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'Summer Wars': The Family That Plays Together Stays Together

This week we put on our film studies hats again to talk about the representation of social media and network gaming in Mamoru Hosoda's most recent animated feature film, Summer Wars.

Summer Wars

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
MPAA Rating: NR
Studio: Madhouse
US Release Date: 2010-12-10 (Limited)
JP Release Date: 2009-08-01

Being the nose-to-the-grindstone academic that I am, I admittedly had no idea what I was seeing when a colleague invited me out to see Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars this past Friday. I really should have known: it's only the latest award-winning release from Madhouse, the Japanese animation studio responsible for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (also by Hosoda) and all of Satoshi Kon's work up until his death. But I digress. The movie is offbeat and quite enjoyable, and I would highly recommend it to any gamers with a thing for anime. Or Facebook, for that matter.

The film is a bit of a tossed salad where plot is concerned, but the central storyline is one in which a young math geek and part-time code monkey, Keiji, seeks to prove himself to classmate Natsuki's extended family, with whom he is staying over the summer. Events naturally coalesce to give him the opportunity, when a viral super-AI called Love Machine is unleashed onto the web, vandalizing sites and shutting down network hubs to affect everyone from the teenage txter to the communications of entire governments.

What especially impressed me about the film's depiction of a global network is the enhanced state of media convergence implied to have occurred by the story's start. There's a dramatic, almost corny sequence where we get a montage of global network users connecting wirelessly by their phones or DSis, which makes me seriously question the heretofore under-advertised wi-fi strength of the average Nintendo portable. Beyond that, we also have the climactic scene i which Natsuki stands challenging the Love Machine AI with her entire extended family linked in behind her. We get a glimpse of a four-generation household all clutching their various electronic devices, from game handhelds to GPSes, all logged in with their various network avatars as they prepare to sacrifice them for Natsuki and the greater good.

We can't extract a great deal of hard computational metaphor from the ensuing events, since the tech jargon behind it is beyond garbage (what does an AI gain from controlling social network accounts? Didn't anyone think to just cut the power source to the servers? And why is the "toughest encryption in the world" 256bit?). But, as so often happens in Japanese science-fantasy, it's more about the emotional thrust of the narrative than the tech informing it all. In Summer Wars social media -- and more importantly, social media as a facilitator for games -- is not only a rewarding pastime in its own right, its ability to foster cross-generational media literacy can change lives.

The key element to this climax lies in why Natsuki's family is rallying behind her with their devices: she chooses against engaging with the AI directly in a PvP competition, instead challenging him to koi-koi, a traditional Japanese card game. Natsuki's family, descended from warlords and samurai, stand here bringing a part of themselves -- their cultural as well as familial heritage -- into the digital, just as much as the film's message of collectivity as a virtue of social media is a cultural point introduced by the national heritage of the film.

Compare this with similarly fluffy hacking films from the West, like The Matrix (1999) or Gamer (2009), which offer "lone man" narratives about individual heroism confronting the system. Or even to The Social Network (2010), which despite chronicling the rise of the single most prevalent social media website in existence largely boils down to a character study of a single man. It exhibits very little mention of how the technology of Facebook affects the people who use it, except as a symptom of Zuckerberg's idiosyncratic bursts of inspiration. Summer Wars, conversely, is directly about the perception of social networks as living spaces, a perception informed by the values of those interacting with it. In Summer Wars, the sum of the social network is much greater than its individual parts -- just as Natsuki's family clan is more than a collection of random people, however they might appear to outsider Keiji.

That isn't to say that the values expressed in the film are completely culture bound. Far from it. But the warmth that family brings to Summer Wars's technological environment can't be understated. I found myself comparing a great deal of the film to my own surrogate family, who also represent a multigenerational clan of gamers. As likely to sit around the table for a game of hearts as crowd around the TV for a round of Dance Central, they are (in every sense of the word) a ludic and fun loving family who embrace the role of games to enhance relationships. It goes without saying that most of them are on Facebook as well. It was satisfying to see a fictional family connected through and by games and social media as much as my own.

Hosoda, borrowing a great deal of Summer Wars' saesthetic from his previous collaboration with Takashi Murakami, has an undeniable relationship with the Japanese postmodern art movement of superflat. It's well deployed here, showcasing the flattening of the premodern with the hypermodern in a digital space that readily commodifies, cuteifies, and gameifies (to use Bogost's word) any aspect of Japanese life. What Summer Wars restores to the superflat aesthetic, missing in much of Murakami's art, is that quintessential personability present in Natsuki's family of Web 2.0 participants. In Kon's Paprika, we saw the digital space becoming a cacophony of meaningless artifacts, but Hosoda's Summer Wars optimistically shows us a digitization that maintains its links to the past. Or in other words, by carrying their family ties into the social media realm, they reveal the significance of those ties in a networked space.

To those who wrote in last week saying that I had forgotten about roguelikes when discussing single-chance games: you are right, I did forget. Thank you for pointing this out, and I can promise that I'll be returning to the topic soon to fill in that particular gap.

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