When Summer Wars was released in 2009, critics around the world hailed director Mamoru Hosoda as the next big name in Japanese animated film and compared him to Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s critical and popular success both in Japan and overseas has made him an icon—thanks to Disney distribution of his films, he is probably the most recognized Japanese director in the United States—so being called a rival or successor to Miyazaki is a big deal. To the feminist parent/guardian, Miyazaki’s children’s movies are most notable for their wealth of great female protagonists, so I thought it would be interesting to examine how Hosoda and Miyazaki compare on both a stylistic and feminist level. That turned out to be enough for a two-part post; this part is mostly about notable themes in Hosoda’s work, and the feminist perspective will be addressed in part two.
Hosoda’s first feature was The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), an adaptation of the 1967 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui; both Girl Who Leapt and his most recent film, Summer Wars (2009), won the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year and were written by Satoko Okudera. In Summer Wars, teenage programmer Kenji stumbles into battle with an artificially intelligent virus that’s wreaking havoc on the internet and fights it with the help of his classmate and her extended family. Summer Wars is essentially a remake of a 40-minute Digimon Adventure movie Hosoda directed in 2000 called Our War Game (also translated as Children’s War Game), and though the screenwriters of both films are different, the original story credit belongs to Hosoda. He also directed “Superflat Monogram,” a short film advertisement for Louis Vuitton, with superflat artist Takashi Murakami.
From top down: Summer Wars, Digimon Adventure: Our War Game, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, “Superflat Monogram”
While Summer Wars and Our War Game share the most similarities, there are themes and visual trademarks that run through all of Hosoda’s works to date. All his narratives centralize digital technology, Summer Wars and Our War Game most explicitly. For Hosoda’s characters, digital objects function as portals to another world, one where physical boundaries are shifted and abstracts take form, with a topography like a series of interconnected, permeable bubbles. Other fans have dubbed this digital netherworld “the Hosoda sphere,” and it appears much the same way in nearly all of his work so far: as a sphere that encloses with floating objects but no backgrounds, sometimes decorated with a pattern of logos or artwork, usually ringed with a band of some kind. In Our War Game, the sphere represents the Internet, or some kind of magical space that exists inside a computer screen; in Summer Wars, it is a centralized version of the Internet called OZ; in Girl Who Leapt, it is time itself, full of cogs and digital clocks; in “Superflat Monogram,” it is the representation of a fantastical fashion world.
The entrance to the Hosoda sphere is always through a digital object that functions as a kind of portal. In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, lead character Makoto gains the ability to leap through time by falling on a futuristic device the size and shape of a walnut shell, a tool that is missing from the original novel, and tracks the number of time leaps she has left by checking the digital numbers that appear on her arm. In Our War Game, it’s a computer, but in Summer Wars, the portal is anything with a screen—like real-life modern information networks, characters can access OZ from their cell phones, computers, video game consoles or GPS navigators. Even in “Superflat Monogram,” a panda creature eats a young girl’s cell phone and when she tries to retrieve it, it consumes her as well; like Alice down the rabbit hole, she falls into the Hosoda sphere. When she finally leaves with her cell phone, she questions the reality of her adventure, but the proof is in a picture she has snapped on her phone’s camera; technology functions as both a entrance to and record of a world that may or may not really exist only in her head or on the screen.
Hosoda’s characters live in a world like our own, where technology is an integral part of ordinary life, but it’s also necessary to reach fantasy worlds where the action takes place. In comparison, Miyazaki’s films offer access to fantasy worlds through physical portals that are usually in rural and/or secluded areas (think the forest in My Neighbor Totoro or the deserted arcade in Spirited Away) or carry obvious ecological messages that associate undeveloped landscapes with moral superiority (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke). When the battle takes place in Our War Game, brothers Takeru and Yamada are visiting their grandmother in pastoral Shimane and don’t have access to a computer, so they run around town trying to find one so they can help fight. In a Miyazaki film, Shimane’s remoteness, pastoral scenery and lack of modern technology would mark it as a site of magical activity, but in Hosoda’s vision (and, granted, in the world of Digimon), it’s practically a wasteland. Without a computer, they can’t access the struggle taking place inside the Hosoda sphere; they may as well be dead. In Summer Wars, Kenji accompanies his classmate Natsuki to a reunion of her family, the Jinnouchis, out in the Ueda countryside. The Jinnouchi property is old and full of antique weaponry, but when the virus threatens its safety, the family doesn’t use swords or shields to protect it—they haul in massive generators and supercomputers crashing through the gates of the estate, bringing the artillery of the information age in with a bang.
Summer Wars. Top: what it feels like. Bottom: what it looks like.
Some of the most interesting sequences in Summer Wars show battles taking place in OZ intercut with shots of their corresponding actions in the corporeal world—that is, a visual representation of what it feels like to be fighting in a computer game juxtaposed with what it looks like to play a computer fighting game. While in the digital world, you may be using every last bit of our strength to conquer an enemy, to a third party, you’re just pressing buttons on a controller. As we “surf” the Internet, characters or their avatars float and fly through the Hosoda sphere; but when we futz around online, we’re not really zooming, torpedo-like, through white space from one location to another—we’re sitting in one place, staring at a screen, occasionally moving our fingers to click or type. And yet it’s endlessly engaging, fascinating, sometimes even exhilarating. There’s something about looking directly at a screen for a sustained period of time that can make the immediate physical world melt away. Our screens are portals too, allowing us to invent, exhibit, interact and communicate, all without ever leaving a chair, and it can be overwhelming. Like the girl in “Superflat Monogram,” the images we create from the technology we consume can also threaten to consume us.
Hosoda has said that he didn’t have superflat or Takashi Murakami in mind when he designed the world of OZ in Summer Wars, but it seems impossible, considering how closely OZ’s central hub resembles Murakami’s signature bastardized-Mickey-Mouse character design. Even Kenji’s original OZ avatar is a mouse with very Mickey ears; when the virus, called Love Machine, hijacks his account and begins instigating chaos in OZ, it even wears a little cape and conducts lines of other avatars in an homage to the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Fantasia. Murakami’s use of the famous mouse silhouette seems meant to evoke Disney as the ultimate in commercialism, a jumping-off point for the absurdist satire of cartoon-y culture that is superflat.
From top down: OZ before Love Machine, Summer Wars; OZ after Love Machine, Summer Wars; “Tan Tan Bo” by Takashi Murakami; Summer Wars.
Much of Summer Wars takes place inside this candy-colored digital realm. OZ is based on the Japanese social networking site Mixi, but it has many of the same functions and priorities as Facebook—centralized information, verifiable online identities, and above all, communication. These days, it’s common to hear the complaint that social networks almost make it too easy to connect, that their format champions communication over content. It’s a valid point, but that’s also the whole reason social media is so successful: We love to communicate, with or without computers. Social networking existed before the Internet; in multiple scenes in Summer Wars, Sakae, the 89-year-old Jinnouchi matriarch, motivates her friends and family to unite in the effort against Love Machine. Her preferred forms of communication? Handwritten letter and landline telephone. Hosoda doesn’t rank one form of communication over another or assign more emotional authenticity to the physical rather than the digital; he accepts the reality of virtual reality, so to speak, showing characters occupying different levels of comfort with technology without attaching judgment to any of them, positing that relationships, especially family relationships, remain the same no matter what technological tools we may use to express them. Just as superflat artist Sayuri Michima’s “Untitled (Facebook)” flattens out the whole world of Facebook, steps back from it and shows us how little the site really is without all of the individuality that we bring to it, Summer Wars emphasizes the fact that the online world is us, for better or worse. It’s not less substantive because it’s digital—it remains a projection of our lives and relationships. The fiction part of the science fiction in Summer Wars is that our proficiency in virtual worlds could be a real asset; at one point, a character gearing up for battle with Love Machine acknowledges that he feels prepared because of his lifetime of experience of playing video games. Unlike Miyazaki, Hosoda embraces our dependence on virtual worlds, but not naively. He’s aware of its dangers and isn’t above satirizing it; the resemblance of the OZ hub to Murakami’s deranged pandas, combined with its toothy, walleyed grin, makes even the pre-Love Machine OZ appear fun, but slightly dangerous, and the entire Love Machine storyline is a cautionary tale against putting all of one’s faith in online solutions. That combination of wariness and recognition of digital culture is something I don’t think we would ever see from Miyazaki.
Hosoda, who actually worked at Miyazaki’s production company Studio Ghibli briefly on Howl’s Moving Castle, has never (that I could find) referred to himself as a successor or rival to Miyazaki. Though he has criticized Ghibli’s dominance of animated films in Japan, he continues to name himself “a huge fan” of Miyazaki’s work. He has been diplomatic about his short stint at Ghibli, saying that he left because he “didn’t get along with the staff on an artistic and logistic level” but that he “[learned] many things during [his] short time there” (translation from Japanese via French by Wildgrounds). It is tempting, I think, to place Hosoda’s work in direct opposition to Miyazaki’s, because in many ways they are diametrically opposed. Miyazaki dabbled in and has now rejected digital animation in favor of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation and openly disapproves of a culture increasingly dependent on virtual reality; Hosoda, especially with Summer Wars, devotes his entire focus to that virtual reality. Miyazaki is influenced by European and Japanese classical mythology, Bosch and Chagall; Hosoda is influenced by Disney, superflat and Nintendo. (One thing Hosoda definitely has in common with Miyazaki, though, is good old antiestablishmentarianism. The entity responsible for setting Love Machine loose on an unsuspecting cyberworld? The US Department of Defense, natch.) Miyazaki’s career is bound to end relatively soon, and his son Goro, who directed Ghibli’s most recent release, has not been outstandingly successful, so it’s unclear whether the studio’s output will continue in the same vein after Miyazaki, Sr. is gone. For all of these reasons, it’s easy to frame new-school Hosoda as a slick successor to old-school Miyazaki, to lament the end of an era in animation and to wallow in nostalgia for a time when kids were happy to play with sticks and dirt and VHS tapes and didn’t know a Digimon from a hole in the ground—or, on the other hand, to bid good riddance to Miyazaki’s outdated crunchy pacifism and walk lovingly into the LCD glare of a neon Hosoda world. But I don’t think that’s fair; I think Hosoda’s incorporation of a digitized society into his films is a natural progression. After all, both directors are still telling stories about fantasy worlds; Hosoda’s is, at least superficially, just a little bit closer to reality.
STAY TUNED for Part Two, where I will discuss gender roles and feminist messages in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars! At some length!