East meets West in "Kubo of the Two Strings": Seeing is Remembering

(We may spoil anything and everything, so you've been warned.)

I was excited to see "Kubo" because it looked very Japanese, but I would never have guessed just how earnest its cultural appropriation would be. I expected a typical adventure story with some Eastern-inspired elements. What I saw was a beautifully realized myth about dealing with loss, seamlessly weaving together Western religious themes with probably the principal occupation of Japanese religion: the spirits of the dead.

Religion might seem like a controversial topic especially in a film targeted toward children, but Japanese religion itself is almost a misnomer, as its rituals today are more akin to traditions than affirmations of belief in the supernatural. The obon festival that frames Kubo's journey honors and celebrates deceased family members and ancestors by cleaning and placing offerings at gravesites, but it also includes trappings as secular as Christmas gifts; it is one of Japan's largest festivals, when transit is crowded with travelling relatives. Yet when Kubo, unsatisfied by his mother's failing memory of his deceased father, hopes to connect with him by joining in the ritual of the obon festival, he is disappointed when no spiritual sign of his father appears to him. Rather, Kubo's expectations of the ritual oddly align with our own. Why shouldn't Kubo have a vision as in "Lion King" where Simba speaks to his father's spirit in the heavens? Because in "Kubo" the real magic is the art of storytelling, and the heavens are home to beings who are ruthless and cold.

Kubo's story is a tragic one. He is the progeny of one of the Moon King's fiercely powerful daughters and the mighty warrior she was sent to kill. The Moon King destroyed Kubo's family as punishment for his mother's rebellion, and took one of his eyes. When Kubo's vengeful aunts come to take his remaining eye to blind him to humanity, his mother sends him on a quest to find his father's magical armor. Kubo then comes to see himself less as the village storyteller he is and more as a warrior driven by loss to seek revenge, much like his father before him, much like the heroes of many classical Japanese tales.

But the Moon King, so he claims, only wants to take Kubo's eyes so that he can take his rightful place among the omniscient stars, so that he can become cold, immortal, and perfect. Human eyes, it seems, are more preoccupied with beauty than with truth. Kubo's mother describes falling in love with his father as an act of "seeing" and her story of heavenly descent and its consequences calls to mind the Western fall of man more than any Eastern myth. In challenging the Moon King's order Kubo is a Miltonian hero akin to Mal in Joss Whedon's "Serenity" or Lyra in Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." For there to be stories in the world, Kubo realizes, there must also be endings. There must also be death.  

At the critical moment, Kubo lays aside his father's armor for the ancient Japanese instrument of storytelling, his magic samisen, to save the day with the power of the memories it can summon. He asserts that humans can transcend death through the passing on of their stories into memory, and decides to end his story by simultaneously choosing death over immortality and forgiveness over revenge. Kubo transforms the Moon King into a human with no memories, so the inventive villagers bestow him with the notion that he is a good person, and he becomes one. The film's message is a profound one: It is our flawed nature, our ability to choose what we remember, that allows us to continually remake the truth and create beauty in the world; we are all storytellers. It is with this understanding that Kubo finally succeeds in literally animating the spirits of the dead.

For all the Japanese culture that this American production appropriates, it is incredibly competent in its usage and understanding of those elements, (except perhaps for one moment soup-slurping). For the best example, the Japanese word kami can refer to gods, paper, and hair, implying that the latter have some sacred attributes; the film uses this association to imply that memories and stories are sacred. Kubo's magic origami plays a vital role in his storytelling as well as his quest, and the titular two strings include a strand of his mother's hair Kubo strings onto his samisen to empower it with her memory. In addition to all it takes on, the film has the confidence to contribute Western elements and find where the two cultures meet. Laika has created something truly original, rendered in beautiful animation that affirms the film's message. Should you choose to see it, it is unlikely you will forget it.

For a full review of "Kubo" check out The Movie Gang Podcast from Tuscan Shed Media.