Kubo and the Two Strings is the newest offering from Laika Entertainment, a studio that specializes in stop-motion animation. Known for films such as Coraline (a personal favorite) and Paranorman, Laika produces beautiful pieces that take the art to a new level. This is not Gumby. This is nuanced, evocative animation that breathes and glides. The physics make sense. The emotions are human.
In the film our protagonist, Kubo, is a young storyteller who uses a shamisen to channel magic and bring his stories to life through origami. The movie is set in ancient Japan in an unidentified time/region, though at a Q&A I attended director Travis Knight identified the architecture as Heian Era and a main visual influence as sosaku hanga artist Kiyoshi Saito, best known for his snow landscapes that capture Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima (one of my family’s hometowns).
When his mysterious origins come back to terrorize him and his mother faces off with her ruthless magical sisters (rocking some Beyonce-level hats), Kubo goes on an adventure with an enchanted monkey and a strange beetle warrior to find a suit of armor that his legendary father once sought.
It makes more sense when you see the film. It sounds five words away from a dumpster fire when you don’t -- thankfully, it isn't.
It actually isn’t that bad
The elements read as a recipe for disaster. It’s an animated-ish film about Japan with a trailer that features orientalist flourishes like origami and magic. In a cultural moment when even a Broadway show helmed by George Takei decides to invent Japanese traditions and rewrite history (it was a great show, just weird at times), I’ve walked into any remotely “Asian” production ready for a failure.
The title alone raises questions -- shamisens have three strings and Kubo is usually a surname, not a first name. Most glaringly, the production credits feature no Japanese or Japanese American names until you get to the cast (more on that further down). With all this in mind I walked into the screening expecting the cringe I’ve grown accustomed to. Instead I was greeted with one of the most careful representations of Japan I’ve seen on screen in the past decade, though perhaps that isn’t saying much.
It isn’t perfect. There are many, prominent hairs to split. Everyone talks like that one knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade whose job it is to guard the holy grail. No one pronounces the word “samurai” correctly. During an obon scene they play Tanko Bushi and Soran Bushi, neither of which were typical bon odori songs until the mid-1900s and originate from opposite ends of Japan (meanwhile in that same scene background characters are wearing amigasa hats associated with a specific dance called Awa Odori which is from yet another part of Japan). The credits are beautiful until there’s a random geisha, then a rickshaw man, then taiko players using bamboo instead of traditional wood.
And if I were that guy I could get caught up on that mess, but I’m not and I can’t. The crew actually did a pretty great job. The shamisen, supplied by the legendary Kevin Masaya Kmetz and Hibiki Ichikawa, sounds and even looks top notch. The clothing feels right. The Moon King’s garb looks more Chinese than Japanese and, even if it was unintentional, evokes the Chinese roots of Japan’s mythology and religions. A gashadokuro makes an appearance. The beetle warrior was presumably imagined from the realization that kabuto, the word for samurai helmet, lends itself to kabutomushi, the word for horned beetle.
On top of that I would criticize the stereotypical characterization of Kubo as an origami-folding shamisen player except as an origami-folding shamisen player myself I really have no standing.
The story has ancestry in tales like Momotaro, Kaguyahime, and the Buddhist story of the Rabbit in the Moon. The lake scene evokes Urashima Taro and the fortress climax calls to all the epic dark temple battles scattered throughout Japanese ghost stories. They even hired a Japanese consultant, Taro Goto, who has context for Japanese culture, American consumption, and Asian American sensitivity. It doesn't feel like a native Japanese story nor a native Japanese production, but it doesn't feel disrespectful either.
So as a script, story, and production I have hard time knocking it. I’ve long asked for an animated film rooted in the stories I grew up with, a rich mine of magical creatures, courageous heroes, and palpable evil within every downtrodden temple. Kubo delivers all this and with a visually stunning vocabulary. For a stop motion film featuring an Asian face and an Asian story, there was a massive marketing budget behind it. I formerly worked in theatrical media planning and driving around Los Angeles, they bought some very pricey billboards.
You can even get (underwhelming) Kubo toys in your Burger King Kids Meal. It’s cool.
The studio clearly believed in this film in a way I’ve seen few studios believe in films that center an Asian story and Asian faces. It’s an impressive show of faith and I can’t help but think of what the impact of a blockbuster push like this is on a generation of Asian American kids seeing themselves as the hero for the first time on screen.
Behind the face, however, is where it gets complicated.
Though the characters are all Asian, the main cast is largely white. George Takei represents with his signature “Oh my” (like that's literally one of his only lines) and gets billboard credit for it, but that’s really about it for the Js. The filmmakers tried to make amends by casting a largely Japanese American chorus for looping and then shoving their names into the credits with generic Japanese names we never hear in the film or billing as “Villager #1.”
And the sidestepping and pandering is apparent. Prominently highlighting Japanese American names in what is essentially the “Extras” section and getting George Takei for two-three lines then giving him billboard credit is a great way to pre-empt backlash for the lack of people of color, let alone Asian Americans, let alone Japanese or Japanese American voices in the main cast. In a year where Twitter has been ablaze with hashtags (#whitewashedOUT, #StarringJohnCho, #StarringConstanceWu), Matt Damon is saving China, and we’re seeing more and more Asian American celebrities engaging their communities, there are eyes on a film called Kubo and the Two Strings with a trailer that hints at impending doom and cultural failure.
It isn’t as if it would have been hard to balance the cast, either. If for investor reasons they needed to cast the leads with “names” then let Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle be voiced by “names,” sure. We can keep pretending that superstar voices lead to box office viability in animation. But there are plenty of lines from the core supporting cast that could have been filled by the George Takeis, the Amy Hills, and the Tamlyn Tomitas of the world.
These are actors who grew up around family who spoke with tone, stress, and subtlety we brought from Japan and passed down with every first word and every shared meal. These voices are not crafted. They are not built off of assumption or imitation, informed or otherwise. Instead these voices are inherited and used with lives of their own informed by generations of ritual, manner, tradition, and heritage.
So it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating that they went lengths to respect and distill our traditions, our heritages, and our stories without us in the picture. It’s frustrating to hear Matthew McConaughey phone in his performance and know that he was only in the movie for PR when a film like this could not only enrich another actor’s career but be enriched itself.
But what’s most frustrating personally is that I walked out of the second screening extremely happy with the film because it was actually informed. It’s frustrating that I’m still ecstatic to see a crew do its due research when that should be the base expectation. It’s frustrating that though I am frustrated with the casting, I am willing to give it a pass because I know that this is an intermediary towards larger things down the road. It's frustrating to know that in this moment, we must take what we can get while continuing to push for more human representations of our people, our communities, and our stories -- with us front and center.
In the opening lines, Kubo tell the audience that “If you must blink, do it now.” We are in a fascinating, blink-of-an-eye transitionary time when Asian Americans are taking a foothold in the industry and showing up in places we never expected them even two or three years ago. Kubo is one second of this moment. There will be more, though perhaps with hesitancy as Kubo opened at a low $12M (the lowest of Laika’s films so far).
We are in a time of battle-picking in which things will very quickly shift and reform. This is the second wide-release children’s film in a couple years to feature an Asian face in a leading role, though Big Hero 6 focused its marketing on robot-marshmallow Baymax instead of Hiro. The last time we got this was Mulan in 1998, nearly 20 years ago.
So I am frustrated but I am also going to appreciate this film for what it is. We have always asked for Hollywood to treat our heritages as living texts to study rather than empty set pieces and Kubo sets the bar high. We have always seen opportunity in the stories we were raised with and Kubo took them in.
Tomorrow I will look up at the three Kubo billboards next to my office in Hollywood and smile at the Japanese faces leaping from them. Perhaps next to me there will be a Hollywood hopeful, that much more energized to jump into the day and find their voice. Perhaps somewhere there will be a Japanese American 13-year-old walking out of a theater, 3 inch x 3 inch packet of origami paper in pocket, armed with a new sense of possibility.
For Asian Americans, Kubo is part of a larger ecosystem that includes Hollywood blockbusters, independent festival circuits, and YouTube manifestos and it has a very clear, specific role in that ecosystem. We can criticize it in a vacuum, yes, but then we have an opportunity to uplift work that is created by our own communities. Context, as always, is key.
Despite the pandering, the missed opportunities, and Matthew McConaughey, see the film. Kubo and the Two Strings is not perfect. Try as it may (and it does), it is no Miyazaki film. But it is a beautifully rendered reminder that powerful stories can come from anywhere. I've never said this before and I'll probably never say it again, but for all the reasons you should not see Kubo, the film is worth the tradeoff.