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Prodigals, Parables, and Black-Belt Bunnies} ?> Ever laid awake at night wondering what the story of the Prodigal Son would be like if it included Facebook, nuclear threats, and a black-belt bunny? (Yes, you read that right.) Well, put your insomniac wonderings to rest. It’s a thing.
Summer Wars is a feature-length anime that includes a shaggy-haired protagonist, furries, feels, and familial ties; it also manages to double as a modern-day parable for the social media generation. In summary, Japan’s proud Jinnouchi family gathers to celebrate its matriarch’s 90th birthday, but the festivities are put on hold when the futuristic, world-wide network, Oz, goes haywire and a virus program threatens to bomb nuclear facilities around the world. (The black-belt bunny comes into play as a virtual avatar meant to combat the virus, in case you were wondering.)
Summer Wars is about reconciliation—not just in a literal sense, between a prodigal son and his family—but also on a narrative level. The film attempts to merge two unlikely genres, sci-fi and slice-of-life, and the result is as odd as, well, anime. But it works.
Summer Wars also asks many thought-provoking questions: How do we keep technology from replacing face-to-face interaction? How should the new generation embrace the customs of the old one? How does tradition compromise with a world so reliant upon change? How does an estranged family member come back into the fold?
That last question serves as the emotional crux of Summer Wars. Wabisuke, the youngest son of the Jinnouchi matriarch, takes his inheritance money prematurely and runs off to America to spend it. Years later, the prodigal cleans up his act and returns home to be welcomed by his mother and restored into the (begrudging) family.
Many modern stories credit parables and myths as their inspiration. Summer Wars not only retells a familiar Sunday morning sermon, but also suggests that parables themselves are timeless. I’ve seen this anime at least five times, and while the world of Oz loses an ever-so-slight edge of novelty with each watch, the reconciliation between wayward son and loving mother never ceases to pull at my heart strings.
I credit that emotional punch to the nature of parables, not to be confused with myths. Myths are meant to explain an unknown and offer artificial comfort through their revelations. A myth might explain a thunderstorm as the raging of a god, for example. Oppositely, parables are meant to make the listener uneasy with themselves, not because parables are passive-aggressive by nature but because they demand on-the-spot self-reflection.
When I watch Summer Wars, I see Wabisuke as more of a symbol than a character. The uneasy tensions the family feels around him at the dinner table make me think of my own skeptical interactions with estranged family members. I can relate to the distrust, to wondering if my open arms will be taken advantage of. But more than anything—especially as I watch Wabisuke’s rebellious spirit break against his mother’s love—I find myself confronting my doubts and asking, “Have I allowed bitterness to cloud my judgement and my ability to forgive?”
That’s one way I identify a parable: the silent call to action. I’m forced to look at myself and immediately make adjustments to the way I think, feel, or act.
Throughout time, cultures have used parables to instigate thoughtfulness and change, and Christ certainly pioneered many renowned spiritual parables, including the story of the prodigal son. I don’t believe Hosada’s retelling is intentional or divinely inspired, but that’s just testament to the inherent truths at work in his film. The concepts of redemption and reconciliation resonate with the human heart, because, I would argue, they are embedded in the subconscious of the human psyche.
Unlike many conventional stories, parables have cultural expiration dates, which makes constantly updating them necessary. Although I may not fully understand the Jewish customs in the original prodigal son story, I resonate with Summer War’s variant of the parable because social media, traffic jams, cell phones, and viruses are all concepts that I interact with on a daily basis. Because the context surrounding parables is ever-changing, not everything in them (like that black-belt bunny, for example) is meant to be taken literally or serve as an allusive symbol. Rather, the emotional response is most important. In a world where narratives are often over-complicated by philosophy and intellectual debate, parables insist that the recipient consider only how it prompts them to change.
Understandably, this continuous evolution and adaptation guarantees that parables have the power to give a “face” to an ideal and allow us to recognize and practice it in our everyday lives.
But I think the most empowering thing about parables is that they encourage us to share our own stories with others. I don’t believe there is anything more accessible, real, or inspiring than a personal story. Culture may not be universal, but most emotions are, and personal experience is difficult to discredit. Coming from someone who advocates the “head over heart” quip (INTJ here), it sounds surreal to lend so much credit to raw emotional response, but that is precisely what makes parables so powerful. They get under the skin and echo in the mind long after telling, stirring the heart into action.
So it is with Summer Wars. Hosada has caused me to examine my estranged family members in a different light through his portrayal of Wabisuke and the story of reconciliation that he embodies. In thirty years or so, I’ll likely forget some of the silver-haired antiheroes and sparkly-eyed bishojo that I spent time binge-watching. The rambunctious Jinnouchi family, though? They’re in my mind to stay. (And, yes, so is that black-belt bunny.)
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