This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.