Kubo and the Two Strings – a Look Back

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NOTE: This is not a review of the movie, but my ‘annotated’ viewing; if you are yet to watch the film, please take note that there will be spoilers!

I’m a little late, but I just watched Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), a stop-motion picture set in feudal Japan directed by Travis Knight. Although aimed towards younger viewers, the film is dark – as with many of LAIKA Entertainment’s produced work.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who has the magic to manipulate paper by playing his shamisen. He utilizes this skill to earn money by entertaining nearby villagers with origami and storytelling. At sundown, the village bell rings, and Kubo gathers his paper and the money he has earned and goes home to his mother.

Kubo’s mother, Sariatu (Charlize Theron), is in what seems to be a catatonic state, but returns to her well-functioning self at moonrise. When she does, she realizes Kubo has returned to her side. After dinner, Sariatu tells Kubo stories about his father Hanzo. When Kubo asks why his grandfather, Raiden, and his aunts killed Hanzo, Sariatu is infuriated – the grandfather took out Kubo’s left eye and killed Hanzo right after. Sariatu tells Kubo not to go out under the night sky – if he does, Raiden would find him, gouge his other eye, and take him away forever from Sariatu. For the past 11 years Kubo has been following his mother’s advice; in addition, he has been carrying around a wooden monkey charm his mother gave him to keep him protected.

During an Obon festival, Kubo is taught by a villager their tradition of speaking to deceased loved ones by use of lanterns. In hopes of speaking to his father, Kubo does the tradition just before dusk – he waits, but when Hanzo doesn’t respond to him, Kubo is angered and crushes the lantern. The village bell rings, and the sun dips behind into horizon – he had broken his mother’s rule.

A decade-old vendetta is resurrected: Kubo’s aunts, Karasu and Washi, both voiced by Rooney Mara, appears in the dark. By the way they speak (and look), they definitely want to gouge out Kubo’s other eye. Rooney Mara did a great job voicing the Sisters – they spoke in eerily monotonous unison, breaking into sadistic laughter while stalking Kubo.

Later, Sariatu comes to Kubo’s rescue and sends the latter to fly on beetle wings to the Farlands by enchanting his robes. She tells him to find the enchanted suit of armor – the only thing that can defeat his grandfather, the Moon King. The child, before flying away on mystic wings, manages to pull a lock of his mother’s hair. Sariatu and her sisters engage in battle.

Karasu and Washi’s design are stunning – they wear black straw hats and their black capes resemble plumage (their names are ‘Crow’ and ‘Eagle,’ after all). This dark color pattern makes their Onna-men conspicuous: masks used in Noh theatre depicting young, beautiful women.

Washi and Karasu. Image from imdb.com

The use of Noh masks is ingenious in the film—since the mask is frozen, it allows its viewer to interact with it via the imagination. In the case of Karasu and Washi, the viewer is intimidated and struck with fear – fitting reactions to maniacal murderers. It makes them less human – not only in being (they’re kami) and deeds, but also in appearance.

Contrasting this is the design of Sariatu – her long, black hair drapes over her gorgeous junihitoe. While she doesn’t wear a mask, her skin is pale white, as with depictions of beauty and female deity in east Asian art.

While the film’s artwork is exquisite, the film is negatively criticized for its casting (I believe the call-out was deserved). While the characters are Asian, only two actors were of Asian descent – George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. They both play minor villager roles; the rest of the big parts were given to actors of European descent. Inclusion and representation are significant in any work of art – but I suppose more important in a film for young people are the lessons it imparts.

Concept art for Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). Image from imdb.com

Memories play a huge role in the film – it is through which the theme of death is tackled. When Kubo awakens later from his flight, he sees that his wooden charm is animated into a live snow monkey, who informs him that his village is burned to the ground and his mother is killed. Kubo is too confused to even react – Monkey takes him into shelter. Monkey takes the lock of hair from Kubo. Her hair is her memory, Monkey says, twirling the lock into a bracelet and wears it around Kubo’s wrist, and memories are powerful things, Kubo. Never lose it.

But Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) can barely remember anything. He is Hanzo – cursed and transformed into a Japanese horned beetle after being captured by the Moon King and the Sisters, his memories taken away from him. Although he’s an amnesiac, Hanzo’s skills are still intact, and is even able to perform feats that only a legendary warrior can do. In addition, while he has lost his memories, Beetle still responds to situations (and to Monkey and Kubo) the way he would if he had his memories. It was only later in the movie that he realized he was Hanzo – but even before that, he was already acting like himself beforehand. What it means is that despite having lost his memories, he is still the same person – a mighty samurai warrior, husband to Sariatu, father to Kubo.

It reminds me of John Locke, who penned that personal identity is defined by continuity of consciousness, not by memories, not by physical bodies. It is our characters, values, and conscience that make us who we are. Beetle even strengthens this: he counsels Monkey that even though she will pass away (meaning, her body dies, again) her stories will live on through Kubo, and through the people Kubo shares her story with, and so on, thus granting her a kind of immortality.

Similarly, and perhaps contrastingly as well, the Moon King loses his memory as well. He is defeated by Kubo, who turns him into an old, mortal man with one blind eye. Gone along with his memories is his malevolent self. He doesn’t attempt to snatch Kubo’s right eye, nor kill him. The other villagers ‘fill his head’ with memories about him, memories which of course never really happened, thereby supposedly making him ‘good.’ “It turns out I’m pretty selfless,” he says. In this way, it’s a little bit non-sequitur, but perhaps Kubo’s magic was so powerful that he rendered the Moon King into a tabula rasa state.

Another important thing that the movie teaches us is how nobody is inherently ‘evil’ (and of course, inherently ‘good.’) Sariatu was once like her sisters – a fine warrior, doubtlessly killing anything that threatens the order of the heavens, but she realized her compassion. The Moon King, once selfish and malevolent, becomes cheerful and kind. We are all capable of doing both good and bad actions, horrendous and virtuous – Kubo perhaps realized this, and when his grandfather is humanized, he looks beyond the past and instead accepts the potentiality of his kindness.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). Image from imdb.com

Is Polymathy Possible In Our Generation?

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Nothing has irked me more than the master of none part of that painfully familiar adage. Sarah, a close friend of mine, was thrown the good-ol’ jack-of-all-trades thing after she shared her many interests. Like her, I am keen on many things. I am a biologist by training, but oh I so adore playing the piano and the cello. I like dancing and acting – I used to major in theatre arts before I changed my path to biology. Writing and reading are close to my heart, and so are the experiments that we perform in our university’s laboratories.

People like Sarah and myself are often told to “make up our minds” and follow a single path: work diligently, get promoted, save up for retirement. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, and we know that people who tell us so mean well, but the concept is limiting. Yet, it is understandable why this is the logic advised to us.

Capitalism urges us to be specialized individuals. It does so perhaps because of the ideal of division of labour – when a task is divided into its minutiae parts, the efficiency of production will be increased exponentially. Adam Smith stressed that it is by specialization that economies grow. He maintains that a pin-maker may finish 20 pins a day, “a team of 10 pin-makers well-arrange can create 48 thousand pins.”

Born out of the industrial revolution, the same still holds true for today: the typical occupation in the modern world is one that is constrained in front of a monitor, situated in a team of a large corporation eight hours a day, five days a week. An employee’s task is but a small part in a long chain – and because it is so, he can hardly identify with it, adding alienation to the work’s limiting factor. When one labours enough years of the same task, one is awarded a raise in wage, or perhaps even a promotion – which in some cases further ‘specializes’ the role.

While we may refer to these specialists as monomaths, there are people who we refer to as polymaths. A polymath is someone who has ‘learned much.’ While we can say the idea of a specialist was born in the industrial revolution (and evolved to today’s ‘monomath’), the polymath was perhaps born in the Renaissance, expressed in the idea of humanist Leon Battista Alberti [1404 – 1472] – the epitome of a Renaissance man and a polymath himselfthat anyone can “do all things” if one wills it.

A polymath is someone who excels at many different fields: da Vinci was a painter, sculpture, inventor, and scientist; Michelangelo was a poet, architect, sculptor and painter; Dr. Jose Rizal, ophthalmologist by profession, was also a novelist, poet, fencer, and later national hero of the Philippines. Actress Hedy Lamarr, working with a composer, invented technology that is incorporated in today’s Wi-Fi tech. Polymaths are people who widens their capabilities as much as they can.

Dr. Maya Angelou reverberates this idea: she has lived a diverse life as a journalist, poet, singer, dancer, and civil rights activist. Asked by the Smithsonian how Dr. Angelou is able to “move easily from one thing to another”, the late autobiographer responds:

So I think we’ve done a real disservice to young people by telling them, “Oh, you be careful. You’ll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.” It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades. If you study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do that…

Goethe, who people know mostly as a literary figure, was also a scientist. Working with the scientist and polymath Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe was largely interested in anatomy and geology. In her work ‘the Invention of Nature’, Andrea Wulf points out that while Goethe composed his epic poem Hermann and Dorothea, Goethe “examined worms, dissected worms and snails, and continued his studies in geology.” Goethe spent a lot of his time with his friend Humboldt, who was accused by Schilling – another acquaintance of Goethe – that he was distracting Goethe from his aesthetical pursuits. Schilling, bearing a similar likeness to many of today’s voices, thought “that Humboldt would never accomplish anything great because he dabbled in too many subjects,” Wulf wrote.

With today’s information technology, it would seem that people have more opportunities to become a polymath than ever before. However, a lot of people lack the commodities which are time and money to do it. After all, a lot of us render 9:00-5:00 jobs and barely has savings, and yet Da Vinci and Michelangelo had patrons who allowed them to focus on their learning, while Goethe was born in an aristocratic family. Even Aristotle declared once that the “life of the mind is open only to rich people.”

It would seem that polymaths were the children of their time when a group of people were so filthy rich they were free of day-to-day worries, while another group worked day and night to clothe and shelter themselves. It seems so, but again a lot of us struggle to leave rat race while a small group of people have tea and biscuits after lunch.

Perhaps the way of the modern polymath—or would-be polymath such as myself—is to draw from a range of knowledge and experience in order to design a lifestyle that would liberate them into a lifetime of learning. Tim Ferris, in his book the 4-hour Workweek, formulates a strategy in how we can earn income while diminishing our need to input time, which is a commodity as much as money. A lot of personal finance books have the same aim – but Ferris’ book resonated with me because it has a framework that is suitable for the digital age. Personally, I am still a little unsure about taking the steps he prescribes, but the “case studies” he also presented are comforting. (No, this is not a paid advertorial).

Far too many people are told that we can only thread one path in a lifetime. I think there is a way for us to change this, to design a life best suitable for us. Luckily, in this era of technology, I believe it would be easier for us to do. After all, the gig economy is growing, and perhaps it could be the beginning of a new wave of polymathy.