The Daily Stream: 'Summer Wars' Signaled the Arrival of a New Anime Auteur, But Mamoru Hosoda is More Than "The Next Miyazaki"

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Summer Wars

Where You Can Stream It: Funimation

The Pitch: Timid high school junior and math genius Kenji Koiso is strong-armed into posing as the boyfriend for fellow student Natsuki Shinohara, a spirited high school senior who drags Kenji to the rural town of Ueda for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. But after Keji receives a cryptic code on his cell phone and cracks it, he becomes the primary suspect for hacking of OZ, a vibrant virtual world that features everything from fun interactive minigames to the world’s traffic infrastructure. It’s up to Kenji to repair the damage and stop the rogue computer program responsible for the hacking.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle is set to make its world premiere at Cannes this week, and with the sci-fi romantic adventure looking to retread some old ground for the director, Summer Wars and its slice-of-life story meets digital extravaganza is a must-watch.

In 2006, Mamoru Hosoda made his big breakthrough with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a lovely sci-fi romance that remains one of my favorite movies of all time. But promising new anime filmmakers are a dime a dozen, and it takes more than one masterpiece to have one name’s bandied around as the “next Hayao Miyazaki.”

Enter Summer Wars, Hosoda’s impossibly imaginative digital adventure, which takes all of the filmmaker’s sleek sci-fi chops that he honed during his time as an animator on Digimon (later making his feature directorial debut with Digimon: The Movie) and combines them with the delicate slice-of-life sensibilities that he had tested out with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It’s hard to describe Summer Wars without it sounding like the weirdest and most anime movie out there, but Hosoda strikes an incredible balance between the wildly differing tones — and genres — of the movie. At first, Summer Wars unfolds like a serene, lazy slice-of-life movie, set in a countryside house where nothing happens outside of a crowded family reunion, where all kinds of outrageous characters vie for the attention of our quiet protagonist. But suddenly, Hosoda shifts gears, and Summer Wars transforms into an action-packed adventure that threatens to overwhelm your senses. It’s like watching a beaten-up vintage buggy morph into a giant multi-colored mech — and it’s awesome.

The virtual-reality scenes are some of the most breathtaking depictions of the digital world that have been rendered to the screen — in both the animated and live-action realm. It’s exciting, and colorful, and amorphous, with users taking on all kinds of non-human avatars that look like your Alice in Wonderland dreams come to life. And as overwhelming as the imagery can be, it’s 10 times more watchable than the gray, washed-out depictions of the digital world that Hollywood seems so fond of. Couple that with the warm, pastel tones of the real world, and Summer Wars is a veritable visual feast.

But let me walk back the “next Hayao Miyazaki” label, because I find it to be a reductive way to try to assess anime filmmakers, who can offer so much more than aping the anime titan. Hosoda himself had bucked the Ghibli influence, having been attached at one point to direct the studio’s Howl’s Moving Castle before exiting the project over creative differences. Hosoda may operate in some of the same territory as Miyazaki — the pastoral imagery of Summer Wars and the spirit-world locales of his later films like The Boy and the Beast would draw the most comparisons — but he is a very different filmmaker. (And even more different than the other anime auteur who also gets frequently compared to Miyazaki, Your Name‘s Makoto Shinkai.)

There is an…ordinariness to Hosoda’s works, an earthy warmth that surpasses even that of the cosmically-minded Shinkai and the idyllic Miyazaki. Despite the fantastical nature of many of Hosoda’s films, they feel lived-in, in a way that other anime films can’t achieve. There’s a complexity, a messiness to his characters and worlds that make Hosoda more than just the “next Miyazaki.” And you can see the beginnings of that in Summer Wars.

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