Never Turn Your Back on Family: An Analysis of Relationships in Summer Wars
Theories about communication are crafted in order to almost-accurately predict the communicative behavior of individuals in a number of settings and intentions. Within the realm of both old, large families as well as new, young ones, the utility of discerning communication commonalities among participants in these relationships is indispensable. Summer Wars, a 2009 animated film directed by Mamoru Hosoda, is exemplary of a number of theories and principles on communications which have been explored over the history of communications as a subject of academic investigation. Ranging from the interpersonal and nonverbal to the massive and computer-mediated, the film uses the protagonist as a vehicle for exploration of communication as a life- and world-changing agent in human experience.
The Relationship Interaction Stages Model, which offers a suitable rubric for the development of characters’ relationships within the film, shows various stages of interpersonal behavior which reflect the severity of sentiments harbored by the participants of the relationship toward other participants. The model ranges in its stages from “coming together” – the stages of initiation, experimenting, intensifying, integrating and bonding – to “coming apart” – differentiation, circumscribing, stagnation, avoiding, and terminating. It is through this model that the behaviors of a number of key characters in Summer Wars – namely Kenji, Natsuki, Wabisuke, Sakae and Kazuma – can be assessed as fluctuations in relationship status within a large family in the flux of institutional change.
The differentiating stage is one in which differences between individuals or groups is emphasized by the participants, with resent often being a major sentiment exhibited by the parties. This stage is reached on a group basis by the male members of the Jinnouchi clan following the matriarch Sakae’s death, as they pursue a plan to take Love Machine down while the female members of the family concern themselves with preparations for the funeral. On an interpersonal level, Kenji and Natsuki also experience this stage with each other, with Natsuki angrily running from him after seeing her uncle Wabisuke remove himself from the clan and leave the house. To her, Kenji seems too much of an outsider to understand her feelings.
Circumscribing is a stage marked by the focus of individuals on their own personal matters, actively distancing themselves from each other. This, collectively, is developed by the men and women of the family, with the men, including Kenji, attempting to work on a plan to take on the virus, and the women focusing on the funerary arrangements for Sakae. Members of the two groups complain about each other’s seemingly-misplaced priorities, showing their greater desperation and concern for the matters at their respective hands.
The stagnation stage is marked by a lack of change in relational intensity, boredom, and short answers to questions from relationship participants. Wabisuke, a “love child” of Sakae’s husband who is first shown as a late, ill-welcomed arrival to the reunion, attempts to strike up a conversation with family members, only for most of the adult members of the clan to show their anger at his presence due to past misdeeds. He remains, for a period, on the periphery of family functions with a sense of tedium, with the adult members remaining leery and dismissive of his presence. His lack of change in relationship status vis-à-vis the family reflects the intolerant sentiment blocking the two parties from any progression.
The avoiding stage is one in which mostly physical isolation from other family members occurs with only minimal communication. It is in this stage which we find characters like Kazuma, who isolates himself from the clan while playing in the virtual world Oz as his character King Kazma. He hardly communicates or interacts with other family members or their activities, only involving himself with the family when needed, asked or drawn by a sudden impulse of self-interest.
The termination stage, in which absolutely no contact of a physical or communicative nature is maintained between parties, is reached by Wabisuke, as he had already spent ten years of his life in the United States and had only come back to Japan for the sake of his adoptive grandmother Sakae, who he calls “you old hag” in a semi-joking tone of voice. This termination is renewed after he finds himself at the point of an antique spear wielded by Sakae in anger for his creation and selling of the virus to the U.S. military; he flees in a rage from the estate and remains in isolation from the clan until the one person who has admiration for him, Natsuki, calls him home with the news of Sakae’s death.
The initiating stage, in which individuals first interact with each other, is illustrated from the beginning of the film. Natsuki and Kenji enter this stage when Natsuki, the “prettiest girl in school,” enlists him to join her on her train trip to her family reunion. The two ask questions of each other along the way about their interests and hobbies, such as Kenji’s prowess in mathematics and the size of Natsuki’s family; this stage transforms into something too radical for Kenji’s tastes as Natsuki surprisingly introduces him to Sakae as her fiancée.
The intensifying stage involves probes into, and disclose, each other’s personal morals and values. Sakae participates in this stage when, after he is introduced as Natsuki’s “beau,” she sternly questions Kenji on his ability to protect Natsuki from any harm or danger, receiving a reluctant answer in the affirmative before smiling with assurance. Before he is (temporarily) hauled away for his alleged unleashing of a virus, Kenji shows more of himself to Sakae by disclosing to her his own comparative lack of a family life compared to that enjoyed by the Jinnouchi clan, ending with an expression of appreciation to her and to the clan. Finally, after explosively driving off Wabisuke from her estate, Sakae invites Kenji to play a (final) card game called “hanafuda,” disclosing Natsuki’s shortcomings and wagering (successfully) that, if she wins, he will “promise to take care of Natsuki.” With these trades of inquiry and information, Kenji and Sakae establish a rapport as individuals sharing commonalities in values and interests.
The integration stage, in which the lives of individuals begin to merge and individuals begin to see themselves as participants in a larger collective, is reached by most of the key characters in the film in their own individual ways. Wabisuke’s isolation is ended when Natsuki calls his phone with the news of Sakae’s death, to which he reacts by desperately rushing back to the clan house to pay his respects to his grandmother. This sudden turn of emotion is reciprocated by the family to Wabisuke on Sakae’s written wishes for them to welcome him back. Kazuma also experiences this stage as he begins to emerge from his isolation and become more involved in the family’s struggle to stop the artificially-intelligent Love Machine virus, using his King Kazma character to fight the avatar incarnation of the virus. Natsuki herself is emotionally reintegrated into the clan by being enlisted to play a life-or-death card game of Hanafuda with the Love Machine, waging the Oz avatars of her family members in order to gain hundreds of millions of stolen accounts from Love Machine.
The integration stage is also reached on a monogamous level between Natsuki and Kenji at various points in the film. In the immediate aftermath of Sakae’s death, a distraught Natsuki begs Kenji to hold her hand, to which the reluctant main protagonist eventually complies as she weeps. It is this contact which marks the duo’s first attempt at intimate self-disclosure, with Natsuki, in a time of depression, showing her interest in physical and emotional solidarity from someone who is as interested in playing a positive role in her world. However, given their comparative lack of private self-disclosure to each other throughout most of the story, this moment in their relationship is also indicative of the experimental relationship, as they are now slightly more comfortable and connected with each others’ close presence.
Finally, the stage of bonding is reached by Kenji and Natsuki as they attempt to kiss each other in public for the first time after the clan’s victory over the Love Machine virus. This stage is marked by a public declaration of love, an act which shows the progression of a relationship to a moment of comfort and internal acceptance of one’s status as a participant and partner which would be hardly deprecated in quality if it were to be shown to the view of other parties. At the same time, due to their comparative lack of time spent within each other’s close proximity, this moment of self-disclosure and intimacy can also be associated with the experimenting stage. At this particular moment in time, the two are now more comfortable and willing to embrace the connections forged between each other, although the two continue to carry this budding relationship at a steady pace.
In conclusion, Summer Wars demonstrates to the viewer how the relationship interaction stage model operates within a large family in a moment of violent change. Sakae’s written will and testament advises her surviving family, including Wabisuke, to show resilience in their relationships: “Never turn your back on family, even when they hurt you. Never let life get the better of you.” This statement speaks volumes to the viewer about the film’s message of collective resilience in the face of crisis. The statement can just as well apply to the relationship between two individuals like Natsuki and Kenji, who are separated from each other at various times, but find themselves increasingly drawn to each other in their most-helpless moments. Just as Wabisuke possesses a close, but fluctuating relationship with Sakae and her family, Natsuki and Kenji develop their relationship in stages of interaction with each other and with their clan.