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.
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.
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.