The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games and life converge

Summer Ghost: An Anime Movie Review and Reflection

“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.” –Alice Walker

During the summer, legends begin circulating about a ghost that is said to only appear to those who burn fireworks at an abandoned airfield. Curiosity surrounding these legends bring together Tomoya Sugisaki, Aoi Harukawa, and Ryō Kobayashi, who share an interest in seeing this ghost: Tomoya is academically brilliant but yearns to be an artist, while Aoi is bullied by classmates. Ryō suffers from a terminal illness and is forced to give up his passion, basketball. One evening, the three gather at the airfield’s runway and light some fireworks together, and although the summer ghost looks little more than a legend, she soon appears and reveals she can only be seen by those who are near death. They learn that her name is Ayane, and of everyone, Tomoya is the most affected by things, and he begins to visit her more often. Over time, Ayane reveals she died after she’d gotten into a disagreement with her mother, and after running out into a storm, was hit by a vehicle. While death might offer freedom from the world’s obligations, it is also an unimaginably lonely experience. The incident did not kill her, but in a panic, the driver shoved her body into a suitcase, buried said suitcase and left her for dead. Since then, Ayane’s spirit had been searching for her body so she could give her mother some closure. However, with summer rapidly ending, Tomoya’s mother insists that he spend more time on his studies to secure admissions at a top university, and Tomoya begins to wonder if death would offer him freedom from his mother’s expectations. Certain that helping Ayane find her body would also help him find an answer, he begins to accompany Ayane more often, even imploring Aoi and Ryō to help one evening. Ryō refuses, stating that Tomoya hasn’t an inkling of what he’s going through, but after Aoi comforts him, the pair decide to help Tomoya find Ayane’s body, which was buried in a landfill. With Ayane’s body found, they return her brooch to her mother and begin moving forwards with their own lives. Tomoya ends up being upfront with his mother about his interests in art, and Aoi becomes more confident in herself, telling the bullies off. Ryō, on the other hand, succumbs to his illness, but he is determined to see the spring one last time before he dies. A year later, Tomoya and Aoi meet at the same runway, where Ryō’s spirit tells them to live their best lives. This is Summer Ghost, a film that released back in November 2021 and whose home release became available in March this year; Summer Ghost is a ways removed from the shows I’m wont to writing about, but longtime readers will likely have spotted that summer is usually when I tend to write about films that deal in more abstract themes.

At the heart of Summer Ghost, lies the poignant question of what it means to live – at the film’s beginning, Tomoya, Aoi and Ryō are united by, in Ayane’s words, their closeness to death and a desire to understand it further. This is especially apparent with Tomoya, who’s fallen into a depression because of the disconnect between his dreams and his mother’s expectations for him. Feeling as though he is backed into a corner, Tomoya begins to wonder if death might be a means of gaining the freedom he yearns for. This drives his curiosity in the summer ghost, and while Tomoya himself believes that Ayane’s existence is one of unrestricted liberty, Ayane herself conveys that, despite whatever the afterlife may appear to be, it’s a lonely place. Ayane was untimely torn from the world of the living, and as such, never had the chance to experience romance or even travel. Conversely, she notes that, so long as Tomoya is alive, he will have a chance to turn things around in his life. This ultimately ends up being the main message in Summer Ghost: it’s a poignant reminder that while it may seem appropriate to take this way as a means of escape, the finality of death means one is permanently unable to affect any other decisions in their life. This is why Ayane is insistent on pushing Tomoya to live on and pursue his own goals, as opposed to helping her locate her body. Although Tomoya is not explicitly suicidal, one can spot that he’s feeling trapped, and in this moment, while he’s not seeking death per se, he’s certainly curious about it. Upon learning about Ayane’s story, however, his desire to help her overrides any wish to understand death. By treating Ayane’s spirit as he would anyone who’s flesh-and-blood, Tomoya begins to understand what standing firm for his own principles means; he feels strongly about becoming an artist, but previously lacks the courage to express his thoughts to his mother. Pursuing his heart and helping Ayane thus gives Tomoya a stronger sense of what being true to oneself means, and with his newfound friends’ help, Tomoya ends up locating Ayane’s body, allowing her spirit to move on, and giving her mother closure. As a result of these experiences, Tomoya is able to be truthful to his mother, and pursues a career path in the visual arts. Similarly, these experiences also give Aoi a newfound resilience: she stands up to her bullies by the film’s conclusion. Although the outcomes in Summer Ghost could have been accomplished through alternate means (akin to how a journey to Antarctica helped each of Mari, Shirase, Hinata and Yuzuki of A Place Further Than The Universe to gain perspective and regain their footing in life), the choice to explore melancholy and a fascination with death in Summer Ghost helps the series to show viewers the merit of living on and doing one’s utmost to make the most of the hand they are dealt, even in the face of adversity.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Senkō hanabi (線香花火, literally “incense-stick fireworks”) are a traditional Japanese firework said to embody the idea of Mono no Aware, and fireworks here in Summer Ghost becomes a symbol for representing life as being a transient, but spirited existence akin to the fireworks itself – although short-lived, it is beautiful, varied and unique. Films like Summer Ghost are fun to write for because they challenge me to step outside my usual realm of discussions, and the outcome of writing about these films is that I get to appreciate their message a little more strongly than if I’d just watched the film.

  • Summer Ghost begins a year after the events of the film proper, with Ryō, Tomoya and Aoi assembling to enjoy fireworks as they had a year previously. In life, I’ve always found a sort of tranquility in returning to do something in the future, at a time when things are perhaps not as hectic as they had been when I had first partaken in something. Although I’m drawn to doing things in this way, a bit of introspection finds the reason why is because this allows me to see the same experience, but on a different day and from a different perspective; this in turn creates a deeper connection to and appreciation of said experience.

  • A year earlier, three students, Aoi, Tomoya and Ryō meet up for the first time to pursue a local legend, which tells that the ghost of a young woman who had apparently committed suicide will appear if one were to light fireworks at an abandoned airfield by a summer’s evening. Admittedly, I had no a priori knowledge of what this film would entail, and entered with a clean slate. As such, when the idea of a local legend was presented, I had no idea if the film was going to introduce the supernatural and make this a reality, or if this would be a catalyst for something else.

  • This is the joy about watching something completely in the absence of all external information, even something as simple as a synopsis. By having no expectations, I would not be able to look for anything specific ahead of time, and therefore, would be made to actively pay attention to the film and pull in everything I see, deciding if in the moment, my thoughts have any merit. However, I never record my thoughts in a moment – without full knowledge of what happens next, any assumptions I make in a given instant could easily be dispelled in a subsequent scene.

  • Real-time reactions are perhaps most appropriate if one is streaming an experience live to viewers, but in a blog setting, it is difficult to convey this in my style. As such, I choose to talk about things only once I’ve finished something wholly. This makes all of my reviews spoiler-laden by definition, but I find it significantly easier to do things this way because it eliminates the speculation and allows me to connect things from a work’s beginnings to what is seen in the climax and falling action. There is, of course, not a single right way to do things – other bloggers have found ways of making reaction-type posts and spoiler-free discussions with great success.

  • Summer Ghost is characterised by an extremely simplistic set of character designs, and the backgrounds initially seem quite flat compared to anime with more detailed visuals. While Summer Ghost might not have the most impressive visuals, the film does make use of excellent lighting to convey its messages. The decision to go with this style becomes apparent as the film continues.

  • The disparate group’s efforts seem to have been in vain – despite following the rumours’ instructions closely, the summer ghost does not appear. The practise the three engage in here is known in North America as “legend tripping”, visiting a site with alleged phenomenon as a means of testing one’s courage. For the most part, such practises allow youth to bond with one another, although when taken too far, accidents may occur, and charges might be laid. In Summer Ghost, Tomoya, Aoi and Ryō may be busted for trespassing on the airfield’s runway, but because this film doesn’t deal with those elements, it becomes a non-issue.

  • After Tomoya lights one final senkō hanabi, the three suddenly see the ghost of legend. Unlike the onryō that J-Horror cinema have popularised, the ghost is a stricking, well-kempt young woman. Her presence surprises everyone, who are shocked to learn that there was truth to the rumours after all. When the ghost speaks, she indicates that many have visited the site and attempted to draw her out, but there is a caveat: only those who are close to death in some way will be able to see her.

  • The use of fireworks to make her visible is perhaps indicative of the fact that senkō hanabi are similar to the traditional incense that the Chinese burn to show respect to their ancestors: burning senkō hanabi might be seen as closing the distance between the worlds of the living and dead, and those who have come to make an offering might be granted a chance to have their questions heard. The revelation that Ayane only shows up to those who are “near” death is a chilling one, and it suggests that each of Tomoya, Aoi and Ryō’s lives are filled with their share of troubles.

  • The choice of using an abandoned airfield creates a sense of isolation in Summer Ghost: the location is secluded and removed from populated areas. This further accentuates the fact that Aoi, Ryō and Tomoya are quite alone as members of society; had they been in a better situation, they would not likely have been drawn in by this particular rumour and instead, spoken with either friends or family about things. However, I do appreciate that this is much easier said than done, and folks who are in a difficult place might not be willing to open up about things, especially if they feel like they are alone in their troubles.

  • This is why it’s so important to at least have one person, like a best friend, that can be counted upon: although I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never felt close to death as Tomoya or Aoi do, I have previously experienced mild depression, and it is being able to talk things out that helped me to overcome this. Back in Summer Ghost, Rina Kawaei voices Ayane: I’m not familiar with her previous roles in animated works, but she is known for being a former AKB48 member who was involved in an attack during a handshake event back in 2014. On the other hand, Miyuri Shimabukuro voices Aoi, and I know her best as Harukana Receive‘s Narumi Tōi.

  • My depression had originated from briefly losing my direction after I finished my undergraduate degree nine summers earlier. This coincided with the Great Flood of 2013, which left me unable to do a kokuhaku. The story itself is old hat for longtime readers, but even in those days, what got me motivated enough to get out of bed every morning was the fact that I loved the work I was doing for the lab I was with. That particular summer, I’d been working on a distributed simulation of the renal and cardiovascular systems, and I was able to lose myself in this work. In the long term, discovering that I found enjoyment in software and figuring out a more concrete path for myself would lead me out of this depression.

  • Tomoya ends up feeling drawn to Ayane and begins seeking out her spirit more to speak with her further. In response, she takes him of a trip around the world she now knows, surprising him with an ability to fly freely in this space. This ability gives Tomoya a glimpse of what death must be like, and he begins seeing it as a release from his own problems. However, Ayane rightly notes that her experiences in this realm is a pale imitation of what she’d be able to do otherwise, and that Tomoya should cherish life more wholly. This idea is not new, and countless authors, writers and creators have spoken to how there is much to live for.

  • The summer season is, coincidentally, the best time of year to really live life – long days and beautiful weather gives one limitless opportunity to explore, both the world and themselves. Activities such as hiking, drinking lemonade and eating watermelon are long associated with the summer, and in particular, being outside is a way to both journey outward and inward. As it turns out, being in nature helps one feel more connected with the land, and this is why people generally report being at peace when enjoying the great outdoors.

  • As the morning transitioned into the afternoon, we decided to turn back, stopping along a waterfall in the trail before returning to Canmore. Here, we stopped for lunch at Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co. Here, we ordered their Fig-Bison-n’-Brie Pizza and “The Meats” (Italian Sausage, Valbella All Beef Pepperoni, Smoked Bacon) flatbreads; besides the fact that their wood-fired flatbreads are especially delicious, the staff were also remarkably attentive and friendly. This marks the first time we’d been to Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co.: previously, Canmore was a poutine location, but the pandemic forced them to close. I’m glad to have broadened my experiences, and perhaps on a return visit, I’ll give their West Coast smoked salmon flatbread a go.

  • We subsequently walked the Spur Line trail and stopped by Gap Lake before making the drive home ahead of a Southern Fried Chicken dinner with family. Back in Summer Ghost, Ayane explains that despite Tomoya’s curiosity about her world, she’d actually longed to live a fulfilling and complete love, experiencing things like travelling and falling in love. Instead, one evening, she’d gotten into a disagreement with her mother and stormed off into the night. Because a typhoon had been raging, she didn’t see an oncoming car and was knocked unconscious. The unknown driver, in a panic, had thought Ayane dead, and stuffed her body into a suitcase, before burying it at an unknown location. Ayane’s spirit, then, results from her undying wish to locate the body and at least give her mother some closure.

  • The day concluded with a walk around the Spur Line Trail, and we stopped by Gap Lake before returning home, where a Southern Fried Chicken dinner with family awaited. Back in Summer Ghosti, upon hearing Ayane’s story, Tomoya feels compelled to help her and begins spending more time in this ghostly world, even shirking his real-world obligations to do so. This decision baffles Ayane, who’s surprised anyone from the world of the living would care so much and go to such lengths to help her. For Tomoya, however, helping Ayane represents the first bit of agency he’s had in life for quite some time, and as seen through his academic performance, Tomoya seems to be the sort of person who gives everything his all, so it is unsurprising that Tomoya would be so unyielding.

  • Tomoya’s determination to help Ayane is great enough for him to request Aoi and Ryō’s help; Ryō suffers from a terminal illness and hasn’t long to live, so his frustrations boil over, and he refuses to help out. Since he and Aoi barely know Tomoya, there isn’t a chance to properly explain everything – this creates that bit of tension towards the end, but in a film as short as Summer Ghost, things get resolved fairly quickly after Aoi goes after Ryō and manages to help him regroup. Both subsequently rush off to pick up some fireworks with the intent of helping Tomoya.

  • Ryō and Aoi’s timing couldn’t be better; Tomoya’s just depleted his fireworks stockpile, but now, with two more people in his corner, there is the possibility of exploring a larger area. Tomoya gratefully accepts their help and immediately returns to the spirit realm. While the search space seems overwhelming, Ayane herself recalls a handful of clues that end up being helpful to the three. The topic of living and dying, at least in fiction, universally presents life as the path people should take, and works present suicide as being the route people should veer away from. Life is indeed of immeasurable value, and the topic of suicide is one that is brought up whenever mental health is a topic.

  • I have found that increasing awareness of mental health has meant that suicide prevention and maintaining balance in life has led to improved conversations and countermeasures for at-risk individuals. However, there remain subsets of the online community that appear to believe that it is somehow acceptable to tell someone to shuffle off this mortal coil, and previously, tragedies have occurred because of online remarks of this nature. Experts have previously written about how anonymity brings out the worst in people, and members of certain online communities, in their insecurity and lack of fulfilment in life, take to the internet to perpetuate anti-social behaviours. As such, I feel that mental health and wellness services should also necessarily include training and information pertaining to managing problems that come from the internet.

  • The symboism in Summer Ghost isn’t exactly subtle, and this helps viewers to quickly grasp what a given moment or scene is supposed to convey. For Tomoya, even after he and his friends help Ayane to locate her body, there’s still a barrier that prevents them from spending more time together. For Tomoya, this remains the last conflict that he faces, and in the moment, his conscious thoughts are focused purely on finding Ayane’s body and finishing off his promise to her, even though once this is done, Ayane’s spirit will be at peace and vanish.

  • When Tomoya first flew with Ayane, he’d been surprised by her ability to fly, but having now spent so much time in the spirit world, Tomoya is completely at home with things. Ryō and Aoi are immediately at home with flight, and with their help, Ayane is able to work out where her body had been. With her information, Tomoya and the others deduce that the culprit had buried Ayane’s body in the landfill after sealing it in a luggage case, and they set off for the local landfill.

  • Tomoya ends up locating the suitcase, and while he begins to dig for it, an unknown force suddenly seizes him – a part of Tomoya doesn’t wish to continue and would rather move on into the next world, but Tomoya is able to overcome this particular barrier and convince his other self that there is merit in living, after all. Although Ryō and Aoi cannot see what’s overtaken Tomoya, they are relieved when he is able to take control and finish his fight.

  • I’d been a little worried about what Tomoya would find: while there is nothing inherently frightening about a body, the implications of what happened to Ayane in the time since she’d gone missing and what we’d seen of her would be quite unsettling. Summer Ghost has the tact to leave this part unseen, and Tomoya’s reaction is one of relief rather than of horror. In the aftermath, Tomoya returns Ayane’s brooch to her mother and prepares to pursue his own path as an artist.

  • Summer Ghost shows that Tomoya is able to convince his mother to allow him to pursue his own career path, and in this way, his world suddenly opens up, no longer being as suffocating as he had once known it to be. The efficacy of this approach of parenting has long been debated – proponents suggest that children need discipline to be successful, but the reality is that people are at their best when allowed to follow their own dreams (within reason). It is unsurprising that moderation is the best approach, and I would imagine that, as a result of his experiences with Ayane, Tomoya is able to firmly draw the line in the sand and perhaps strike a compromise with his mother.

  • Meanwhile, Aoi has become more creative in overcoming her bullies. A great deal has occurred in the past year, but unfortunately, Ryō passes away from his illness. Although he’d held out long enough to watch the cherry blossoms bloom, he doesn’t make it. Thus, when Aoi and Tomoya visit a year later, they are visiting Ryō’s spirit, and he’s able to pass on in the knowledge that both Aoi and Tomoya have both found their way: before he departs, he wishes both will be able to live out their lives to the fullest extent possible.

  • There’s a melancholy seeing Tomoya and Aoi without Ryō, and the flatness of this terrain accentuates this. However, on the flipside, the colours here are more vivid than at any other point in Summer Ghost – because the colours do convey the tenour of a moment, one can conclude there’s a sort of catharsis here, as well. Both Tomoya and Aoi are plainly in a better place here than they’d been a year earlier. However, while their direction is a little more concrete, viewers hoping that Aoi and Tomoya may find solace in one another’s company may be a little disappointed.

  • Visual cues in the moment, such as the distance between Tomoya and Aoi, speak to this. On the other hand, those who do not approach Summer Ghost as a romance will find that its messages on life and death may hold some merit. This is a film that I found worthwhile to watch, and while it is a bit more open-ended than most of the films I’ve previously watched, the overarching themes are still plain.

  • Altogether, I found Summer Ghost to be an enjoyable and meaningful experience – the film’s short runtime precludes exploring things in more detail, but sometimes, less is more, and leaving some elements to the viewer’s interpretation means this film can impact a broad range of viewers in accordance to their own experiences and thoughts. With this, I have one final post left for July: the beginning of August is going to be very busy on the blogging front, as I finish off some posts marking the milestones to the events of a decade earlier.

From a thematic perspective, Summer Ghost tends towards the more abstract, but remains very accessible and clear. The messages in Summer Ghost are accentuated by the distinct visuals. Colours are liberally applied to convey a specific aesthetic – moments of melancholy are washed out and tend towards monochrome, while poignant moments are cast in a deep blue. To indicate the monotony of everyday life, sunlight is typically faded. On the other hand, the once Tomoya and Aoi have taken steps forwards, and gather to communicate with Ryō’s spirit, who is at peace, the sky is vividly coloured to remind viewers of how much possibility there is in the world. Simple details like these help viewers to connect with the emotional tenour in a moment; Summer Ghost might not be the most profound story or visual impressive work out there, but it succeeds in capturing the idea that the long days of summer are conducive towards exploration. Where other anime would stick with exploring one’s world, Summer Ghost takes a bold stab at showing what a journey inwards might look like. In this area, Summer Ghost is able to present an introspective journey: the idea of travelling into a world that spirits inhabit, a world that is devoid of energy and activity, is no different than self-reflection and overcoming the foes that threaten one from within, and in the end, Tomoya is able to find himself. In finding Ayane, the journey also helps Aoi and Ryō make peace with their own situations. Altogether, while Summer Ghost might not prima facie be a conventional summer anime, it definitely has the elements that make it a film worth watching during the summer, representing a different sort of journey that is, while a world apart from the typical fixtures of summer, like hikes, days at the beach and a watermelon in hand, still shows how the longest days of the year invite people to look within and better understand that, life is worth living because, so long as one is alive, there will always be the agency to seize the initiative and make the most of things.

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