With every mistake we must surely be learning… Review of Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings ends with Regina Spektor doing a cover of the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  It’s a fitting end to an Anglo story written by Anglos with Asian sounds.

I am yet to find this genre of stop-motion cinema endearing.  I find it creepy.  Nothing moves right.  The light on faces is all wrong.  Everything makes me want to vomit.


Kubo and the Two Strings comes from the makers of other stop-motion films such as Coraline (which I also hated).   As with Coraline, the film concentrates on aesthetics to the detriment of plot, story, and character.

Kubo is a young boy who lives with his strange mother.  He has special powers which emerge when he plays music on a shamisen.  He is given three rules: always keep his monkey charm, always wear his father’s robe, never go out after dark.  When he breaks one of the rules, a threat from his past emerges and it turns out his mother has powerful magic as well.  In order to battle with the threat, Kubo must find a magic sword, magic armour, and a magic helmet.  He then finds out that he had the power all along to defeat the threat.

Oh, and he’s Japanese.

When I was a teenager, my mother became extremely interested in feng shui.  She filled the house with little trinkets that she was promised would create good energy flow.  Water here, wood there, statues facing the right way to improve the family’s budget.  The goal was to purchase the positive cosmic energies with the least amount of intellectual effort.

Kubo and the Two Strings fits that model.  There’s a Japanese veneer to the movie, samurai and shinto ancestor worship, that doesn’t engage intellectually with the culture.  It seems to have been done in order to patch up story holes.  Why do the characters respond to situations is bafflingly stupid ways?  Oh, because this is a foreign folktale.

Forget the Tumblr-generation’s rhetoric about ‘cultural appropriation’ and get to the conceptual guts of the problem.  Recasting your story in the costume of another culture allows you to universalise a whole lot of your specific perspectives.  Kubo tells the story of familial love.  The ancient Japanese family was just like your typical Anglo family.  Little boys dream of knowing their fathers.  Little boys become the man of the house when their mothers get ill.  Look at how universal these tropes are.

Except it’s utter noise.  Ancient Romans cared so little for their daughters and the infant mortality rate was so high that they barely bothered to give them names.  Some Indigenous Australian cultures have much broader understanding of family than ‘Who gave birth to me?’  And so on and so forth.  Anglo stories in Japanese face paint just serves to erase Japanese stories and understandings.

Put another way, this is how we make every global culture as bland as contemporary Anglo culture.  I don’t mean to suggest that we should sterilise and quarantine global cultures (which is what the Tumblr-generation ‘cultural appropriation’ warriors want), but there is a (sinister) reason why Kubo is a Japanese boy with a shamisen and not a boy from Georgia with a banjo.

The real kicker is that all of the leading voice cast are white.

First, a gripe.  We have an entire industry of voice actors who do nothing but specialise in voice acting.  It is an art form requiring its own discipline.  For whatever reason, Hollywood animated films keep using random celebrities to take the place of voice actors.  Thus we get Matthew McConaughey’s bizarre performance as the beetle samurai.  He’s got a voice like nails down a blackboard.

Second, the deeper issue.  Asian actors are already underrepresented in Hollywood, so why manufacture a Japanese story without Japanese actors?  It makes the whole thing feel wrong, as if the cultural aspects are merely being sampled like a buffet in the visuals.  Kubo tells a story about Japanese society without including them in the production.

The soundtrack, with the exception of Regina Spektor, is amazing.  But it is wasted on a bland story.  The conflict is between the boy and his grandfather, the Moon King.  But it feels weird to import the cosmic and the fantastic for what is, essentially, a family law dispute.  You just want to tell everybody to put away their magical instruments and mythical weapons, and get them to just talk it through.  Kubo, do you want to go live with your grandfather?  Moon King, would you prefer Kubo to be dead rather than live with you?  Really?  Really?  What if Kubo came to visit you every second weekend?  See, that wasn’t so hard.  No need for anybody to kill anybody.

There is an unresolvable mismatch between the issue of the film and the methods employed to respond to that issue.  Because none of the characters seems to have an internal world — they don’t have any opinions that they don’t express, they don’t have any emotions that they don’t announce — it actually feels plausible that these simpletons would get into a conflict between Heaven and Earth over what is essentially a very mundane custody battle.

Finally, why pitch this movie at children?  There was a lot in this movie that felt cramped because it was aiming to be child-friendly.  Aiming at a slightly older audience would have given it some breathing room to tackle bigger subjects.  For some reason, we are obsessed with coming of age movies being suitable for children.  Coming of age stories should be for young adults trying to make sense of themselves in the world.  So we get film after film of ten year old boys who must learn how to wield a sword (penis), shoot a gun (penis), or fight off a father figure (who wants to castrate them), but in a way which is entirely sexless.

We seem more comfortable with a film about how a young boy learns to use a weapon than with a film where a young boy tries to make sense of intimacy.

Anyway, the film is bad and it clearly took a lot of effort to make a film this bad.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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