
Sakae’s sense of responsibility for her family perfectly represents Summer Wars’ message and its celebration of the traditional Japanese family. When the Jinnouchis are at their lowest, it’s her wisdom that gives them the purpose they need to carry on: “Never turn your back on family, even when they hurt you. There’s no lack of painful things in this world, but hunger and loneliness surely must be two of the worst.” By bearing this responsibility, the Jinnouchis are able to come together and make use of their individual skills in the fight against Love Machine, finding strength as a collective. Noticeably, they never compromise the ideal of what their family stands for. It’s their unity becomes a vital weapon that enables them to strike a fatal blow against Love Machine, beautifully depicted in the film’s climax when Natsuki challenges it to a virtual match of Koi-Koi — a traditional Japanese card game she used to play with Sakae.
Most animated movies centered around family tend to focus on the bonds of love being tested by catastrophe. Summers Wars is refreshingly earnest with the way it approaches its interpersonal conflict and themes of finding love and acceptance in family. Unlike other fantasy movies which puts the burden of saving the world on a singular individual, in Summer Wars, Kenji has an entire family to help shoulder it. Everyone has their part to play in saving the world — a rarity in a genre of film that favors younger heroes over older ones.