Tradition vs. Tech? Saving the Internet and Saving the World in Summer Wars


 

Think pieces about the impend­ing dom­i­nance of tech­nol­o­gy over every aspect of our lives abound on the Internet. Data, gad­gets, online games, and social media are already inte­gral parts of daily life. The con­se­quences of blend­ing the dig­i­tal with the real are dis­as­trous, accord­ing to some. Older gen­er­a­tions lament Millennials’ sup­posed dis­con­nect with each other and the out­side world. What hap­pened to get­ting things done the old-fashioned way? What about talk­ing to peo­ple face-to-face and spend­ing time with fam­i­ly? Then, my gen­er­a­tion high­lights the sense of com­mu­ni­ty so many have felt through online friend­ships, access to knowl­edge that they wouldn’t have had oth­er­wise, and the abil­i­ty to have dis­course about social issues that at times reach­es the nation­al level.

This back and forth could go on forever and in a mul­ti­tude of iter­a­tions. “New tech­nol­o­gy and con­stant con­nec­tiv­i­ty will replace and destroy the foun­da­tions we’ve had for cen­turies.” “No, it’ll help us over­come the very issues you passed down to us and make the world a bet­ter place.” At the end of the day, it seems like the argu­ment encour­ages peo­ple to choose one side or the other. Reject the evolv­ing Internet Age to save our human­i­ty or save our human­i­ty by vir­tu­al­ly band­ing togeth­er with peo­ple from around the globe.

This ten­sion serves as a back­drop to Mamoru Hosada’s 2009 anime film Summer Wars. What begins as a benign sum­mer trip result­ing from a hokey “pre­tend we’re dat­ing when you meet my fam­i­ly” anime plot turns into a fight for life and death.

And it all begins on the Internet.

 

Welcome to OZ

In OZ, you can do anything––file your taxes, chal­lenge a wor­thy oppo­nent to a game of Koi Koi, shop, and work. Billions of peo­ple around the world, and the gov­ern­ments that keep their soci­eties run­ning, inter­act in OZ. They make busi­ness deals, form com­mu­ni­ties, and store their valu­able data on the most secure dig­i­tal net­work ever. It’s fun. It’s effi­cient. It’s the way of the future.

Kenji, a high school stu­dent, has a rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant sum­mer job as a lack­ey main­tain­ing OZ’s sys­tems. He and his buddy type away in a cramped com­put­er room as the long days pass. Then, every­thing changes when the Fire Nation attacks Natsuki, an upper­class­man, needs some­one to pre­tend to be her fiancé at her fam­i­ly reunion, espe­cial­ly since her great-grandmother Sakae is turn­ing 90.

By a flip of a coin, Kenji becomes the lucky sap to accom­pa­ny Natsuki. The two of them take a train and a few buses way out into the coun­tryside to the Jinnouchi estate where the rest of Natsuki’s giant fam­i­ly gath­ers. The Jinnouchi fam­i­ly is proud of their family’s his­to­ry and some mem­bers tout it more than oth­ers, pas­sion­ate­ly relay­ing the war sto­ries of their samu­rai ances­tors from hun­dreds of years ago (a few rounds of beer cer­tain­ly help the words flow).

Nothing is amiss despite a few awk­ward sit­u­a­tions. The Jinnouchi fam­i­ly seems nice enough and great-grandma Sakae? She’s sharp and lov­ing and is the cen­ter of her family’s affec­tions. She sees through Kenji’s timid­ness and accepts him.

On his first night at the Jinnouchi house, Kenji gets a strange email with a huge num­ber code. Being the math nerd that he is, he spends all night fig­ur­ing out the puz­zle and then replies with the cracked code, think­ing that it’s just anoth­er game from OZ.

Except he broke the Internet.

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From here, Summer Wars take a satir­i­cal, touch­ing, and dra­mat­ic look at the ter­ri­fy­ing yet inevitable con­ver­gence of the real world and the vir­tu­al one. With OZ’s sys­tems hacked and a vicious AI called “Love Machine” steal­ing accounts that grant access to sen­si­tive city infra­struc­ture, the film presents a sober­ing out­look on our reliance on tech­nol­o­gy. That which seems con­stant, sta­ble, and eter­nal has vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. All it takes is one error to com­pro­mise the entire sys­tem. We watch as Love Machine sucks up thou­sands of accounts, knocks over domi­noes that rep­re­sent city trans­porta­tion sys­tems, and shifts traf­fic pat­terns as if he’s com­plet­ing a slid­ing puz­zle. The ven­er­a­ble, inde­struc­tible OZ is his play­ground and every­one is lost with­out its sup­port.

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Yet if Summer Wars pre­sent­ed a stark, black and white warn­ing again­st the inva­sion of the Internet in our lives, it prob­a­bly wouldn’t have won a bunch of film awards and nom­i­na­tions.

Juxtaposed to this futur­is­tic pow­er­house of OZ that near­ly replaces the phys­i­cal world is the very old and very tight-knit Jinnouchi fam­i­ly. Its mem­bers are all over Japanese soci­ety from fire and police depart­ments to city man­age­ment and tech­nol­o­gy. The leg­endary King Kazma (Kazuma is his real name), known in OZ com­mu­ni­ties as the best tour­na­ment fight­er around is a Jinnouchi. Even the mas­ter­mind behind Love Machine, way­ward Wabisuke, is a mem­ber of this promi­nent fam­i­ly.

 

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Old-Fashioned Networking

In the face of this great enemy born of tech­nol­o­gy, Grandma Sakae resorts to dial­ing every con­nec­tion she has on an old rotary phone. She spends hours encour­ag­ing her chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, cousins, nieces, nephews, busi­ness part­ners, and old friends to not give up — to not let this enemy destroy soci­ety. To her, it’s all about good old-fashioned net­work­ing and rela­tion­ship skills.

But this doesn’t mean reject­ing the Internet or tech­nol­o­gy. After King Kazma’s first loss to Love Machine (no thanks to the young cousins who keep jump­ing all over Kazuma in real life), the Internet is abuzz with peo­ple leak­ing as much intel as they can gath­er about this AI. “The online world is huge,” Kazuma tells his fam­i­ly. “If peo­ple work togeth­er and share infor­ma­tion, we should be able to stop him.”

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We see this idyl­lic Internet col­lab­o­ra­tion all the time when hash­tags turn into move­ments or inten­sive efforts to com­bat ter­ror­ist attacks. Action online can trans­late into real-world effects, for bet­ter or for worse. As Summer Wars pro­gress­es, things do get worse.

Just shy of her 90th birth­day, Granny Sakae dies. One of her sons had been mon­i­tor­ing her health through OZ, but with the sys­tems mal­func­tion­ing due to Love Machine’s antics, he never received any noti­fi­ca­tion that some­thing was wrong. This is the first of the film’s two direct attacks on our increas­ing depen­dence on tech­nol­o­gy. Entrusting Sakae’s health to the sup­posed infal­li­bil­i­ty of OZ with­out any back­up ulti­mate­ly led to her demise and the entire fam­i­ly is dev­as­tat­ed.

Both Sakae and OZ are these bright, solid anchors. Sakae is the rock of the Jinnouchi fam­i­ly, the one who holds every­one togeth­er and is one of the main rea­sons this ancient family’s pride is still strong today. She rep­re­sents long-standing tra­di­tions that provide a firm foun­da­tion for later gen­er­a­tions. OZ pro­vides that same secu­ri­ty as well as a way for­ward into the future. When they both “die,” it strips away cer­tain­ty and con­fi­dence.

The way out of this prob­lem is to take the tra­di­tion and fam­i­ly pride that Sakae passed down through the gen­er­a­tions and apply it to this brave new world. That ancient samu­rai bat­tle that one of Natsuki’s half-drunk uncles raved about when she and Kenji first arrived is the very plan that the Jinnouchi fam­i­ly, led by Kazuma and his famous avatar, enact in OZ. Uncles and cousins pull togeth­er all of their resources, secur­ing com­put­ers and a gigan­tic server that will give them enough power to lure Love Machine into their trap. That trap turns out to be a fortress of an ancient Japanese-style home, solid­i­fy­ing the point that under­stand­ing and using tri­umphs from the past can solve the prob­lems we face today.

The sec­ond attack on our ten­den­cy to place all our eggs in one tech bas­ket comes when Love Machine, who’s now stolen over four hun­dred mil­lion accounts, hacks into a satel­lite and sets its course to come crash­ing to earth in just two hours. With the tar­gets set on nuclear facil­i­ties around the world — of course Love Machine wouldn’t reveal just one loca­tion — this Internet cri­sis now has very real and very dead­ly con­se­quences.

Fighting Love Machine fails. Kazuma, with all the server power and fan­dom sup­port in the world, can­not hold him down. It doesn’t help that one of Natsuki’s idiot cousins removed the blocks of ice from the room that was pre­vent­ing the huge server from over­heat­ing.

However, this frus­trat­ing set­back empha­sizes just how inter­twined the Internet is with the real world. They seam­less­ly cross over into each other, so con­fronting the cri­sis isn’t as sim­ple as log­ging off or shut­ting the com­put­er down. It’s also not as grand as using the most cutting-edge hard­ware or being an Internet and gam­ing expert.

 

Koi Koi!

When all hope is lost, Natsuki has only her flip phone and her exper­tise in Koi Koi, a match­ing game that Sakae taught to all of her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Love Machine accepts her chal­lenge to play in OZ’s casi­no area. The wager? Her and her family’s OZ accounts. What fol­lows is per­haps the most excit­ing anime card game since Yu-Gi-Oh!

Koi Koi is a straight­for­ward game once you get used to the hana­fu­da (flow­er cards) and under­stand how they all match up.
The goal is to col­lect cer­tain sets of cards by form­ing match­es between the cards in your hand and the cards in the mid­dle of the table. The first play­er to com­plete a set can either stop the round and col­lect how­ev­er many points that set is worth, or they can declare “koi koi” to keep play­ing and try to com­plete more sets.

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The his­to­ry of hana­fu­da involves the Yakuza, Nintendo, and peo­ple sub­vert­ing Japan’s strict gam­bling laws a few cen­turies ago. Koi Koi is one of sev­er­al games you can play with these cards and it’s pop­u­lar enough to be ref­er­enced in anime. It makes a grand appear­ance in Summer Wars, but Naruto fans will rec­og­nize the set Ino-Shika-Cho (Boar-Deer-Butterfly).

The vibrant art­work on the cards has a clas­sic Japanese look, which makes them an excel­lent choice to fea­ture in Summer Wars. Hanafuda, and Koi Koi specif­i­cal­ly, are linked to Sakae and this sense of tra­di­tion. Furthermore, the cards are a flag­ship for the under­dogs. Several sce­nes in the film high­light the Jinnouchi’s resis­tance again­st the Tokugawa regime.

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When the Tokugawa were in power, they placed strict bans again­st gam­bling and closed Japan to the Western world. Yet the cards brought over by Western trav­el­ers were still pop­u­lar among the peo­ple. To get around the government’s restric­tions, they changed the art­work on the cards, which even­tu­al­ly led to their cur­rent design. So, the Jinnouchi (based on the Sanada clan) were a part of Tokugawa resis­tance from the bat­tle­field to the card table. The all-or-nothing con­test between Natsuki and Love Machine in OZ shows how this tra­di­tion­al thing is not only rel­e­vant to the new, dig­i­tal world, but vital. Natsuki’s OZ avatar adds to this vibe.

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What we see in Summer Wars, then, isn’t a bat­tle between tra­di­tions and tech­nol­o­gy in which one ulti­mate­ly over­comes the other. Instead, both must come togeth­er to con­front new chal­lenges. Koi Koi may be an old game, but because OZ is the play­ing field and the stakes are so high, Kazuma’s ideal Internet com­mu­ni­ty comes to light as mil­lions of strangers from around the world offer Natsuki their accounts to bet. Even though Natsuki’s dom­i­nance in Koi Koi redeems all but two of the accounts, it’s not a total vic­to­ry. Kenji and Wabisuke must step in on the math and pro­gram­ming side to change the crash­ing satellite’s tra­jec­to­ry while Kazuma must deal the final blow to Love Machine.

Such inte­gra­tion of tra­di­tion and tech may be the best solu­tion to the inevitable fail­ures of tech­nol­o­gy. Technology cer­tain­ly caus­es the prob­lems in Summer Wars, but it’s also part of the solu­tion, work­ing in tandem with the old things passed down through gen­er­a­tions of the Jinnouchi fam­i­ly.


About Taylor Ramage

Taylor Ramage is a fiction writer and blogger whose interests include anime, theology, intersectionality, and pop culture. She also enjoys memes and bad (read great) puns.