Kenji is your typical teenage misfit. He’s good at math, bad with girls, and spends most of his time hanging out in the all-powerful, online community known as OZ. His second life is the only life he has until the girl of his dreams, Natsuki, hijacks him for a starring role as a fake fiance at her family reunion. Things only get stranger from there. A late-night email containing a cryptic mathematic riddle leads to the unleashing of a rogue AI intent on using the virtual word of OZ to destroy the real world. As Armageddon looms on the horizon, Kenji and his new family set aside their differences and band together to save the worlds they inhabit in this near-perfect blend of social satire and science fiction. (Amazon.com)
Feb. 15, 2011
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Review by Melissa Marks
Asking students about Japanese culture, teachers often hear mixed stereotypes: japanimation, kimonos, samurai warriors, technology, etc. Architecture can range from shinto temples to skyscrapers. Helping students integrate these ideas so that they can recognize that the traditional and the modern can and do merge (like in any culture) can be challenging. This film, Summer Wars, can help bridge the gap.
In this full-length movie, Kenj (a math and computer geek) is asked to go with Natsuki ("the most popular girl at our school") to her family home for her grandmother's birthday. He agrees to go along with whatever she says, even when she introduces him as her fiancee. In the ensuing action, various story lines are followed: (1) the baseball championship of a local team, for whom the family cheers; (2) the return of an uncle, who was a child of the grandfather's from a mistress (and whom the grandmother adopted); (3) the world of "Oz", an on-line world in which people can shop, bank, socialize, and control their non-online worlds; and (4) the appearance of an artificial intelligence program that threatens to launch missiles at nuclear reactors. These story lines are beautifully interconnected and pull the viewer in emotionally.
From an educational viewpoint, the portrayal of life in current Japan is lovely. The kids' lives in the city are modern, technology is imbued into their existence (as it is for teens here in the States), and dress is very "western" (e.g., jeans). The family home is an estate with a welcome gate. The many rooms, separated by sliding doors, include indoor rock gardens. The mountains and river nearby show the Feng Shui that would be important in originally setting this house in its location. In the end, the funeral traditions are shown as well as the male vs. female duties.There is also references in the beginning to where the family's money came from: silk , but that it's been frittered away.
Values of respect (e.g., bowing, thanking, etc.), of being part of an "old family", of having an education, of making one's parent proud, of being "man enough", and of hard work are all imbued into this film. For example, one uncle continuously refers back to various times in the family's history when they were outnumbered, but fought. One child comments, "but we didn't win that one" and the uncle says, "you don't just fight when you know you can win." In obtaining the grandmother's approval, Kenji is asked if he is "man enough to die" for Natsuki. The parting remarks of the grandmother include that they must accept everyone who is part of the family, that they must eat together whenever they can, and they must take care of each other. The jobs that the family holds (e.g., firefighter, computer programmer, government official, medical worker, policeman) show the various jobs in Japan and the different levels of expertise.
The idea that high school kids do not date -- or kiss! -- was shown by the continuous blushing of (mainly) Kenji, who had to be cajoled into kissing Natsuki (and then he passes out) will be of great entertainment to many American students. Also, the intensity in which the family play the card game Hana Fuda amused me as games of skill are international, but Hana Fuda is specific to Japan.
I think this is a great movie to show high school students. It is fast moving, entertaining, and brings ideas about modern Japan easily to the forefront. One warning for teachers who work in conservative high schools: there is some mild cussing, but some districts get very upset about "any language" like that being used.
Questions to start discussion in a high school classroom would include:
1. How is their free time spent compared to yours?
2. How are their families the same? different?
3. What "old" traditions (e.g., holiday foods) does your family hold on to that may be comparable to Natsuki's family?
4. How far back can you trace your heritage? Why can Natsuki's family trace theirs back to the 1500s? What does that say about the Japanese culture?