Monday’s movie(s) you might have missed: Summer Wars and Wolf Children
No country’s cinema has so thoroughly explored the family as Japan’s. The master Yosujiro Ozu focused almost exclusively on interactions within families in his films. Animation, such a robust part of Japan’s cinematic legacy, is no exception. Among animators, I don’t think anyone, from any country, has asked what it is to be a family with such inventiveness and curiosity as Mamoru Hosoda.
Today, I hope to bring to your attention two of the very best animated films of the 2010s: Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Both films center squarely on families: one a huge, sprawling clan gathered for a reunion, the other a mother and her two children, simply trying to get by.
Summer Wars is one of those films so loaded with detail that explaining all of it can seem dizzying. The protagonist is a young man named Kenji. He is a mathematician who helps moderate a social network called OZ. OZ is a vast virtual world that is half-RPG, half every app you have on your smartphone. You can have a duel with a ninja rabbit there one moment and take care of your banking the next. Kenji gets invited by a pretty young woman named Natsuki to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. She explains that her family expects her to have a boyfriend, and she asks him to pretend to be hers. He accepts. We think we know where this story is going: a sweet summer romance plot, where the two characters find they actually like each other. It goes there, sure, but that ends up only being a fraction of the film’s plot.
There are two overarching plots in this film. First, Kenji goes around meeting Katsuki’s family. Her great-grandmother, Sakae, is a matriarch in every sense of the word. The family bends to her wisdom, and thankfully she possesses an ample supply. A vast army of parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and every other form of family in between shows up for the birthday party. There is nowhere to run without bumping into multiple sets of scrutinizing eyes.
The other plot involves a hostile AI called Love Machine taking over OZ. This has global implications: most of the tech-using world uses OZ, including entire banks and militaries. Somehow, Summer Wars manages to meld these two storylines together. Kenji ends up getting mistakenly blamed for creating Love Machine, and ends up having to recruit Katsuki’s family to defeat it. In classic anime fashion, we see these showdowns in full theatre: real time fights play out in the virtual world between the family’s characters and the AI.
What I just described could easily be a plot for a mindless yet fun story. What elevates Summer War is how deftly it works the story of a family into the fabric of its gleeful sci-fi absurdity. Long before we witness combat between avatars, we meet every member of the family. There are long breaks in the action for dinners, conversations, and arguments. The story is always driven the characters, and the cast is large and lovingly written. When the showdown with Love Machine ends up threatening the world, and the family rallies together to attempt to defeat it, it’s a joyful moment. The climax of the film involves a series of escalating stakes we might expect from a sci-fi adventure, but the stakes are higher and the moments more meaningful because we know and like everyone involved. We are rooting, not for a character, but a team.
Wolf Children is a major change of pace from Summer Wars, but its plot is similarly unusual. Its protagonist is a college student named Hana. She meets and falls in love with a man who (it is revealed on their first night together) is a werewolf. That doesn’t affect her feelings, and they settle down and have two children together; a daughter, Yuki, and a son, Ame. The children are also werewolves, changing between their human and wolf forms as they see fit. What happens after that I will not spoil: this is a film that spans years in Hana’s life, whose power is derived from the small moments it uses to tell the story of those years. Wolf Children is abundant with splendid scenes that deserve to be seen without being spoiled. This film is full of heart and empathy. At its core, it is about the struggles of raising children with few resources. Hosada gracefully integrates the wrinkle: the children are werewolves. Raising human children is hard enough. When an argument can turn into a literal dogfight, or if your apartment forbids pets, it creates challenges that demand some extraordinary resourcefulness from Hana.
Hosada takes this material seriously. We are soon drawn into its rhythms, its portrayal of a family with a unique set of challenges. We never see the expectations of genre storytelling creep in. Hosada has more important questions to ask of these characters. As the children get older, do they have to continue to hide their identities? How do they handle those identities? Yuki and Ame begin to develop fiercely independent streaks: Yuki wants to blend in with her friends, while Ame finds himself drawn more and more to the woods. Hosada casts no judgements on the characters for the decisions they make for themselves. He is simply observing, letting this most unusual and fascinating story play out on its own terms.
Hosada is a storyteller of immense ambition and precise touch. Both Summer Wars and Wolf Children could easily have succumbed to their inherent strangeness. Instead, both films achieve a familiar quality without pandering to genericness. Summer Wars achieves this through an extraordinary balance of its stories. Wolf Children, meanwhile, is a fable told by a scribe more interested in the characters than in lessons. Both films are lovely to look at as well. OZ is one of my favorite science fiction movie locations. Like the very best places sci-fi can take us (my personal favorites are the cities from Dark City and Metropolis) OZ is both vividly rendered (my favorite detail is a shot of half a dozen stadiums, each for a different sport, floating in an arch in the void) and replete with possibility. It is full of charming minutiae and seemingly infinite in size. And Wolf Children is often extraordinarily beautiful, in Hosada’s mastery of its tone and his attunement to its emotional beats.
Mamoru Hosada has been cutting his teeth in animation since 1999. He worked on shows like Digimon and Samurai Champloo before getting his feature film break with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. That film, a more straightforward sci-fi (based on a beloved novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has had 8 total film and TV adaptations), hinted at what he was capable of as a filmmaker: taking old-fashioned genre plots and propelling them with strong characters. Summer Wars and Wolf Children show Hosada in full command of these strengths. With both films, he turns plots that look like grab bags into stories of remarkable beauty and power.