Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cyber War - the cuteness factor juxtaposed

Every few months a friend comes over for a "Japanese film night". He is a Taiwanese, very bright, and has a degree from UBC in Film Studies. We enjoy juxtaposing two wildly different films because such pairings are guaranteed to generate ideas and unpredictable conversation. The only "rule" we agree to is viewing films in their original form, with English subtitles. Michael is fluent in Japanese and I rely on him to offer insights as they occur to him during the viewing. This past week we started with a documentary on famous Japanese cannibal (and pop-culture icon) Issei Sagawa, [Sagawa Issei Wikipage] and moved on to an animated film entitled SUMMER WARS [Summer Wars on Wikipedia] directed by Mamoru Hosoda. I have no interest in Hosoda's previous work, but I did find this Anime interesting, and I enjoyed watching the story unfold.

SUMMER WARS starts from two premises. The first is that Social Networks not only stake out a massive territory on the Internet but that members will be persuaded to route most of their daily tasks through the network and become very dependant on the service. The second premise is that such networks (in this instance OZ, a Japanese version of Second Life) can and will be hijacked by malignant entities. In the film a Japanese programmer named Wabisuke, (who is a half blood-member of the family), is implicated, when in fact it is the United States military which decided to hijack the OZ network, perhaps as a tactical exercise.

There is much more to the story, including a teen romance, designed for a teenage market, but nevertheless SUMMER WARS has broader appeal. (A very detailed overview of the movie is on Wikipedia.) What I found most interesting in the script was the treatment of Japanese concepts of family, especially the valuing and sharing of family accomplishments. The story is largely set in the rural home of 90 year old family matriarch Sakae Jinnouchi, where family members have assembled to celebrate her birthday. Simple meals and conversation strengthen the bonds, but several characters have advanced technical skills, and the wired world is ever present. At table there are several discussions of family heroes and clan contributions to the nation during feudal times. Certainly nothing like the conversation heard in most Canadian homes. When the OZ network is hijacked, the family understands that it is a rare opportunity to offer a public service, and in the process strengthen and heal their family, which suffers the wear and tear common to most modern Japanese families. The Cyber-warfare sequences are entertaining and unique to me, but not perhaps, to anyone who enjoys a life in video gaming.

SUMMER WARS - Issei SagawaSUMMER WARS was flop at U.S. cinemas. The advertising budget (minuscule) greatly exceeded its box office return. The Anime was never theatrically released in Canada, but was published in Blu-ray and DVD editions on Feb. 15, 2011, and on disc is now outselling many Hollywood clunkers. The cover art of the DVD box shows the girl Natsuki brandishing her family crest or mon, and not the Japanese national flag. In the film the U.S. Department of Defence Pentagon building appears onscreen, but not the U.S. flag.
When we finish watching a film, we do what all film fans do - share our immediate or "gut" responses and then we get into the details of the story and technical aspects of its production. I have an aversion to the "cute" in Japanese Manga and Anime but I didn't find Hosoda relying overmuch on the cuteness factor here. Strangely, one of the odd juxtapositions that popped into mind was triggered by the original premise of a multi-generational family of Cyberwarriors, including children, standing in defence of the nation, was a photograph taken inside the super-secret precincts of Fort Meade, Maryland. It is a group photograph taken in 2010 of General Keith Alexander, and his extended clan, including twelve grandchildren. General Alexander is the Director of the National Security Agency, and also the C.O. of United States Cyber Command.
The capability of the N.S.A. is legendary. Its records include for example records of almost two trillion phonecalls made by Americans over the past ten years, and the images of millions of Mexicans and Canadians, duplicated from their motor vehicle licence photos.
The obvious reason for taking the photograph (below) was to allow the General's family to share in his joy of assuming the powerful office of Director of the N.S.A. It is a strategic post which, we recall, can lead the right man to the White House, if he is ambitious enough. The less obvious motive here is to wrap the political moment in the trappings of what are held to be wholesome American values - marriage and child rearing, a career in the Armed Services, and certainly loyalty to country. Another thing which struck me about this photo is that all are intent on the moment, including the children. They look at the camera - but General Alexander is staring at someone offstage. Perhaps his mind was already in Afghanistan, Iraq or Beijing.
General Keith Alexander - displays his whole family General Keith Alexander is both head of the N.S.A. and the C.O. of USCYBERCOM. The general is shown here at the investiture ceremony for USCYBERCOM at Fort Meade, Maryland on May 21, 2010, in which is entire family joined he and Secretary Gates on the podium. John Young, the gutsy investigator and owner of the CRYPTOME website, suggested that the whole WIKILEAKS fiasco was actually CYBERCOMS' "first defeat" and he urged Gen. Alexander to resign. [more Alexander photos here]

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