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

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.

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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.

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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.

A World Cut From One Cloth: Personal Sin and Systemic Sin in Kill la Kill

Originally published on The Ontological Geek.

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Ragyo’s grand entrance in Studio Trigger’s Kill la Kill (2013) marks the begin­ning of a chang­ing tide in the story. Up until this point, Ragyo’s daugh­ter Satsuki is the main villain. Satsuki rules a high school called Honnouji Academy with a sim­i­lar bril­liance to her moth­er. There, cloth­ing is lit­er­al­ly power as some stu­dents are grant­ed spe­cial uniforms imbued with Life Fibers that give them super-human strength. The high­er you climb up the aca­d­e­mic and extracur­ric­u­lar lad­der, the stronger your uni­form. Matoi Ryuko arrives at this strict­ly struc­tured high school with only one goal in mind: avenge her father and take Satsuki down. With her giant scis­sor blade and her own Life Fiber uni­form called a Kamui, Ryuko cuts her way through club lead­er after club lead­er, deter­mined to reach Satsuki for a prop­er show­down.

Yet much more unfolds in the world of Kill la Kill, and Ragyo’s intro­duc­tion sends a clear mes­sage that she is the real vil­lain to con­tend with. Ragyo’s goal is to spread cloth­ing enhanced with Life Fibers around the globe so that she can cre­ate a world “of one cloth.” She wants all of human­i­ty to be swal­lowed by Life Fibers, forever rest­ing in a beau­ti­ful silence. To achieve this goal, she exper­i­ments on her­self and her own chil­dren to enhance the bond between humans and Life Fibers. We learn through flash­backs that Ragyo experi­ment­ed on Satsuki at a very young age, but those exper­i­ments failed, so Ragyo decid­ed that she need­ed to begin with a much younger child. That next child is Ryuko, who does actu­al­ly become a per­fect blend of human and Life Fibers. However, when Ragyo doesn’t see imme­di­ate results, she lit­er­al­ly dumps baby Ryuko in the garbage. So fixed is she on her ulti­mate vision of the world that she strips away abun­dant life, love, and commu­ni­ty from her chil­dren and every­one else she inter­acts with. She sex­u­al­ly abus­es Satsuki and Ryuko. She uses the power of her cloth­ing com­pa­ny to build her wealth and ensure that every sin­gle per­son expe­ri­ences sub­ju­ga­tion via Life Fibers. Of course, she would frame that as “the bliss of being worn by cloth­ing.”

These acts are sins. Some of them are per­son­al, mean­ing Ragyo com­mits them as an individ­u­al again­st other indi­vid­u­als. Others are sys­temic, mean­ing they stem from Ragyo’s posi­tion of power (specif­i­cal­ly through her com­pa­ny REVOCS) and affect large groups of peo­ple, if not the entire world. Ragyo shows us how these per­son­al, one-on-one sins connect to sys­temic sins.

Sin and Violence

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Ragyo is referring to Satsuki’s own Kamui, which she’s wearing in this picture.

Most of us don’t think about how our per­son­al inter­ac­tions with each other on a daily basis can con­tribute to sys­temic oppres­sion. The sys­temic and the per­son­al often seem entire­ly sep­a­rate. After all, a sin­gle per­son can­not take on all of the bur­den and respon­si­bil­i­ty of a sys­tem. The more priv­i­leges we have, the more dif­fi­cult it is to see this con­nec­tion. This is appar­ent in Christian reli­gious life, as not many church­es clar­i­fy how per­son­al sins contribute to sys­tems. Part of that comes from dif­fer­ent emphases on sin and sal­va­tion.

If you were to walk into a church and stick around for a few months, you might come away with one of two gen­er­al under­stand­ings of sin and sal­va­tion.

  1. Sins are per­son­al wrongs we com­mit again­st one anoth­er and God, such as lying or steal­ing. There’s a heavy focus on indi­vid­u­al piety and moral­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly around sex­u­al prac­tices and addic­tive behav­iors. Because this is the under­stand­ing of sin, the atone­ment (or sal­va­tion) the­o­ry that fol­lows is that Jesus’ death and res­ur­rec­tion for­gives those per­son­al sins, restor­ing us to God and to one anoth­er.
  2. Sin is the sys­tems of racism, clas­sism, sex­ism, ableism, homo­pho­bia, and so on that deprive peo­ple of abun­dant life with each other and with God. There’s a greater empha­sis on social jus­tice and dis­man­tling the col­lec­tive, sys­temic ways we harm each other. This under­stand­ing of sin leads to atone­ment the­o­ries fram­ing Christ’s death and res­ur­rec­tion as an upheaval of the oppres­sive, first cen­tu­ry Roman govern­ment. It paves the way for lib­er­a­tion from all such sys­tems. This lib­er­a­tion restores peo­ple to God and com­mu­ni­ty by allow­ing them to live fully and abun­dant­ly.

Rarely are these approach­es con­nect­ed in a clear-cut way. Grasping sin, its impli­ca­tions, its con­se­quences, and its for­give­ness is a vast sub­ject with­in Christianity. Shirley Guthrie makes this con­nec­tion clear­er in his book Christian Doctrine. He empha­sizes that Christianity’s main pur­pose in dis­cussing sin is to reveal the for­give­ness of sin. “The basic truth is not that we are sin­ners but that we are human beings cre­at­ed in the image of God. Sin dis­torts, twists, cor­rupts, and con­tra­dicts this truth, but it does not change us into some­thing other than what God cre­at­ed us to be” (213).

The notion that we are cre­at­ed “in the image of God” means that the intend­ed goal of our lives is to live fully, abun­dant­ly, and health­ily both with God and with one anoth­er. Sin breaks that con­nec­tion. “[Sin] is not only mur­der­ing other peo­ple but sim­ply let­ting them starve to death phys­i­cal­ly or emo­tion­al­ly because we decide that social wel­fare and for­eign aid are ‘money down a rathole’” (215). The act of one per­son mur­der­ing anoth­er is an exam­ple of per­son­al sin. It hap­pens on an indi­vid­u­al level and defies the goal of humans liv­ing fully and abun­dant­ly with one anoth­er. Neglecting to sup­port social wel­fare and foreign aid is an exam­ple of sys­temic sin. Its con­se­quences affect entire groups of peo­ple and main­tain a mind­set that poor peo­ple should just work hard­er and peo­ple in other coun­tries are not our prob­lem.

Avenged Seven Billionfold

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Satsuki (left) betrays Ragyo (center) by pinning her to a cross.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan con­nects per­son­al sin to sys­temic sin by talk­ing about esca­la­to­ry vio­lence. Violence increas­es with suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions and caus­es more sin on a wider scale. A bib­li­cal exam­ple of this appears in Genesis 4 when Cain kills Abel. Cain laments once God dis­cov­ers what he’s done and says “any­one who meets me may kill me.” Yet God says, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suf­fer a sev­en­fold vengeance.” A few vers­es later, Lamech, a descen­dant of Cain, says “I have killed a man for wound­ing me, a young man for strik­ing me. If Cain is avenged sev­en­fold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

What began as a one-on-one occur­rence between Cain and Abel trans­forms over time into some­thing with much high­er stakes and greater con­se­quences. If some­one from anoth­er tribe kills Lamech, then his own tribe will kill 70 peo­ple from the killer’s tribe. The threat of vio­lence and its esca­la­tion prompts the cre­ation of sys­tems meant to keep soci­eties in order, and to avenge seven hun­dred­fold and seven thou­sand­fold any threats to that order.

Honnouji Academy is a sys­tem born of esca­la­to­ry vio­lence. Two of Ragyo’s per­son­al sins, sex­u­al­ly abus­ing Satsuki and aban­don­ing baby Ryuko, are the ones that cut Satsuki the deep­est. What is the result of these par­tic­u­lar one-on-one sins? Satsuki cre­ates her own sys­tem to avenge them seven bil­lion­fold, in true Kill la Kill style. That sys­tem is Honnouji Academy, which estab­lish­es its own hier­ar­chies and per­pet­u­ates its own injus­tices. Even though the school’s true pur­pose is to rebel again­st Ragyo, it’s still a sys­tem cre­at­ed in respon­se to per­son­al wrongs.

For the first half of the series, Satsuki has to keep up appear­ances for her moth­er, which is a big rea­son why she’s so author­i­tar­i­an. Under this facade, she tests Ryuko to see if she has what it takes to fight Ragyo when the time comes. Ryuko, of course, is entire­ly unaware of Satsuki’s true plans. Even so, Satsuki reveals some of her beliefs about human nature in one of these early tests. Satsuki has manip­u­lat­ed cir­cum­stances to pit Ryuko and her best friend again­st each other. When a fight seems unavoid­able, Satsuki vic­to­ri­ous­ly spouts her views about human­i­ty. “This is human nature in its purest form! Prosperity will lead to greed, and greed will lead to their even­tu­al down­fall! Once they have a taste of world­ly plea­sures, they’re enslaved by them forever! They’ve become slaves to this academy I have cre­at­ed! Truly they are pigs in human cloth­ing! Pigs! Which must be tamed by force!”

Some of this rhetoric may be part of keep­ing up appear­ances, but it does declare that there is some­thing innate­ly flawed––perhaps sinful––about humans. Therefore, a dei­fied ruler like Satsuki must exert her power and lead­er­ship over them. This is the way to their sal­va­tion, as she intends to use Honnouji Academy and all the schools it con­quers to defy Ragyo.

Honnouji Academy’s rebel­lion again­st Ragyo sparks an all-out war between human­i­ty and Life Fibers. It’s only resolved when Ryuko and every­one fight­ing with her eschew the nudity/clothing dichoto­my and show illog­i­cal love and ded­i­ca­tion to each other. Such dedi­ca­tion main­tains their human­i­ty and fos­ters com­mu­ni­ty.

Religion and Empire

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Religion has played a vital role in the estab­lish­ment and main­te­nance of empires throughout his­to­ry. Christianity specif­i­cal­ly was used as a tool for con­quest and often provid­ed the­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for colo­nial­ism. Christianization often went hand in hand with oppres­sion and exploita­tion in Africa, India, and Latin America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th cen­turies. This type of Christianity is, in my view, a dis­tor­tion of the faith. Yet those in power often suc­ceed in pre­sent­ing a dis­tort­ed ver­sion of Christianity that ulti­mate­ly serves their own pur­pos­es and thou­sands of peo­ple will go along with it.

This is pre­cise­ly what Ragyo does in her grand intro­duc­tion. When she retells the events of Genesis 3, she takes a the­o­log­i­cal posi­tion that cloth­ing and sin are inter­twined. Humans had no desire for cloth­ing until sin came into the pic­ture and made nudi­ty shame­ful. This dec­la­ra­tion adds reli­gious fuel to the dis­com­fort of nudi­ty and pro­vides the ground­work for an entire col­lec­tive mind­set: to be clothed is to be accept­ed, pow­er­ful, and priv­i­leged while to be naked is to be dis­grace­ful and pow­er­less.

Ragyo’s actions close­ly fol­low Crossan’s descrip­tion of empires.

  1. Religion––pro­vides the ground­work and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for achiev­ing a cer­tain eschato­log­i­cal vision the world. This is why Ragyo’s first sig­nif­i­cant appear­ance involves her tying a reli­gious story to her own company’s story.
  2. War––an inevitable trial that must be dealt with and over­come to achieve the eschato­log­i­cal vision. Ragyo is so con­fi­dent in total suc­cess that the per­fect ver­sion of her plan doesn’t involve much blood, death, or pain. Rather, it involves swift dom­i­na­tion fol­lowed by total silence. However, Ragyo is pre­pared for war and near­ly crush­es the rebel­lion from Satsuki and Ryuko.
  3. Victory––the reward for per­se­ver­ing through the trial of war. Ragyo is cer­tain of this as she watch­es Life Fibers cover the world in the series finale. Her escha­to­log­i­cal vision is unfold­ing before her eyes.
  4. Peace––the final state of things, with the empire call­ing the shots, of course. This is the escha­to­log­i­cal vision itself, the ini­tial promise from the reli­gion ful­filled. Ragyo’s vision of peace is for Life Fibers to cover every­thing in a beau­ti­ful silence. Humanity will ful­fill its des­tiny of feed­ing the Life Fibers so they can repro­duce and scat­ter across the uni­verse. To Ragyo, this is right because human­i­ty evolved to wear clothes in the first place.

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Personal and sys­temic sins have us repeat this process. One-on-one vio­lence esca­lates into trends and we’ll use our sin­cere­ly held reli­gious beliefs to jus­ti­fy the ways we try to dom­i­nate each other, whether it’s through vio­lent wars or cov­er­ing every­one in silence. Although Ragyo is a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter in a show from a coun­try where Christianity has a tumul­tuous his­to­ry and is not a dom­i­nant faith, her actions can still help us under­stand how the per­son­al con­nects to the sys­temic. Sin pre­vents us from treat­ing our­selves and each other like we’re beings cre­at­ed in the image of God who are meant to expe­ri­ence abun­dant life. When we can’t view each other like this, we’re prone to per­pet­u­ate both indi­vid­u­al and sys­temic harm.

Your Truth in Music: Honesty and Performance in Your Lie in April

I’m slowly getting around to watching the anime my Internet circles keep talking about and just recently finished Your Lie in April. I particularly enjoyed how the series dramatizes musical performance and the emotions that go into it. Music is the only consistently honest expression in the entire series. By that I mean in just about every other situation, the characters lie or conceal their true feelings. “Your lie in April” is not just Kaori’s lie that we learn about in the last episode, but Kousei’s constant reluctance to express how he really feels and the little ways he hides what he thinks from Kaori. It’s Watari smiling in front of his friends after losing the soccer match, but then crying alone in the bathroom. It’s Tsubaki denying her feelings for Kousei until it’s almost too late. It’s Kaori pretending that her health is not a big deal until she can no longer hide her condition from her friends.

But when Kousei and Kaori play music, they can’t conceal anything for better or for worse. While Kaori puts in all of her soul into the violin, Kousei is confronted with emotions and truths buried deep inside of him. He can run away from these realizations offstage, but when he’s sitting there playing the piano, they come to the forefront. For the first half of the series, this makes him freeze, unable to hear the notes and watching the music unravel before him. Though I don’t have a traumatic past nor have I performed in high-stakes music competitions, I’ve experienced that terrifying feeling when you’re playing a song and everything goes wrong. My fingers freeze up and the chord doesn’t ring out fully and then the rhythm is off and I’m not in sync with my guitar anymore (thankfully, the people at the wedding where this happened most recently didn’t seem to notice).

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Kousei’s buried feelings surface when he plays piano, making him unable to hear the notes and causing his performance to falter. Everyone in the audience knows something is off, but they don’t know the reason. Even so, Kousei can’t ignore it or stop it from affecting his playing. Music always brings out the truth of his feelings, bringing him to confront and accept realities he might not be able to handle otherwise. Whether it’s his complication relationship with his mother or Kaori’s death, music makes Kousei confront it.

Kaori, on the other hand, already finds freedom in music, but although she hides her health problems as much as she can from her friends, her playing still carries the desperation of someone who’s running out of time and trying to make their mark. Yes, her music is energetic and joyful, but it comes from the urgency of her impending death. She couldn’t hide that urgency if she tried. Playing music requires her to draw from that reality and is usually what she’s doing right before she collapses, right before she’s hospitalized, and so on. We never see what goes on in Kaori’s head as she plays, but it’s possible that she confronts her fears like Kousei does with each note.

Every musician in Your Lie in April wants their music to reach someone because there’s something they want to express that they hide in everyday conversation. Music, then, becomes a conduit for truth.

God Have Mercy: Justice and Judgement in Death Note

I’m ten years late to the party, but I finally watched Death Note. I’m actually glad I avoided it for as long as I did because I don’t think my teenage, anime-loving self would’ve appreciated or understood the complexity. Certainly, anything I could say about Death Note has been discussed ad nauseam from religious references to morality, so I don’t think I’m adding anything particularly new to the conversation.

Within the first few minutes of the first episode, I immediately recognized “kyrie eleison” in the background, so among other things I thought about who in Death Note was asking God for mercy, which god was being asked, and what mercy looked like.

Ryuk Have Mercy

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Ryuk, the bored shinigami, “loses” the first Death Note by “accidentally” dropping it in the human world. His boredom in and of itself is a commentary on the lack of relevancy that gods, spirits, and religions have in the modern world. Throughout the series, we see glimpses of the dilapidated shinigami realm where all these death gods do is sit around gambling or watching the human world. Surely, there was a past era when shinigami had much more clout in a premodern human society, but now they’re bored and listless.

So if Ryuk is the one asking for mercy, he’s asking for someone to alleviate his boredom. Dropping the Death Note doesn’t automatically guarantee that a human capable of doing this will pick it up.

Yet if Ryuk is the one being asked, then perhaps “mercy” for the one who’s asking (given that the song plays as Ryuk drops the notebook) is a request that the whimsical actions of a bored spirit do not result in the wrong person obtaining the power of death.

In the series finale, Ryuk having mercy means something different. Just as he said, he’s the one who writes Light’s name in his Death Note. Ryuk may be giving mercy to the world by killing Light or he may be giving mercy to Light himself, assuming that Light actually wants to die and assuming that Light’s death is a good thing.

Kira Have Mercy

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There’s definitely a play on words with how similar “Kira” and “kyrie” sound. So, through most of Death Note, Kira is the most obvious god whose mercy determines who dies and when. Light is Kira, but Kira is much greater than Light, as we see Kira’s power shift and expand over the course of the series. By only killing criminals, it appears to most people that there is finally a god having mercy, enacting justice where evil had once reigned. Because Kira passes earthly judgement on people, the sort that humans can easily observe and process as justice, crime and wars reduce dramatically; yet they most likely reduce because people are afraid, not because people have grown empathy and understand that it’s wrong to harm each other.

It may very well be that in the aftermath of Light’s death, no one in that warehouse tells the public that Kira is dead. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be true. As long as the Death Notes still exist, someone else could become the next Kira. Kira, like L, becomes a role or an ideology that others can step into.

Kira’s mercy is a human notion of retribution, stemming from the conclusion that criminals deserve death rather than reform. There is no concept of forgiveness or restoration for those who have harmed society. So, asking Kira for mercy becomes a litany of vengeance born out of pain caused by someone else’s crime.

L Had Mercy

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L suspects that Light is Kira very early on and his suspicion grows as the series progresses. By the time this scene occurs where L wipes Light’s feet, L is almost certain that Light is Kira. Despite this, L still calls Light his friend and becomes like a servant to him in this brief moment. This scene is one of Death Note‘s most obvious allusions to Christianity, as it invokes the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, even Judas who betrayed him. This action seems to break Light for a moment. Why would his enemy do such a thing? Isn’t it a little regretful that he’s about to kill L?

Of course, none of this is enough to stop Light from proceeding with his plans and continuing on this path of creating his new world. L dies, but lives on in a sense through Near.

Near has no intentions of killing Kira, but he also doesn’t stop Matsuda as the situation in the warehouse escalates. So no one has any qualms about Light dying as punishment for his actions. If L was still alive, he may have stood more strongly for a different path.

Justice and Mercy

Light believes that he’s entitled to this power of death because nothing seems to stop or punish the evil things people do to each other. He has to use the Death Note in the way that he does because no one else will and no one else could accomplish as much as he does with it. Depending on your moral framework, Light/Kira is right and the police had no business trying to capture him.

However, this ultimately doesn’t work in a Christian framework, as easy as it is to understand Light’s logic. Christianity emphasizes forgiveness and reconciliation rather than taking the power of retribution into our own hands. Yet humanity has a history of doing this anyway, thus resulting in escalatory violence and the creation of violent social systems. Were Light to live as Kira for much longer and defeat Near, he would’ve become the head of such a system. We already see the beginnings of that in the series, as Kira followers resort to violence in response to any dissent of Kira.

Ultimately, Death Note poses some complex questions and tests its audience’s own sense of justice. Yes, Light is the villain and his ends are noble while his means are deranged, but he has a point now, doesn’t he? Grappling with that point is one of many reasons to watch Death Note.

Goodreads Review–Her Eternal Moonlight

Her Eternal Moonlight: Sailor Moon's Female Fans In North America, An Unauthorized ExaminationHer Eternal Moonlight: Sailor Moon’s Female Fans In North America, An Unauthorized Examination by Steven Savage

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was one of the interviewees for this book, so I’ve known some of the details and findings for quite some time. Not only was it great to take part in such a project, but it was also fascinating to read about so many different experiences of Sailor Moon.

This is a light-hearted, casual read that serves as a great introduction to one of modern anime’s most fundamental series. The Sailor Moon generation is grown up now, making our own culture and telling our own stories. This book helps explain why. As our generation creates more comics and TV shows, I can only imagine that Sailor Moon’s influence will become even more prominent, and all the experiences captured in this book (mine included) reveal the starting points.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Sailor Moon’s cultural impact. You don’t have to be familiar with the series at all–in fact, you may enjoy the book even more if you’re starting with little to no knowledge. Seasoned fans, on the other hand, will enjoy the throwbacks to Geocities and fansubbed VHS tapes.

Frequent tense-switching and wordy or passive sentences sometimes makes reading clunky, but the main points still come across clearly. Ultimately, this book is a collection of women telling their stories about their heroes, which are too often brushed aside.

View all my reviews

On Moé, the Queer Female Gaze, and Representation

An article on The Mary Sue about moé caused a bit of a stir on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, mostly because the author was constantly defending herself against asinine hate comments by people who either read the headline and nothing more or skimmed the article without comprehending its content or aims, or without the understanding that when you’re freelancing for a publication, you typically have word count limits that prevent you from going into extreme depth on a subject. Even if you don’t have a word count limit, you’re still writing content for the web, which means that pieces can’t run super long.

And I know you’re all rolling your eyes at me because I’m the queen of writing analytical blog posts over 1000 words. Anyway, word count limits and other editorial boundaries aren’t things that folks who are just fans or readers would necessarily consider right off the bat, but I think it’s important that people keep it in mind so we can show some grace when criticizing pieces.

Personally, I liked the article. I thought it introduced an otherwise murky and nuanced conversation within anime fandoms in an accessible way to people who don’t know about it at all or don’t pay too much attention to it (like me–of course I’m aware of moé and all the talk about how it’s a great escape or it’s the death of anime, but I haven’t been an active participant in the discussion). Others weren’t so keen on it and resorted to harassing the author, which honestly just proves feminism’s general point that conducting a feminist analysis or critique on any sacred cow will inevitably draw visceral reactions from those who drink the milk of said cow. Thankfully, there’s been some mature critique of the article.

Even though I’m out of touch with recent anime, all of this discussion got me thinking about another angle to the conversation: the awkward space wlw occupy when we’re watching or experiencing moé.

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I’ve talked about this a bit in the past with yuri anime and the tension with it being representation on one hand, but not necessarily for wlw on the other hand. Even so, I watched Sakura Trick and enjoyed it, meaning I was in the audience despite the creators’ alleged intentions. From my perspective, what’s not to like? The main characters are girls. The series focuses on the development of their relationship in addition to some racy scenes. Some of those scenes broke my engagement with the show, but not all of them. Yet sometimes the discourse around critiquing the male gaze also insists that the presence of queer women kissing or otherwise expressing their sexuality on screen is clearly catering to straight male audience members. Maybe this is true in terms of authorial intent, but queer women become an audience in spite of this intent.

I go back to something a coworker said to me many years ago when Orange is the New Black first came out. To her, the first few minutes of the first episode, which shows Piper and Alex having sex in the shower, was clearly for the male audience, as if it were totally inconceivable that a woman could possibly enjoy or relate to that scene.

I’ve noticed a similar dynamic, similar assumptions when talking about moé (and yuri–there’s a lot of crossover). Lots of people categorize plain old moé as those series with a cast of cute girls doing cute things which cater to straight men’s fantasies. When talking about “moé for women,” people point to BL or implied BL like Free! Yet neither of these categories fits my own experience as an audience member.

I watch stuff like Sakura Trick and I’m like “cool, a cute tropey high school romance where the queerness isn’t subtext for once. Look at these goobers kiss.” At the same time, random boob shots in otherwise nonsexualized scenes appear and I’m like “okay can u not? I was trying to listen to what she’s saying.”

As an unintended audience member, I’m always in that awkward space where I can watch a moé or yuri series and dig it for the most part, yet certain things will pop up reminding me that I’m not a consideration. I’m not supposed to be in the theater, so to speak, but I’m here anyway.

And that’s where reader-response criticism lets us acknowledge the validity of audience reception and experience of a text. Authorial intent is important and the authorial intent for most yuri and moé series is to cater to straight men while the intent for many BL and yaoi series is straight women. However, authorial intent is not the end of a text’s message or impact.

So, I think any feminist critique of moé needs to acknowledge that queer women are this unintended audience and that our experience both aligns with and detracts from these fantasies intended for straight men. Otherwise, the critique will fall into the trap of continuing the legacy of feminism being a cishet woman’s movement.

 

Transcendence and Subtlety in Queer Ships

Queer erasure and censorship in media isn’t a new problem. Although things have certainly changed in recent years, overt representation of queer women in cartoons (and anime to a lesser extent) is still pretty sparse. Where it does occur, it’s sometimes embedded in some type of spiritual or transcendent narrative in which the transcendence of one or both partners acts as an ambiguous confirmation of their relationship. At the same time, transcendent narratives present profound themes that tie to larger ideas in the show. Korrasami and Utena x Anthy are two examples of queer lady ships in which transcendence or connection with the spiritual exists in tension with the ambiguity of their relationships.

Korrasami: Nonphysicality and the Spirit World

An image shows Korra and Asami facing each other in the glow of a spirit portal while holding hands.

Over a year ago, I joined with the rest of the Internet gushing over the Legend of Korra series finale. Subsequent Tumblr posts from Mike and Bryan confirmed Korrasami, which fueled ongoing debates about Korrasami’s value as queer representation. Did Bryke do their best in the face of network censorship, or should the queer community reject Korrasami for being barely more than breadcrumbs (as portrayed just in the series itself)? Does good queer representation mean that there cannot be any ambiguity about the relationship by the time a series ends, especially in light of people who stress that they’re just “gal pals”?

There may not be a straight answer.

Puns aside, I do think we can glean some good meaning from what we see of Korrasami’s relationship in those last moments as they hold hands and enter the portal to the Spirit World. To start, we need to compare Korra and Asami’s relationship with the relationships they have with Mako.

Because overt heterosexuality is permissible (and assumed) in children’s animation, Korra and Asami’s respective relationships with Mako contain that physical element. Both Masami and Makorra happened fast. One minute, Asami runs into Mako with her moped and does a hair flip. The next minute, they’re dating. Though Makorra happens a little slower than that, it’s still canon by the end of season one. Compare that to the three seasons it took for Katara and Aang to get together. Physical attraction or infatuation likely cause these quick hookups. Neither Korra nor Asami has much time at all to get to know Mako before dating him (and being physical with kisses and such). Mako and Korra do know each other a little bit better before they officially start dating, but Korra spends most of Book 1 with “Mako blinders” on, so to speak. He’s cool and charming and great, but Korra doesn’t actually know if they’re compatible. Both of them rush into their relationship and it’s clear by Book 2 that that they have no clue how to be with or support each other. It’s the same with Mako and Asami. In Book 3, Korra and Asami place the issue squarely on Mako’s inability to understand his own feelings or what he wants.

But during this Makorra and Masami dance, Korra and Asami begin their friendship. Korra is the reluctant one. In her brash judgments, she decides that Asami is her competition for Mako and is nothing more than a prissy heiress. Asami, however, shows nothing but respect and kindness for Korra. So as their friendship really starts to grow in Book 3, both could very well be attracted to each other in the same way that they were attracted to Mako. However, their history with him may compel them to actively and intentionally deny physicality. They both remember what happened the last time they rushed their feelings for someone they liked and they don’t want another burnout. So, they choose nonphysicality and spirituality becomes entwined with it. Asami is the one who requests the vacation to the Spirit World, of all places, so whatever is starting between her and Korra is intimately connected with the spiritual.

Now, technically speaking, holding hands is a physical act, but when we think of “physical” in terms of romantic relationships, we typically mean more than hand-holding. The absence of kissing or the types of touch one would usually have only in the context of a romantic relationship is what makes Korrasami “nonphysical.” However, their relationship is still deeply affectionate and there are plenty of examples, especially throughout Books 3 and 4, of the care they extend to each other.

Abstaining from physicality has some precedence in the Avatarverse. During Aang’s training with Guru Pathik, he’s encouraged to let all earthly attachments go when opening his chakras, which include the physical needs of his body and emotional ties, particularly his love for Katara. There’s this notion that being free of all tethers to the world will lead to a greater connection with the divine. Aang is ultimately unable to renounce his attachment to Katara and that’s the end of that.

Korra and Asami do have an attachment to each other, yet they are easily able to enter a spiritual realm. Part of this is because the plot of Legend of Korra allows for this, but I think another way to look at it is as an affirmation that earthly relationships can be windows into spirituality if they’re built on foundations other than physical gratification. This doesn’t mean physicality is bad. It just means that it isn’t a lasting foundation and Korra and Asami have learned that through their relationships with Mako.

Yet doesn’t Korrasami’s ambiguity as shown in the series make it too easy to dismiss them as “just gal pals”? That’s the constant tension of transcendent queer relationships. Because their affections are not or cannot be explicitly shown, these relationships take on many metaphorical elements. When relationships are up for interpretation, fans tend to categorize them on one end of a binary or another. They’re either just friends or they’re dating.

I don’t think this binary is particularly helpful in talking about Korrasami because I see both strong friendship and romantic love between them, which I’ve expounded on in other pieces on this blog. Moreover, their relationship suggests more of a spectrum than a binary. This quote sums it up nicely:

“Friendships include love and power, embodiment and spirituality. . . .Women experience these dynamics to various degrees in everyday friendship. . .sexuality, as most women see it, is an integrated part of everyday human interaction–whether touch, embrace, caress, or more intimacy. The prioritization of friendship based on women’s experiences offers a different starting point for sexual choices. Friendship becomes the bedrock of all love relationships. It is a good foundation” (Hunt, “Love Your Friends: Learning from the Ethics of Relationships,” Queer Christianities, 140).

Being friends doesn’t exclude the possibility of romantic relationship. Friendship is the substance on which relationships thrive. Korra and Asami spend Books 3 and 4 making that foundation solid. Their friendship shouldn’t be used to discount or eliminate romantic attraction because doing so results in lesbian and bisexual erasure. Instead, their friendship ought to be seen as the grounding of their relationship–whatever it may be when they disappear through the spirit portal. Who knows what the comics will bring to their relationship? If we get lots of scenes of their vacation in the spirit world, there could be more to say about how their relationship connects to the divine.

Utena x Anthy: Someday, Together

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Everything about Revolutionary Girl Utena is a metaphor and that includes Utena and Anthy’s relationship. So, it makes sense that their relationship has this ambiguous, transcendent element. Utena and Anthy’s ambiguity fits with what the rest of the show presents. In a way, defining the relationship as anything would almost take away from its compelling mystery.

In the past, I’ve framed Utena as a Christ figure and the events of the last couple of episodes in the series as a salvation narrative. Utena’s death/transcendence and Anthy’s possible immortality makes their relationship go beyond the physical world, which therefore places them in a space where logic and clear definitions can’t fully grasp what’s going on. And as someone who talks about “divine illogic,” that’s totally cool with me–profound, even. Utena now exists in some intangible world outside of Ohtori Academy and Anthy, having been given a way out of the same cycle through Utena’s “death,” follows her on that journey, hoping to reunite with her someday. It’s subtly romantic in the context of other moments they have throughout the series, but it’s also quite spiritual because of this sense of passing and breaking through a seemingly unbreakable cycle. It’s not as blissful and Korra and Asami walking into the spirit portal together, both clearly alive, but it still has that element of a relationship carrying over into another world.

For me, if queer relationships must be subtle or undefined, they should be so in connection to the divine because at least it serves some greater narrative purpose and contributes to interesting themes. Many may disagree, especially those who are not particularly religious. But should ambiguous and transcendent queer relationships be the new norm? Are they merely a convenient way to avoid explicit representation so that heteronormativity can remain comfortably unchallenged?

Steven Universe, among many things, is showing both overt queerness and a connection at least to the illogical. I’d expect this given its several homages to Revolutionary Girl Utena. There isn’t yet any sort of divine realm in Steven Universe (the diamond matriarchs could be the closest the show will get to divine figures), but there’s certainly a narrative of queer love and transcendence.

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Rose Quartz and Pearl encompass several Revolutionary Girl Utena references. The most obvious is the connection between Rose and “the Rose Bride.” In this sense, Rose is more of an Anthy figure. She’s always depicted in a white gown and she’s the one Pearl is always fighting for. Pearl, then, is Utena because she fights with a sword and some of her fight scenes parallel those in Utena. On the other hand, Rose is most like Utena because she’s the one who dies/takes on another form in Steven. This makes Pearl Anthy, as she’s trying to live on in Rose’s legacy.

Either way, the show makes it very clear that Rose and Pearl had feelings for each other. Plus, Rose at least has this transcendent/illogical element to her nature. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but Rose and Pearl show that telling a transcendent story doesn’t necessarily mean that queerness must be so vague that it’s easy to dismiss.

Garnet is especially illogical. She’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of before Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Garnet is the result of a relationship filled with such a deep love that she’s not only stable and very powerful, but she also confounds other characters just by existing (especially Peridot). Additionally, there’s nothing hidden or censored about Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship.

Steven Universe is breaking many molds while maintaining its popularity. It just may set a precedent for future stories that explore themes of transcendence and queerness. They do not have to be so subtle that they leave room for dismissal, but we can still find things worth analyzing in those subtle stories.