Laika Studios’ latest is an immense, sprawling epic that ignites the visual cortex, but leaves serious contextual questions in its colorful wake.
What is the cost of cultural appropriation? If a story does not actively offend the sensibilities of the culture it draws from, even if that story bears no resemblance to the heritage or myth of that culture, does it still have the requisite worth to hold muster?
Or, to put it another way: do you think Mulan was ok?
These are, sadly, the questions I left with after Kubo and the Two Strings, Portland, Oregon animation house Laika’s latest stop-motion action-adventure. A feast for the senses, as billed in the numerous glowing reviews from major publications and blogs, Kubo is nonetheless a contextually murky enterprise.
In a summer movie season that has been dominated with talk about appropriate context and social progressivism within blockbusters (Ghostbusters, Zendaya-as-Mary Jane), Kubo presented itself in a way that seemed a welcome respite from movies that require societal unpacking. Yet here we are, nearly two hundred words into this review and with a very different thesis than I expected going in.
Kubo is Laika’s fourth film, by far their most grandiose and bold. Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls all had their unique charms. Yet each, in its own way, filled out a space in the Tim Burton-verse, succeeding in the delightfully quirky ways Burton and his compatriots once did with movies like A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Shadows and gravity-defying architecture. Impossible little creatures and young, investigative protagonists who have precious sidekicks. If it felt like Laika was establishing a formula, you could forgive them; stop-motion animation on the scale they were attempting is insane on its face. Stretching the comparatively small shop to radical changes in tone seems nigh impossible.
Yet Kubo is indeed radical in its deviation from Laika’s previous efforts. Richly textured, colored in gorgeous natural hues of gold, deep blue, forest green and stone grey, the story is an exercise in guessing how the studio can possibly top itself action set piece by set piece. At the film’s core is still a curious, brash young protagonist who gets involved with some anthropomorphized friends, yet this one feels grounded not so much (at all, really) in the paranormal and more in the mystical, natural forces of the earth.
Kubo, our eponymous hero in ancient Japan, is a master storyteller even at a young age, and possesses a magic he can only barely control when he plays his family shamisen. His curiosity for his family history — where does his father come from? Who are his grandfather and aunts, and why are they so interested in him? — brings him to the cusp of a monumental journey, one that ties him directly into the myth of his own conception.
Throughout the movie’s elegant first act, Laika keeps the pace snappy by forcing Kubo to use his magic shamisen to wow the audience (sometimes both in the movie and out) and hold their focus. These scenes could play like demo reel footage of Laika’s latest technology, but credit to first-time director Travis Knight (coincidentally President and CEO of Laika, and one of the men most chiefly responsible for its rebirth in this form) should be given for wow-ing without losing sense of the narrative.
Once Kubo meets his journey companions, a stoic but constantly frustrated monkey and a flirtatious samurai beetle (voiced by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, respectively), the movie adopts a gainly stride as it treks through Kubo’s quest to retrieve a set of armor that will help him defeat his ultimate foe. Many of the glowing initial reviews of Kubo have placed emphasis on Knight, along with screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, (working from a story by Shannon Tindle and Haimes), focusing on the little emotional beats of Kubo’s journey, rather than the ostensible achievements Kubo needs to reach his goal. Just so, Kubo is often most concerned with the chemistry of its leads; Theron and McConaughey particularly get fun material to play off of each other (from separate ADR booths, but still), and in the movie’s best moments you can almost completely forget that you’re listening to Imperator Furiosa and the “alright, alright, alright” guy banter at each other for sometimes too-long stretches. That relationship functions better than Kubo’s to his two friends, which can sometimes feel predicated on upending the status quo with sometimes untidy narrative plot twists. Yet the trio’s fellowship is the beating heart of the movie, and Knight and company are at their best when they’re letting the characters breathe.
Simultaneously, let it be said that Laika has gotten immensely better at crafting action. While the stages of their journey can still sometimes feel overly video game-y, and sometimes fall into a slowed pace that doesn’t serve the action on screen, those faults can be forgiven for the sheer ballsiness of some of the setups. Around the midpoint of the movie, Kubo is asked to retrieve an item underwater, under the perilous gaze of dangerous eyes. The animation and underwater work in this sequence is utterly superb, pacing or no, and by the time it’s over one can barely remember any lingering problems with the movie at all. Laika’s chief strength, as it has always been and continues to be with Kubo, is its ability to craft show-stopping beauty with their practically created animatronics. Nobody is making films like Laika; certainly no one making them as beautifully.
Yet here, after all the deserved praise for Laika’s strident commitment to the journey as the story and the finely crafted practical effects, we must discuss the somewhat hazy colonization of Kubo’s setting and plot (we’ll get to its casting in a moment). I asked earlier what you thought of Mulan. It’s one of Disney’s finer entries in its post-Beauty and the Beast Renaissance, and succeeds in part because the story feels grounded in a cultural, historical moment. The legend of Hua Mulan was certainly co-opted by Disney to make a “empowered princess” narrative, but at least there was basis in the tale, and a Chinese-born actress in the lead role (Ming-Na Wen). Yet even Mulan can be seen as mild cultural appropriation. Disney rarely gets a long leash, and rightly so.
But for Laika to be afforded a particularly long contextual leash simply because of the sheer implausibility of the technical feat they’re achieving is at best giving undue leniency to a story that probably means well, and at worst playing by a dangerous, hipster-ish indie-film double standard. Kubo is, near as I can tell, a completely invented story that has no basis in an existing Japanese myth or folkloric tale. This might have been fine, had the movie been written or conceived by anyone of Japanese heritage or with strong ties to Japanese culture. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Even then, the sins of a slap-dashed story might be glossed over by a powerful Japanese voices in the key roles.
Nope. Instead of casting Japanese actors in roles written as Japanese people, Kubo cast Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Art Parkison (Rickon Stark in Game Of Thrones) to play the roles. If we’re going to jump on the back of studio executives for casting Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, the same, perhaps even more damning argument should be made against Kubo. Ghost in the Shell is a blockbuster; it has the (admittedly poor) excuse that it needs a recognizable face at its center. Kubo did not. Whether Ming-Na Wen was stunt casting on Disney’s part or not, at least Disney recognized an opportunity to cast an Asian role with an Asian voice actor. Kubo, instead, takes the easy route to stardom by marshaling the biggest names it can get.
And to jump back just slightly, while the casting is probably the most frustrating part of Kubo’s sociological reek, the story-based reasons for Kubo to be set in Japan are just as smelly. Watching Kubo, the question might naturally come up: exactly why does this movie have to be set in ancient Japan?
The answer, depending on how forgiving you want to be, has something to do with the honorific legend of the samurai. Yet the idea of the samurai warrior is hardly dealt with in the majority of the story. Kubo is not about a young warrior turning into a samurai. In fact, it’s frequently about the opposite — the embrace of the emotional core of family in place of the stoic perseverance of legendary immortality. Yet everything else about the Japanese culture of Kubo feels either cribbed from basic knowledge of Japanese customs (the spiritual importance of herons, or communing with the souls of the dead), or invented whole cloth (to my knowledge, there is no Long Lake or Wasteland locations in Japanese myths).
I am probably not the foremost authority on Japanese cultural heritage, but even I feel a little icky when thinking about the way Kubo treats it as a plaything for a relatively generic story about the importance of family. If your narrative could take place in any specific ancient culture, be it Native American, tribal African, or frickin’ Viking, then it’s probably worth looking into exactly why you’re setting yourself up in that culture in the first place.
One of the best movies I’ve seen recently about Japan is reclusive master Isao Takahata’s Princess Kaguya. Visually bold in a completely different way from Kubo, Kaguya bears many similar story elements (and a remarkably similar climactic final set piece) to Kubo. Yet it consistently dodges Hollywood storytelling for grounding itself in historical myth, tying itself indelibly to the culture the movie is set in. It’s a marvel of complicated fairy tale parables that resists easy answers and instead tells us something honest about its setting, Japan.
If you wanted to get less obscure, think about Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1999 masterpiece. Although it ostensibly deals with many issues Miyazaki relates to modern Japan (industrialization, a loss of communion with nature), it is so interested in telling that story the way it wants to be told that Miyazaki invents the culture of the film, instead of simply setting the movie in Japan and crafting something fictional that would rob from actual history. Hell, Laika even did this! Instead of writing The Boxtrolls as a commentary on Big Brother-esque politics in either the U.S. or U.K., Laika crafted a story set in a fictional world, and the movie was better for it.
Kubo suffers because of its tangential and unearned relationship to Japan, even more so considering that (near as I can tell) Laika didn’t have anyone in the story room to help provide a Japanese perspective. This unearned relationship leads to questions that the movie shouldn’t have to answer as its viewers walk out. Instead of focusing on the problems of misappropriating Japanese culture for ends that are decidedly Hollywood, Laika should have, and easily could have, sent viewers home starry-eyed from the film’s brilliantly-crafted visuals.
Ultimately, Kubo and the Two Strings fails to leave anything but a mildly sour taste. The closing credits song says it all: in a movie that centers around a shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument, Kubo and the Two Strings rides into the sunset on a Regina Spektor cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”