Before Summer Wars, there was Bokura no War Game, the unsung masterpiece of Mamoru Hosuda. Ill-fatedly tied to the Digimon brand, it was never to be taken too seriously by anyone other than the Digimon fans who grew up with it. Hosuda himself seems to lament that fate, as he has continually attempted to recapture its magic: First, in a Loui Vuitton ad of all things and later in the aforementioned Summer Wars—a film that's pretty incredible in its own right, but one that owes almost everything to this film.
Summer Wars had nearly two hours to work with, so it made sense to fill that space with a much larger cast, whose complex interwoven plot lines took that film in a number of different directions. Bokura no War Game feels effortless in comparison, and is the more focused of the two; at only forty minutes in length, it has to be. With that in mind, the creators made the smart decision to only involve a handful of the cast from the main series.
Taichi and Koushirou are the central protagonists here, and their chemistry is the main reason that the film is so enjoyable to watch at the surface level, as they act very casually and naturally together. There's a great deal of humor between the two of them, and between the cast as a whole—nothing of the laugh-out-loud variety, but enough to keep the film from feeling too heavy.
And, although this is a direct sequel to Digimon Adventure, only cursory knowledge of that series is required to fully enjoy this film. You'll catch on soon enough that there's this group of friends who've made connections with certain Digimon partners in the past. Anything past that is for the fans to be concerned with, as no direct mentions to the main series' plot are ever made.
Regardless, Bokura no War Game feels very different from the series. Characters are now animated with lifelike mannerisms and realistic movements, qualities rarely seen of them in the series. Hosuda's influence is very noticeable, most evident in the single-tone shading of the characters and their rather blobby proportions. Additionally, almost every shot here feels purposefully framed, resulting in a film that's consistently pleasant to look at.
It's also here where Hosuda begins to show his apparent love for modern technology, especially from a visual perspective; there's no shortage of telephones, cell phones, computer screens, clocks, keyboards, or other mundane electronics occupying the shots. They feel like a very physical and real part of the world that the characters live in—as they should in this modern age. These elements are contrasted with shots of the more rural countryside and of households where this technology isn't so prevalent. Yet, both elements seem to compliment each other more than anything else, as if to remind us of how quickly technology has progressed; it's incredible to think that a vast and complex network such as the internet does actually exist alongside much simpler ways of life, as shown here.
Being that this is a Digimon film, battles will be fought between digital monsters, and here the internet is their battle ground. Imaginatively, the internet is depicted as a web of large spherical structures, all lined with psychedelic designs and filled with floating debris. Characters in this space are either drawn with orange-colored outlines, or with no outlines at all, making them stand out in visually interesting ways. The admittedly dated Windows XP-styled messaging prompts are also used to great effect while inside the net, materializing in midair for the characters of the real world to communicate through. As a whole, this creates a very distinct and striking aesthetic—one that Hosuda would continue to use in later works such as Summer Wars.
The battles fought between the Digimon in this trippy internet world are quick, exciting, and creative, often making good use of the setting. The fights are Dragon Ball-esque, for lack of a better term, featuring characters zooming across the screen at high speeds, firing projectiles and throwing hard punches. All of the actions have a nice weight to them, so you'll feel the impact of every hit. The talented animators, choreographers, and sound designers definitely deserve major props for that.
The soundtrack of Bokura no War Game is mostly orchestral, save for the few returning J-rock tracks from the series, which are always nice to listen to. The soundtrack otherwise gives the film a particularly old fashioned sort of vibe; the more lighthearted scenes are accompanied by whimsical woodwinds, bells, and swells of strings, while the more intense scenes feature great thematic interplay between bursts of brass and sharp staccato strings. The angelic choir near the end is worth noting, as well.
Perhaps the best quality of this film is how it effectively builds tension and momentum. What starts out as a lazy morning for Taichi, snowballs into a frantic race against the clock to stop the detonation of a nuclear missile—all within a few hours. Help is always just out of reach for our heroes, while the main villain, a computer virus that has taken control of the internet, is always one step ahead. Stakes are raised by the minute, and in a multitude of layers. Hosuda highlights this tension by constantly cutting back and forth between unrelated events that are happening in parallel, the culmination of which ends up feeling very satisfying. While the pace of the film is slow-building, it's also ever-accelerating, much like the rapidly approaching nuclear missile of the story itself. This results in an unexpectedly powerful emotional scene near the end—one that would undoubtedly feel hammy if left in the hands of a lesser director.
Ever since this film, it seems Hosuda has been fascinated by the turn of the century and the ways that society will continue to interact with newer technology, whether that be for better or for worse—fitting, then, for this film to have been released in the year 2000. If you can believe it, despite having Digimon in the title, this film manages to feel very grounded and relevant. The fantastical Digital World makes no appearance here, and instead it's the internet as we know it that becomes the main stage for the plot and for the film's themes. There's also no inclusion of a hypothetical virtual reality like the OZ network of Summer Wars. A real point is made here about how even now, society is reliant enough on the internet and its related networks that if things were to go haywire, chaos would ensue. It feels like a warning sign to the present, not one to a possible future.
However, that would all be meaningless if the film itself weren't just simply enjoyable to watch. It's got heart, personality, and style, and its relatively short length is sure to keep your attention the whole way through. There's a reason I keep coming back to it; there's also a reason Hosuda keeps coming back to it.