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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Summer Wars, Mamoru Hosoda’s 2009 feature-length animated film, is one of my favorite animated movies of the past ten years. It is charming, colorful, well directed, and incredibly creative, blending the real world with an online system reminiscent of what you might get when you cross Facebook with Amazon with Google with eBay. It was also a mainstream anime hit in the time when hit mainstream anime were few and far between, and its universal acclaim and appeal led to its winning the 2010 Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. So when I happened to see the manga adaptation, available from Vertical, Inc. publishing house, I immediately bought the first volume (and then, later, the second).
The manga ran in the Japanese anthology Young Ace in 2009-10, but was not available translated commercially until 2013. Hosoda gets the story credit while credits for art and character design go to Iqura Sugimoto and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, respectively. The jacket and paper are fairly high quality and the product is aesthetically appealing on the whole. The entire affair runs two volumes, the combined price of which will run you about what the Blu Ray of the film costs, which is a bit high, especially considering both volumes can be read through in just an afternoon, which is essentially how I experienced this manga (once I finished the first volume, I needed the second right away).
The comic adaptation is obviously incredibly similar to the animated feature. Ordinary seventeen year-old high school student Kenji Koiso is invited, under the pretense that he is hired help, by beautiful and popular senior class mate Natsuki Shinohara to attend a family reunion of sorts, where her entire clan will celebrate her grandmother’s ninetieth birthday and spend summer at their ancestral home in southern Japan. Of course nothing is as it seems and awkwardness ensues, as Natsuki introduces Kenji to her family as not only a Tokyo University student, but also her fiancée, much to Kenji’s chagrin.
What could have been a typical Maison Ikkoku-style Japanese story turns into a techno-thriller of sorts, however, when OZ, an online virtual world ubiquitous in this fictional universe, is taken over by a mysterious AI called Love Machine, and Kenji is (wrongly) blamed for the whole affair. The OZ sections of the manga, much like those in the animated adaptation, are a treat for the eyes. Characters are represented by various cute avatars, with Kenji spending much of his time in OZ as a doofy-looking squirrel, for example. Hosoda probably had a great time creating the avatars, and some of them, including Natsuki’s, are rather elegant and appealing. I particularly liked some of Natsuki’s extended family’s avatars, which represented their various real-world jobs (police officer, fire fighter, EMT, etc).
The good stuff doesn’t start and stop with OZ, however. The Jinnouchi (Natsuki’s extended family) clan is incredibly eccentric, entertaining, and downright funny. One of her uncles, for example, is obsessed with the family’s samurai history, and tells increasingly unrealistic stories of military adventures and exploits from his family’s history. Natsuki also has an overprotective cousin, a sports-obsessed aunt, and a mysterious half-uncle, who was born out of wedlock and has lived in America for the past ten years. The family is incredibly realistic, reminding me of my own extended clan. Not everyone gets fleshed out, however – there just isn’t the time for that. Still, you can easily tell just how much time went into creating and mapping out this family.
Summer Wars is an incredibly easy read, especially if you’ve seen the anime. As noted earlier, I tore through it in essentially and afternoon. Even though I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times, I still enjoyed this read very much. I liked getting reacquainted with the quirky characters and enjoying that the story went in unexpected places. The world of OZ remains a treat, as does the Jinnouchi clan in general. This is a surprisingly emotional tale that resonates in the way few things do without getting overly sappy or losing too much of its energy. The story builds and builds and ends in an incredibly satisfying way, which again is appreciated. Though the price is a bit steep for such a short ride, I recommend checking out the manga adaption of Summer Wars, whether you’ve seen the film or not.