“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear no matter how unusual it may seem. But please, be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish”Kubo
The history of animation is short in breadth and yet full of depth. It is often thought that the beginning of this history rests with Walt Disney’s 1939 ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, laying acclaim to the title of the first animated feature. Although this topic is widely debated, and mostly orbiting around the contentious feat of defining ‘feature film’, it is oft forgotten or neglected that there existed a rich tradition of forging ‘feature-length’ animated films for over two decades before Disney produced its masterpiece. In most part, these films have been forgotten because they do not conform to the Disney format, which seems to have become the standard for animation.1 Indeed, this is to de facto neglect the entire history of animation prior to its emergence as a Hollywood art form in the late 1930s, and as such, pioneers like Quirino Cristiani, Ladislav Starevich, or Lotte Reiniger and their non-Americanised style of animation.
With this in mind, it is important to remember that today, where the Disney formula has become the central paradigm of animation, there are number of studios and productions that remind us of the sheer critical and pensive brilliance that rest outside the walls of the Magic Kingdom. One of these is LAIKA Studios, whose creative output has formed a cult following of eager fans since their first feature-film, Coraline, in 2009, following their contracted work on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Since then, LAIKA have produced a number of outstanding films: ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), Missing Link (2019), and, of course, Kubo and The Two Strings (2016).
For many, animation is an art form indistinct from cartoons, and as such has developed a dubious consensus amongst many that the art of animation is restricted to the entertainment of children. Indeed, perhaps this tells us more about ourselves and how we understand Art, in addition to how the medium of art is bound with certain notions of prejudice and prejudgement, than animation itself. Although the widespread assumption that animation is exclusively for children may have arisen because of the paradigm forged by Disney, it is the purpose of this piece to dispel such a myth by focussing on a single work of animation as a case study to the contrary. The case I have chosen to utilise is LAIKA’s Kubo and The Two Strings.
Kubo and The Two Strings (Kubo) is anything but a children’s film. Although its central protagonist is a child, and in many ways was marketed as children’s film – reflecting and even interpellating the common misconception that animation must be understood and understand itself as a commercial art form for children – Kubo is marked by a number of themes central to the discourses of contemporary philosophy and political theory. In this manner, therefore, this piece will claim that films like Kubo can be a source for consideration when contemplating, illustrating and even adding to the predicates of such academic dialogues. These brief, and somewhat rudimentary, reflections are directed to laying out the themes and practices embedded within Kubo in order to tease out their relevance to our discursive milieu. I have chosen to dedicate a small numeric section to each rudimentary notion, but before we get to analysing Kubo, how are we to understand animation?
REFLECTIONS ON ANIMATION AND STOP-MOTION
What is Animation?
As with any inquiry, before a central claim can be addressed – here that (a) animated cinema is fundamentally not a restricted art-form for children, and (b) that animated films can add to academic discourse – primary conceptualisations need to be formulated. For us, this concerns ‘animation’ itself, because through conceptualisation more may be revealed about the art-form at the centre of this piece. So, when we utter the term ‘animation’, what are we linguistically referencing?
Let’s begin with etymology. At its root, the term animation arises with the Latin noun of action from the past-participle stem of animare ‘give breath to’, insinuating ‘to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to, or enliven’ from anima, as ‘life’ or ‘breath’ (from the root ane– ‘to breathe’). What does this tell us?
‘Animation’, in a linguistic sense, is connected to the very notion of creation, but not just the bringing of an object into the world, but of breathing life into an object so that it becomes a ‘living’ entity in some manner. Animation is innately tied to our creative imaginary; we must imagine an object or material being brought to life in becoming an existing, living, entity before it is creatively given the breath of life through some medium. Consequently, whether we are discussing a group of toys that come to life when their owner is not present (Toy Story: 1995), a spa-resort for legendary spirits to remove themselves from humanity (Spirited Away: 2001), a scientist who wishes to resuscitate a collection of dead body parts to life (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: 1818), or even a mechanical child with a programmed capability for love (A.I. Artificial Intelligence: 2001) – we are firmly within a discourse concerning the very concept of animation; i.e. the breathing of life into an object. Nevertheless, how does this relate to the artistic practice of what we commonly refer to as ‘animation’?
In order to answer this question, I would like to draw on a number of thinkers who have addressed precisely this query. The general consensus is that animation, in an artistic sense, is not the animation of matter to life, at least in a biological approach. Animation as we broadly understand it refers to a mode of cinema-making where visuals are created by means other than recorded in the conventional sense. The term ‘cinema’, etymologically, stems from the name of the original projector of images – the French ‘cinématograph’. There are two halves to this term ‘cinémato-’ and ‘-graph’, flowing from two Greek terms: ‘kinemat’, denoting ‘movement’, and, ‘graphein’, indicating ‘writing’. Interestingly, this illuminates why the term ‘Cinema’ is in German signified as ‘Kino’, recalling the Greek origins of the etymology behind ‘cinema’. With this in mind, the cinématograph, as a projector of images, is the drawer of movement – something that the job description of cinematographers directly entails today. The projector that makes the cinema itself casts movement onto a screen before our very eyes, and it is this observed illusion of movement that we call ‘film’.
If we marry this with the etymological origins of ‘animation’, we see that ‘animated cinema’ would be the bringing of life to drawn movement. The essential component of animation is thus the illusion the medium forges in the process of breathing life into movement.2 I do however have a minor issue with this particular mode of conceptualising ‘animation’. This is so, as it perhaps does not take into account the recent technological leaps and bounds in the field. This general pinning down of animation certainly applies to earlier means, such as the flip-book, Phenakistiscope, Electrotachyscope, or even the traditional ‘Celluloid’ method, but excludes those kind of modern techniques that do not centre around the notion of ‘the drawn’ movement. How can this be rectified?
One of animation’s acknowledged masters was the abstract animator Norman McLaren. McLaren’s work questioned the very essence of animation’s potentiality – for example, his 1948 ‘Boogie Doodle’, the 1952 ‘Neighbours’, or my personal favourite, the awe inspiring 1949 ‘Begone Dull Care’, which combined with music provided by the Oscar Peterson Trio confuses the spectator as to whether they are an observer to pure music or listening to pure colour. McLaren points out that animation is more than just the illusion of bringing life to movement. He stated that: “Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but rather the art of movements that are drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame”.3 McLaren, in this, therefore de-centres animation by shifting emphasis from ‘the drawing’ to ‘the movement’, which is done through the skill and technique employed by the animator outside of that which is drawn.
In his exceptionally illuminating ‘Understanding Animation’ Paul Wells explains how McClaren’s decentring shift of emphasis permits new techniques of animation to be included as such. Here, Wells argues that: “McLaren reinforces the notion that the true essence of animation is in the creation of movement on paper, the manipulation of clay, the adjustment of the model, etc., before the act of photographing the image, i.e. the activity of what has taken place between what has become the final frames of film”.4 It is the activity that takes place between the acts of drawing, moulding or designing that makes animation what it is for McLaren. Keeping this in mind, McLaren’s conceptualisation of animation opens itself to any art form or medium that generates the illusion of movement by the practice of some technique between the forming of individual frames to be photographed, whatever medium through which this may be achieved.
My only point of contention with the manner in which Wells explains McLaren’s grasp of animation in this statement is a purely linguistic, and perhaps somewhat a pedantic, one. Wells claims that McClaren reinforces a notion of some ‘true essence’ of animation, whereas I do not think that that this is the case. In this statement alone, McLaren connects the basis of describing the phenomenon of animation not to a metaphysics of nature – i.e. what animation definitively is – but to how it is experienced both by the spectator and the animator – i.e. the technique employed between frames that produces the experience of movement that is drawn. This is where the decentring of McLaren’s emphasis is concentrated, in countenance to an essentialist claim of what animation is but, rather, how its experience is produced. This places animation at the perceptive intersection of the organic viewer, as a body, spectator, interpreter, and hence bodied interlocutor, and the apparatus of animation utilised with the creativity of the animator at the helm. 5
Thus, in order to answer the answer ‘what is animation?’, I shall take McLaren as my benchmark in conjuncture with the term’s etymological roots. This is to state that animation is the giving of life to the illusion of movement in some manner. Animation concerns the study and art of giving life to the illusion of movement itself. This implies two halves of a single whole: (a) giving life to movement, and (b) the creation of some illusion. Animators do not bring drawing to life, they present the illusion of life through the fabrication of movement. It is our role, as the spectator-interlocutor, to be deceived by the illusion. If there is no deception of illusion then there is no Art; it sits in the surrealism of fabricating movement. In this, therefore, animation is the deceptive fabrication of movement in order to create the illusion of life.
Stop-Motion and The Illusion of Time
How do these simple remarks about animation relate to Kubo? Kubo and The Two Strings is a story brought to life through what is known as ‘Stop-Motion’ animation. Broadly speaking: “stop motion could be generally defined as manipulating, between sequentially exposed frames of film or video, usually directly by hand, some tangible object, whether it be a complex puppet, a paper cut out, sand, a discarded piece of junk or furniture. When played back the object gives the appearance of movement, performance and independent life, though this ‘life’ is ‘lifeless’ – an illusion”.6 Here, Barry Purves identities the basic features of stop-motion animation (SMA), emphasising the kernel of animation that was identified in the previous section, namely, the deceptive fabrication of movement in order to present the illusion of life. What makes SMA different from other techniques of animation is its process, i.e. the very spirit that McLaren identifies with animation, as that which takes place between frames. The in-between-ness of SMA is what gives the breath of life itself.
If you are wondering what some examples of SMA are, think of the manipulation of modelling clay to make the beautifully comedic narratives of Aardman Animation (the creators of the Wallace and Gromit series: 1989; 1993; 1995; 2005, Chicken Run: 2000, Flushed Away: 2006, Early Man: 2018, and so on). Or, rather, you could think of Wes Anderson’s existential adventures into puppetry in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018); or the British television series’ The Clangers (1969), Bagpuss (1974), and so the list of works that use SMA could go on. The technique has a history as old as modern cinematic animation, with films like Vitagrpah Studio’s 1898 ‘The Humpty Dumpty Circus’, Willis O’Brien’s ‘The Lost World’ (1925) and the ever so famously satirised and replicated 1933 ‘King Kong’, pioneering the art-form from the earliest days of cinema as we know it.
What interests me about SMA is not just the meticulous technique of manipulating an object frame by frame, but how this effects our grasp of time. When watching a film, we – the spectator – sit outside of linear time. In order to express this, I would like to utilise the remarks made by the semiotician Roland Barthes in his final work ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’.
Amongst a number of compelling sections on the concept of photography, one that I find particularly captivating and relevant to animation is his fifth reflection, entitled ‘He Who is Photographed’. Barthes reflects on posing to have one’s picture taken, and how one reacts in doing so by transforming oneself into an image ready for the moment to be commemorated, baptised by light. ‘The Pose’ preordains the photograph before it has come into the world, forging the image we wish to become an object for viewing. Towards the end of the section, Barthes reveals to us to that in this ‘operation’:
“What I see is that I have become Total Image, which is to say, Death in person; others – the Other – do not dispossess me of myself, they turn me, ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal, classified in a file, ready for the subtlest deceptions”.7
The utilisation of the camera for its purpose memorialises any given moment by its slaughter of the life caught in the frame, reduced to an objectified state that is lifeless. In taking a picture, the very moment one is memorialising is butchered through its reduction to the object-image form. Although some may emphasise the somewhat melodramatic style that Barthes emphasises the relationship between the photographic image and death, the only manner in which any given moment can be encapsulated is by rendering it lifeless and frozen to its object form. This we know when we gaze at the photos we keep of our deceased loved ones, recalling life beyond the death of the subject in both material and image form. This notion famously leads Barthes to his claim that “Deathis the eidos [εἶδος; ‘essence’] of the photograph”.8 A photograph reduces a moment of life to an objectified state and mummifies it for the gaze of the onlooker.
With these reflections in mind, the eidos of ‘the film’, as a series of photographs in quick succession, must be slaughter or massacre. If a film was to be recorded at 24 frames a second (a standard measurement), a ninety minute film would entail the taking of 129,600 frames of photography – at bare minimum. Thus, with Barthes in mind, although this is not a reflection that he pondered, a film of this sort would entail the minimum death of 129,600 moments of life and time, reduced to an object form and crystallised for our viewing. Indeed, in a somewhat poetic manner, Barthes makes the connection between the death of the moment and the crystallisation of a moment in time after declaring the essence of the photograph. He claims:
“For me, the photographer’s organ is not his eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates (when the camera still had such things). I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing – and the only thing – to which my desire clings, their abrupt click breaking through the mortiferous layer of the Pose. For me, the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches – and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing”.9
Barthes’ utterance demonstrates his grasp of photography as connected to the very fabric of time. Time, as any single given moment in temporal space, is recorded through the crystallisation in its death via the camera, a ‘clock for seeing’ in permitting us to view a past moment in time in object form.
When the photographer’s finger triggers this process, the space before the machine is captured and surrendered onto film for development; all life in frame is reduced, objectified, including the life of the very temporal space in which the still was taken. This means, by extension, that when we gaze upon a film in the same manner we do the single photo, we engage interpretively with that which has died through its objectification for our viewing. The interpretation of film is therefore to interpret the slaughter of isolated yet connected moments of temporality, to find meaning in a parade of successive deaths. With this in mind, the spectator of a film is not just an onlooker, interpreter or interlocutor – but all of these at once as the necromancer of temporal space.
All films we have ever gazed upon are the same in this respect. What we observe is only a few hours of presentation that takes far longer to create than it does to view. Amnesia is so often the spell of the cinematic film that we seem to continuously believe we are peering at the momentum of some events occurring in succession, which we forget may have been shot over the course of days, weeks, months, or even years. To view a film is to view a succession of objectified, dead, moments in time out of any sort of temporal order. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that all films are presented in a concertina fashion to give the illusion of linearity, even where film narratives are not presented through a linear time-frame (Pulp Fiction: 1994, Arrival: 2016) or given the illusion of one long continuous shot (Birdman: 2014, 1917: 2019).
The only mode of film that inverts this mass-death of momentary time is SMA. SMA is the only form of film whereby the temporal space captured by the camera is reduced to its object form (its death) in order to give life to the object in frame (its resurrection). Although all modes of animation concern the deceptive fabrication of movement in order to create the illusion of life, as discussed above, only SMA inverts the objectification of time and the object in frame to resurrect it somehow, to bestow a tangible object in a temporal space of the past with a life of its own. The death of the moment and the concertinaing of time is not therefore reduced to an absolute object, but the reverse; the death of the moment and the distortion of time is to give an object life. In all forms of photography time and life are reduced to an object for observation, and this reduction is equitable to its death (pace Barthes). SMA holds a second character however. It undergoes the death of the moment so that the object in frame, present in the moment the photo is taken, can be resurrected as a living entity in motion.
All film is the successive observation of ‘dead’ time in moments soldered together to present the illusion of life from that which is no more. All SMA is the observation of ‘dead’ time in moments soldered together to present the illusion of life from that which has never lived to begin with. It is to grant life to the banal objects of our world that never truly lived, and thus to engage with SMA is to imitate the creation life ex nihilo in one’s own image as a god. It is in this that the creative beauty of SMA is revealed.
Let me use an example – Kubo. Every frame you watch of Kubo has been meticulously manipulated to look the way it does. Every blade of grass, lock of hair or plume of feathers you see is being moved by animators in-between frames. Every expression you bear witness to, behind the illusion, is a 3D printed face attached to a figurine before its manipulation and being photographed. The oceans and monsters Kubo encounters in the story are equally made with physical contraptions to capture the motion of waves or the magic of a giant skeleton. With every movement, every slight adaptation, caught on camera and soldered together so to give a breath of life to the object. Unlike the motion created by computer generated or cellular animation, where the design begins as the depiction of life, SMA takes inanimate, material, tangible objects and reduces these objects in time so their successive reductions may present the illusion of life itself. Only here does film become the art of resurrection.
These first two sections formed the first part of this piece. Its purpose was to simply lay out some simple and brief reflections on the experience of animation so to offer a grounds from which a specific piece of animation may undergo interpretation. With this in mind, to summarise, this segment claimed that: (a) Animation is the deceptive fabrication of movement in order to create the illusion of life, and, (b) Stop-Motion animation is unique as the only form of cinematic film concerned with the art of resurrection, bringing to life that which has never lived by resuscitating and successively displaying the dead moments of its capture. Now this has been discussed, the following segment will begin to delve deeper into Kubo, revealing the manner in which it may be utilised as a source to add to the philosophical and political discursive milieu of the contemporary epoch.
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
What is Kubo and The Two Strings?
In this third section, I would like to give a brief plot summary of Kubo for those who have not seen the film; although I would stress that you watch the movie before reading these reflections, purely as it will make more sense. If the reader has seen the film and can recall its contents easily, please feel free to skip this section. However, for those who have yet had the pleasure of seeing Kubo, below is an expanded summary of the film.10
Kubo begins with a child narrator summoning the concentration of the spectator with the phrase “If you must blink do it now”. In the dead of night a furious ocean tries to sink a small fishing boat on which a woman with a bundle tied to her back strikes a shamisen, an instrument, to control the waves and safely make her way to shore. Meanwhile, the narrator pleads with the spectator to pay attention “no matter how unusual it may seem” or else “our hero will surely perish”. A large wave throws the woman out of the boat onto the shore, where she is rendered unconscious and at which point the bundle begins to cry. The woman gains consciousness with the sound of the crying and pulls down the Beetle embroidered fabric to reveal a baby with one eye. The narrator tells us “he is called Kubo” and that his grandfather stole something from him, eluding to his eye. The title appears.
The first face we see is of a monkey, a tiny carved wooden charm. Kubo is now a mature child and lives in a cave with his mother, who appears older and feeble. At the mouth of the cave Kubo sits with his mother and folds one of the many sheets of paper lying on the ground into a red origami samurai, all the while his mother sits still and neutral. A bell chimes in the distance as the sun rises, Kubo gathers the coloured paper around him and heads to town with the shamisen on his back. Kubo heads to a small town at the base of the cliff at the top of which his cave rests. Here we are introduced to Kameyo, an elderly homeless woman, who befriends Kubo. We see a lively market full of people whilst Kubo and Kameyo comically discuss their precarity. Kubo stands in the middle of the market place and captures the townspeople’s attention with a story full of magic, beginning his tale with his call: “If you must blink, do it now!” and striking his shamisen. The wrinkled paper he keeps begins to transform into folding and unfolding origami figures in his story of Hanzo, a legendary samurai on a quest to fight the evil Moon King. In the story, Hanzo can only defeat the Moon King with a magical suit of armour with a tripartite constitution: the Sword Unbreakable, The Breastplate Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable. The story is played out with the townspeople enthralled by the tale until a gong sounds and the sun begins to set. Kubo stops without finishing the story and hurries back to the cave.
As Kubo and his mother have dinner in the cave she tells him the same story of Hanzo, but through a personal lens. It is revealed to the spectator the truth of the story; we learn that Hanzo was Kubo’s father and the Moon King is his maternal grandfather, the one who stole Kubo’s eye. His mother warns him to be cautious, asking him to promise her that he will never venture out of the cave at night and keep his father’s robes on at all times – the beetle embroidered material he was wrapped in as a baby. His mother quickly forgets the conversation and returns to the frail and lost state she displayed at breakfast.
Whilst in the town the next day, Kubo learns from Kameyo that the townspeople are celebrating a festival. Part of this, she reveals, is a ritual where deceased ancestors and relatives are contacted in the cemetery. Kubo heads to the cemetery and creates an origami lantern for his father to light, if he comes, as instructed by Kameyo. He waits for his father to answer, but to no avail. Suddenly, whilst waiting, Kubo does not realise that the light of the moon casts over the cemetery as night falls.
Suddenly, Kubo hears an eerie voice call his name. His aunts, known as ‘the sisters’, are twins who wear identical porcelain Noh masks painted with a frozen smile, black wide-brimmed Kasa hats, feathered capes and hold dark magical powers. His aunts chase Kubo through the town, wanting to take from him his other eye on request of his grandfather. He calls for help and they burn the town to the ground. He races back to his cave, but before he can make it he trips and the sisters are upon him, surrounding him with demons cast in shadow. Swiftly, his mother appears, pulls out his shamisen and strikes the strings, scaring off the demons. She strikes the beetle crest embroidered on the back of his robe and wings emerge, carrying him from danger as he observes his mother engage with the sisters before the robe covers his eyes.
Kubo awakes in a blizzard with the face of a monkey staring at him, she looks curiously like his monkey charm from before and tells him they must leave before the Sisters return. She places Kubo on her back and races through the snow to find shelter. The duo make a shelter out of a whale carcass for the night and Kubo has questions. ‘Monkey’ only allows him three and reveals that she is in fact the monkey charm, telling him that his mother was very powerful and used the last of her magic to save him and bring the charm to life. Whilst Kubo sleeps, he calls out to his father and one of the paper sheets he keeps folds itself into another origami samurai. The origami figure frantically, and without voice, convinces Monkey and Kubo to leave the whale carcass and follow its lead.
As the trio come across colossal statues on a Cliffside, Kubo abruptly disappears into one of the statutes eyes. Monkey follows as it transpires that Kubo has been dragged away by a giant beetle that is part human and part insect. Monkey wants to kill it but Kubo stops her, telling Monkey that “It just wanted Hanzo” at which point ‘Beetle’ reveals that Hanzo used to be his master but he was cursed and lost his memory. Beetle pledges his life to help Kubo find the Sword Unbreakable and promises he’ll be useful after Kubo reveals his paternal lineage. Needless to say, Monkey is unimpressed. As they explore the labyrinth of tunnels the origami samurai slips through a crack in the wall, leading to Kubo investigating a carving and releasing a trapdoor. The group fall into a huge chamber full of old bones in the middle of which a giant disembodied skeletal hand holds the legendary sword unbreakable. Kubo runs to retrieve it but Monkey holds him back, allowing Beetle to snatch the sword, causing the bones around them to transform into a behemoth of a skeleton. The group figure out that the sword unbreakable is actually lodged in the mammoth skeleton’s skull, which they retrieve, leaving the skeleton crumbled. Beetle is hurt in the process but flies them all to safety with the sword in hand.
Monkey tends to Beetle’s wounds as they argue about what to do next. While they argue, Kubo forges an origami boat out of beach combed detritus, allowing them to cross a wide lake before them. Whilst sailing, Beetle teaches Kubo how to shoot and Kubo discusses how he cared for his mother and the stories they told one another. A crack of thunder interrupts the moment and a storm appears, at which point the origami samurai points into the dark water where the breastplate impenetrable rests in the murky depths. Kubo stops Beetle from simply jumping in, telling him there is a Garden of Eyes in Long Lake that stare into your soul and cause you to drown. Beetle jumps in anyway, ignoring Kubo’s warning.
As the rain pours down, Kubo is worried about the yet resurfaced Beetle and decides to dive in after him. Determined to help Kubo, Monkey grabs the swords and gets ready to follow, but something snatches her back on deck. One of the sisters has snagged her ankle with a chain and the two begin their fight. Underwater, as Kubo searches for Beetle, a golden light shines through thick kelp. Kubo swims toward it and finds the Breastplate. He slides into it and it shrinks to fit his body. He swims for the surface but a giant eye transfixes him, causing his body to go slack as he stares directly into it. Monkey fights for her life on the deck of the boat, locked in a fierce battle with the Sister. Just as the sister gets the upper hand, Beetle jumps back on to the boat and Monkey orders him to find Kubo. Deep in the lake, the creature drags Kubo further towards a giant mouth with razor sharp teeth surrounded by dozens of eyes. Unexpectedly, an arrow punctures the eye and breaks Kubo’s trance. Meanwhile on the boat, Monkey and the Sister are still locked in a battle. Monkey manages a final shred of strength and deals a killing blow to the Sister with the sword unbreakable, at which point Beetle surfaces with Kubo and finds Monkey floating on a piece of boat wreckage, destroyed by the fierce storm. Kubo gains consciousness and reveals that the creature showed him that Monkey was his mother.
After this, the group finds shelter in a cave and Monkey tells them the story of how she and his father met. As she tells the story, the objects in the cave come alive and illustrate her story, just like Kubo’s origami paper sheets. She and her sisters were sent by the Moon King to kill any noble warrior who found the magical armour. The amour would make any one individual powerful enough to defeat the gods, and so once Hanzo found the set, she and her sisters were sent to eradicate the threat. Kubo’s mother fought Hanzo, but when he looked into her eyes he said “You are my quest”. She spared his life, they fell in love, and they had Kubo. However, the Moon King found them and was outraged at her betrayal. After Kubo falls asleep, Monkey tells Beetle that the magic keeping her here as Monkey is fading and she’ll be gone soon. As before, Beetle pledges his life to keeping Kubo safe and reassures Monkey her story doesn’t end here; it will always be told through Kubo and his descendants.
That night, Kubo dreams he is by a river when he meets a kind old man playing a shamisen. The landscape shifts to show his father’s fortress and the last piece of armour, the helmet invulnerable. The group locate the fortress to find it empty and crumbling with remnants from the past scattered across the floor. Smoke seeps from shattered armour on the ground, encircles the group like a boa-constrictor and hoists them into the air. The smoke is coming from the pipe of the other Sister, who has been hiding, waiting for them. The Sister chastises Beetle for ripping apart their family by stealing her sister from her. She laughs as Monkey and Beetle realize that Beetle is the real Hanzo, but with a wiped memory and magically combined with a beetle as punishment. The Sister turns her attention to Kubo, who manages to slash her mask with his bachi pick, cracking it in half and breaking the pipe. The smoke disappears and the Sister throws Kubo across the courtyard in anger. His mother and father move to protect him, and the Sister drives her sword deep into Beetle’s back, killing him. In a final attempt to save his mother, Kubo reaches for his shamisen, striking it so hard that two strings break and a blinding white light of sound swallows everything in the vicinity.
Kubo opens his eye to find he is in the courtyard alone. His tears fall on the single string of his shamisen, causing the shredded paper around him to form a tattered, flimsy origami samurai that is pointing its sword behind Kubo. Kubo turns to see an illustration of the helmet impenetrable, only it clearly appears to look like the bell in the village at the start of the story. Kubo packs his things and wraps Beetle’s bow string around his wrist alongside a lock of his mother’s hair that he has fashioned into a bracelet. He strikes a single note on his last string as hard as he can and the beetle crested banners flutter violently, twist, and intertwine in Kubo’s robes forming a magnificent pair of wings that lift him up and fly him out of the ruins.
Kubo’s wings fly him to the destroyed village, landing him next to the bell tower on the central avenue. Kubo strikes the crumbling tower until it falls, freeing the helmet. At this point the villagers appear and Kubo tells them to flee. Once the villagers have fled, Kubo yells to the moon for his grandfather to appear. When he does so, it transpired that he is the old man from Kubo’s dream, dressed in a robe glowing in the moonlight. Kubo accuses him of wanting to steal his other eye and the Moon King admits that his plan is to make Kubo blind to the faults of humanity, and as such, making him an immortal that can live in the heavens with him. Kubo refuses and declares he will end this story by killing his Grandfather.
The skin of the Moon King begins to change into a milky coloured shell and his face cracks like glass. He spreads his arms and breaks apart like a bursting cocoon, becoming a serpent like, centipede-esque monster. Kubo fights bravely, blinding the moon king in one eye, but he is unable to defend himself and is thrown by the Moon King into the cemetery. As his grandfather races towards him, Kubo reaches for his sword but glances at the bow string and the bracelet made of his mother’s hair. At this moment, he sheds himself of the legendary armour and restrings his shamisen using the bracelet made of his mother’s hair, Beetle’s bow string, and a hair that he pulls from his own head. He plucks the first string, the sound of which stops the Moon Beast in its tracks and ignites all the lanterns in the vicinity. Kubo knows why the Moon Beast wants his eye – ‘so he cannot look into another’s eyes and see their souls or their love’. The beast taunts Kubo about taking away everything he loved, but Kubo is still defiant, stating: “No. It’s in my memories. The most powerful kind of magic there is”. He plucks the second string and the villagers emerge from behind the trees and headstones. Their lanterns begin to glow as they stand beside Kubo. He strikes the final string and creates a sound that echoes boundlessly as the spirits of the dead appear. The Moon Beast rears back to attack Kubo, but is deflected by the light surrounding the dead. At last, Kubo strums all three strings at once. The glow around the spirits bursts into a blinding white light.
When the light dissipates, the sweet old man from Kubo’s dream stands before them. He’s confused and has no memory of who he is or what has happened, saying: “I’ve seemed to have forgotten my story”. Kameyo offers to tell him everything he needs to know, stating that he is “the kindest, sweetest man to ever live in the village” and the villagers offer fragments of his new story. As night falls, the last of the villagers leave the cemetery and Kubo offers a prayer to his parents, thanking them for their wisdom, kindness and love. As he speaks the paper lanterns around him light and begin refolding themselves into glowing blue herons as they rise up into the sky. Down on the riverbank below we see Kubo standing between the spirits of Hanzo and his Mother, before the screen fades to black. The child-narrator simply says: “The End”.
Kubo exposes the spectator to a number of themes and questions that are equally significant to the philosophical school of continental phenomenology. Questions such as: ‘What is it to live in a temporally bound life?’, ‘How does remembrance play a role in giving life to that which has passed into nothingness?’, ‘How do the stories we tell influence the material world?’, and ‘What is it to accept our contingent humanity and mortality?’ are but just a few examples. Indeed, Kubo taps into contemporary philosophical discussion through the disguise of a so-called children’s film, so let us now turn to this notion with open arms.
The Folding and Unfolding of ‘The Story’ As The Magic of Kubo
The first reflection that I would like to engage with about Kubo concerns the film’s relationship with the concept of ‘the story’. At its heart, Kubo is a film about one child’s story – the story of Kubo and his two strings. If the narrative can be said to hold a single message to the spectator, it is that the telling of stories is an exceptionally powerful form of human interpretive action. Here, I will attempt to flesh out this claim.
Stories are significant as they provide an understanding of the present grounded in the past. This we can see with the etymological origins of ‘story’ itself. Here, the term ‘story’ is derived from the same root as ‘history’. In the Latin and Greek, historia (ἱστορία) implied ‘inquiry’, ‘research’ or ‘judgement’ of the past, and this stemmed from hístōr (ἵστωρ), as signalling a ‘knowing or learned, wise person’. Interestingly, the English term is drawn from the old French expression ‘estorie’ – the point at which ‘history’ and ‘story’ are non-differentiated terms to describe ‘narrative’, and come to include the denotation of ‘storey’, a term we still utilise today to signify ‘the floor of a building’. In this, three key linguistic terms converge to reveal that the concept of ‘the story’ is more than just a narrative, but convergence of inquiry into past events, the procuring of knowledge, and the construction of a grounds from which to build. It is from this grasp of ‘the story’ as interrelated with ‘history’ and ‘storey’ that the concept ascertains its significance.
The stories that we tell one another are always incarnations of this formula. If I were to recount what I ate for breakfast this morning, I would be at one and the same time conjuring a knowledge of past events whilst, in passing this story on, providing a grounds for its continuance beyond my own grasp. When we tell one another of ancestors, or the roles they played in those watershed moments of our collective historical past, we are summoning a formulated judgement of past events in narrative form. In many cases, these stories are not told directly to us by the individual in question, but by those who have received this story in some manner themselves, building with every new generation that passes this story on. ‘The story’ thus represents a mode of practice in which we can place ourselves between past and future, building on the past to summon its memory with every re-telling.
In her work, the political thinker Hannah Arendt touches on the importance of storytelling and history as a mode of epistemological orientation – i.e. how we ground what we know. In ‘The Human Condition’ Arendt, amongst a number of other more significant claims, contends that the very cornerstone of our public life, of our politics, is the capacity to appear in public and engage in the activity of speech. Political action is grounded in the capability to debate, discuss, address grievances and ponder alternative modes of civil collaboration to that which is experienced – all steeped in the act of speaking. When humans come together in the public realm they forge something new out of their political condition of interconnectedness, a condition that arises out of the intangible web of human relationships we hold. Arendt affirms that:
“It is because of this already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions that action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it ‘produces’ stories with or without intention…These stories may then be recorded into documents and monuments, they may be visible in use objects or art works, they may be told and retold and reworked into all kinds of material”.12
Arendt thus claims that action and appearance are bound together by their crystallisation in ‘the story’. Our history, the history of a world into which we were thrown, is preserved by remembering human actions of the past; i.e. past instances where humans appeared together and engaged in their capacity to bring something new into the world by acting. This memory is revealed through ‘the story’.
It is important to note that, for Arendt, we always reside in a world of plurality. Simply put, we are never alone: “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world”.13 The same goes temporally, and not just spatially. Our collective existence is one of a constant overlap of members. Our ‘thrownness’ (Geworfenheit) is but one moment in the grand story of our species, and through recounting the actions of our ancestors, of our history, we recall the world they erected that we still inhabit somehow. Our individual and collective stories are therefore a somewhat rhizomatic interconnection, with no finite beginning and definitive ending, interconnecting by multiplicity. 14
The stories we tell and pass down through generations are the deposits of identity that we imprint on the world. When we act, when we engage in something genuinely new, we add to the world in which we reside – and the stories we tell are always the recounting of such moments. In this, the identity of the acting agent is disclosed, like examining the residue of a fingerprint. These stories fully actualise after the death of the agent, Arendt claims, preserving their contribution to the world in which we still live. This is the magic of the story – at least in a historical frame. Arendt maintains that:
“This unchangeable identity of the person though disclosing itself intangibly in act and speech, becomes tangible only in the story of the actor’s and speaker’s life; but as such it can be known, that is, grasped as a palpable entity only after it has come to its end. In other words, human essence – not human nature in general (which does not exist) nor the sum total of qualities and shortcomings in the individual, but the essence of who somebody is – can come into being only when life departs, leaving behind nothing but a story”15.
By divulging our stories to others in speech, we reveal our identity by exposing certain experiences of the world and, therefore, our place in adding to it. It is the moment at which life has left our bodily existence that we as individuals dissolve into the very fabric of the grand human story, and in this, become part of the foundation of thought we call ‘history’.
The stories we tell crystallise the world around us; they gift an appreciation and understanding of our shared feats, ventures and existence as a grounds for understanding our collective condition. In this manner, stories, as history, become a grounds of authority for future action – a grounds for understanding the world we as a species have created between us. Like all groundings of authority, stories provide a sense of permanence and reliability in which the human capacity for building, preserving and caring for a world is retained for those who follow after our own stories are complete.16
This is the central theme of Kubo – that our love for the world around us is manifested in the stories we tell one another. If we can say that Kubo has a central meaning at all, it is the importance of stories. Stories remind us of those who have passed onto a plane of memory, but in this become embedded into the fabric of the past and thus the world they helped fashion in which we still reside. Kubo reminds us that when we recall stories of those whose material existence is past, they gain a full sense of immortality, or rather, as Beetle puts it to Monkey: “your story will never end. It will be told be him [Kubo] and the people he shares it with, and by the people they share it with, and by the people they share it with, and by the people they share it with”.
Another interesting point that Kubo shares with the thought of Hannah Arendt is the idea that we are always in the middle of some story. The narrative begins in its middle, mirroring the way that we are always thrown into the world in the middle of another’s story – and Kubo is no exception. As we learn, Kubo’s mother was the daughter of the Moon King, and his father the warrior Hanzo. The initial part of Kubo’s story is not exposed until the middle of the film itself, when Monkey reveals that she is Kubo’s Mother, how she fell in love with his Father, and why they had to run from the Moon King – the point at which the film begins. This reflects and illustrates, knowingly or not, the existential undertones of Arendt’s political thought, that we exist in a world of plurality, where the world is passed like baton in a relay race between individuals and groups across the fabric of time. Just like those who do not begin a relay race, we are always responsible for but one tiny part of the chase, but no matter how small our part we always have a hand in passing the baton, of preserving the world of those that came before us and their achievements, for those to come after us.
Ultimately, this notion of ‘the story’ as the meaning-giving mechanism of the world, through our fleeting temporality within it, culminates in the final moments of the film. Here, Kubo realises that in order to defeat his grandfather it is not the armour that he requires, but the magic of ‘the story’ as memory. In the final scene, Kubo stands before the Moon King with the villagers around him, summoning their ancestors. At this moment, the Moon King is confused as to how Kubo maintains spirit, how he maintains his love of humanity, stating that he has taken everything and everybody that Kubo loves away from him: “Everything you love is gone. Everything you knew has been taken from you”. To this, Kubo responds with: “No. It’s in my memories, the most powerful kind of magic there is. It makes us stronger than you’ll ever be. These are the memories of those we have loved and lost, and if we hold their stories deep in our hearts, then you will never take them away from us. And that really is the least of it”.
‘The Story’ as a constant process of folding and unfolding, Kubo reveals, is a magic manifest in memory – and it is this capacity to remember the stories of those before us, and consequently the gift of the world they have left, that is the beauty of simply being human. This is a gift that Kubo and the villagers then impart on the moon king when in his state of forgetfulness, i.e. the Moon King becomes human in the loss of his material immortality through the actuality of his human capacity for finitude, and as such, the immorality that all humans hold – their part in ‘the story’.
Part of this notion concerns repetition and transformation by reoccurrence. Stories are retold and in this retelling are repeated and expressed in a new way to new listeners every time. Through the power of memory, the foundations of the past are reinforced and yet transformed through their repetition. As a brief tangent, what is employed very well in Kubo is the manner in which the cinematography and narrative capture such a notion of memory and the power of transformative repetition. Of course, in the narrative, there are a number of moments that reoccur, such as the utterance of the narrator and their primary directive: ‘If you must blink do it now’. Or, even, the story of the armour, told through Kubo’s own explorations, but before this in the story he tells of his father to the villagers.
This being said, the themes of reoccurrence and transformative repetition are wholly captured in the cinematography and direction of the animation. Each act begins and ends the same way. They end with a fight between Kubo and an antagonist, with the antagonist faced transforming with every act – beginning with The Sisters, then one sister and then The Moon King. The beginning of every act, excluding the prologue, perhaps, is some shot of Monkey. In the cave at the beginning of the first act, our first shot is of the monkey charm. The beginning of the second frames the sight of Monkey come to life in the blizzard, calling for Kubo. And, lastly, the beginning of the third sees the monkey charm split into two, with Kubo mourning the death of his mother in monkey form. In all three acts we get some essential repetition that undergoes a transformation, reaffirming the central notion behind the power of stories and their relationship with memory, mortality and potentiality. This we can equally see in the reoccurrence of magic in Kubo.
Magic is used consistently throughout the film, embodied by the tune of the Shamisen. The power of the shamisen is intricately tied to the power of the folding and unfolding of ‘the story’ as a world-building and world-preserving tool of remembrance. The magic that the shamisen produces is almost always circuitously connected to the safeguarding of the past, through the present, for the future. For example, when Kubo engages in the act of storytelling for the villagers at the beginning of the film, interestingly, the story he tells is between past and future – it is of the past, recounting the actions of his father, and is to be his own. The magic is not the tune of the shamisen, but, rather, the very act of remembrance and impartment that Kubo has shared with the villagers. The shamisen, therefore, is a sign not of magic, but the magic of ‘the story’ itself – it is the stories that the characters tell that bring the world to life around them.
Speaking of this, before I draw this section to a close, the origami conjured by the shamisen is equally the embodiment of the magic grounding ‘the story’ portrayed in the film. As the tales around Kubo unfold, refold and repeat, so too do the sheets of paper that Kubo tells stories with. Symbolically, the origami magic that sits in collusion with the music of the shamisen are not necessarily in a causal relation – i.e. Kubo’s playing may not necessarily cause the paper to fold in any specific or given manner. We can see this in the red origami Samurai that travels with Kubo throughout the film. Indeed, an often forgotten point to be made here is that the origami Samurai folds and refolds even when Kubo is not playing the instrument. This tells us that the magic bringing the paper to life is not the music of the shamisen, but what the shamisen represents – the magic of ‘the story’. The samurai comes to life when Kubo asks for his father. In removed memory of his father through the past stories told by his mother, Hanzo is folded into origami form. The story, as memory, imparts life. That is the magic of the narrative.
The magic we experience in Kubo is not the magic of Merlin, The Wicked Witch of The West, or Harry Potter, but the kind of magic we all as humans partake in and recall: the memorialisation of the past, and as such, the immortalisation of those who acted to create its world – the world we all now inhabit. This is the magic we bear witness to in Kubo – the magic of our own finite and mortal humanity as a grand folding, unfolding and refolding train of active lives lived by world creators and preservers. Kubo cites our debt to them, and our responsibility to pass the baton as humans. Our magic is existence, and Kubo lays this bare for us to see.
Kubo as a Self-Reflective Story on ‘The Story’
The question I would like to address here is the extent which Kubo is a self-reflective story. Over the top of the first scene, the narrator plays a decisive role in their instruction to the spectator. The narrator tells us that:
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear no matter how unusual it may seem. But please, be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish”.
As the scene continues Kubo’s mother is washed to a shoreline with her crying child. At this moment the narrator divulges that: “His name is Kubo. His grandfather stole something from him. And that really is the least of it”. Although we may not realise it at such an early moment in the feature, this is decisive. The narrator is voiced by Art Parkinson, the voice actor for Kubo, adding depth to the narrative from its opening seconds.
What fascinates me about this concerns the utterance of the narrator’s speech, in conjunction with the decision to have the narrator speak with the voice of Kubo. There are two parts to my intrigue (a) the imperative of the initial plea to the audience, and (b) the signalling of the protagonist. Let’s take a look at each.
From the initial moment of the feature, the spectator is directly referenced by the film itself, with a plea for concentration and remembrance. This plea is an existential one. If one breaks the command of the narrator, by fidgeting, blinking, or forgetting, then you as the spectator have a hand in the downfall of the protagonist – whom the spectator is yet to meet. The consequences of this are that the spectator is immediately transformed into a participant of the narrative. This means that the plea made by the narrator is a strict performative speech act, able to adapt the world on our side of the screen. This requires further exploration.
In his 1955 William James Lectures, the Ordinary Language Philosopher John L. Austin developed his theory of ‘speech acts’, transcribed in his ‘How To Do Things With Words’. Here, Austin shook the very ground of the philosophy of language by claiming that statements can be more than merely descriptive, ‘constative’, utterances of fact or falsity. In doing so, he asserted that utterances can function as an act to reap an effect on the world in which it is uttered in itself – a speech act.
Austin emphasises that speech acts can be ‘performative’, stressing that such utterances: (a) do not describe, report or constate anything at all, are not ‘true’ or ‘false’, and (b) is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which would not normally be described as, or ‘just’, saying something.17 Performative speech acts hold three forces: Locutionary (in the linguistic meaning of the language), Illocutionary (the performative function as the linguistic action of the speaker – these being: representatives, expressives, directives, commissives, and declarations18), and the Perlocutionary (as the perceived effect through the linguistic inference of the utterance’s locutionary and illocutionary force by the addressee).
The perlocutionary force of the performative speech act is external to the utterance itself, as the effect of the illocutionary force via the locutionary. As Austin explains in reference to the perlocutionary force of the performative speech act, being beyond that of a mere statement:
“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them”.19
Thus, the performative speech act concerns linguistic utterances that form actions in themselves and change the very milieu of the world in which they are uttered. It is in the combination of the locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forces that the performative speech act retains the temperament that it does.
The best illustration of a performative speech act are the vowels spoken at a wedding. There are three important performative speech acts here: two ‘I do’s’ and one ‘I now pronounce you married’. The ‘I do’s’ hold all three forces of the performative speech act: the locutionary (in the meaning of the terms linguistically – ‘I’ as the singular first person pronoun, and ‘do’ as the main verb of action), illocutionary (in the performative function of the utterance at this ceremonial moment as agreement to the vows of marriage), and the perlocutionary (in the effect of the utterance, as the open declaration of the wish to be legally united with another). Arguably, ‘I now pronounce you married’ is the greater performative speech act, equally encapsulating all three forces. It holds a locutionary force (in the linguistic meaning of the utterance), an illocutionary force (through the action of its utterance by this figure at this moment) and a perlocutionary force (in that the utterance has the effect of marrying a couple together – without the locutionary and illocutionary forces together, a couple is not wed – the utterance adapts the world in which it is spoken by creating a new married couple).
In a purely political frame, performative speech acts are intricately connected to the manner in which sovereignty functions. Without delving too far into this notion, in any respect, we can see this in the illustration of the sovereign declaration. When the sovereign entity of a state utters a declaration on a given subject, this declaration becomes a performative speech act. For example, when a sovereign legislature or head of state declares in favour of a legislative proposal (x), the sovereign agent that utters the adoption of such a proposal into law is effectively stating that ‘I declare x adopted within the legal body of the state’. The perlocutionary force of this declaratory speech act thus adapts the manner in which the state engages with its citizens, in light of x’s adoption. As follows, performative speech acts are not just an academic or linguistic point of debate and intrigue, but formulate part of the socio-political fabric of the sovereign state and its functioning.
Back to Kubo. In the opening narration – the plea to the spectator contains the three forces of a performative speech act. Its Locutionary force is in the language of the plea, its Illocutionary in the linguistic command directed to the spectator, and most importantly, its Perlocutionary force in the effect on the world to which the utterance is made. The effect, all in all, is to conjure a sense of performed concentration in the spectator, reaffirming that their lack of compliance with the utterance aids the downfall of the protagonist.20 In this, the spectator becomes more than the spectator, once again, by performing back to the screen with concentration permitted. The narrator through their declaratory utterance and directive pulls the spectator into the film in more than concentration, but makes them an agent of the narrative itself. The utterance turns the onlooker into a spectator-agent.
Interestingly, the utterance we hear from the narrator is not isolated at this moment of the film. As has already been stated, Kubo repeats the statement of the narrator when in the village at the beginning of the film. He strikes his shamisen and makes the utterance, drawing in the crowd to his storytelling. This projects the layered nature of ‘the story’ buried within the narrative of Kubo. In much the same vain as films like ‘Inception’ (2010) – a dream within a dream – Kubo presents itself as a story within a story. The performative utterance of the narrator indicates the beginning of the storytelling process. In this manner, Kubo’s use of the performative utterance at the beginning of the film holds a dual function – (a) signalling the self-reflective nature of the story as on ‘the story’, and secondly, (b) by turning the spectator into a performative agent whose retroactive agency holds an effect on the narrative it arises from.
The two do combine however, ultimately, in reaffirming the importance of ‘the story’. As examined above, the importance of stories rests in their world building and preserving character. The performative utterance equally stresses this point, via an alternative Perlocutionary force it holds – that by not heeding the directive of the narrator, Kubo’s story fades from memory, and as such, the immortality we ascertain in death is castrated of its effect. By not complying with the directive of the narrator, Kubo and his story are wiped from existence; reaffirming the existential importance of ‘the story’ and storytelling.
The second question I wish to ask in relation to the narrator’s performative utterance concerns the signalling of the protagonist, as a question of intrigue more than anything. In the utterance, after the directive, the narrator suggest that the spectator-agent infers the identity of the protagonist – “His name is Kubo…”. As stated above, the narrator is voiced by Art Parkinson, who also voices Kubo. Why the distinction? Surely, if this inference were the case, the grammatical character of the sentence would be in the first person, i.e. ‘My name is Kubo…’. The utterance is in the third person however, indicating to us that the narrator is not Kubo, but that they merely share the same voice.
If we can cast a doubt over the identity of the narrator, we can do so too about the protagonist. At the moment the narrator states “his name is Kubo”, the baby wrapped in bundles appears on screen. The grammatical choices in the utterance are far more ambiguous therefore, when taken into consideration with the image before the spectator-agent. This term ‘his name is Kubo’ reveals, firstly, the distinction between the narrator and Kubo, as briefly sketched out above, secondly, the name of the character the spectator-agents are witnessing on screen, and lastly, the identity of the protagonist.
This third revelation is the location of ambiguity. We infer that Kubo is the protagonist because the performative, declarative utterance is before this statement; its final clause being “…or our hero may surely perish”. Followed by “his name is Kubo”, the spectator-agent infers the mutual coexistence of the two utterances. This is a fallacious syllogism of logic that the spectator-agent makes, assuming certain premises (P) and conclusions (C):
P1 – There is a hero stated as existing.
P2 – A figure is on screen during this statement.
P3 – The figure is called Kubo.
C1 – Kubo is the Hero stated.
The second premise (P2) is verifiable, of course, but its contribution to the train of logic is no more than a leap of faith. We, as the spectator-agent must make this leap to affirm that Kubo is the hero the narrator is referring to in their performative utterance. The declaratory performative utterance, through its grammatical inclination, does not necessarily have to correlate to the statement of clarification that the figure on screen is Kubo.
If we factor this linguistic ambiguity into consideration, the identity of the protagonist, as the ‘hero’, becomes questionable; the location of the hero is thus broken open into a classification of inclusivity. Indeed, thought this way, the narrative could encompass any of the characters (bar the obvious antagonists) as our hero, or indeed all of them – together. This is my interpretation of such an ambiguity – that it references not Kubo as the hero of the narrative (the most obvious interpretation), but ‘the story’ itself. If we were to grasp the interpretive meaning of this performative utterance in conjunction with the existential significance of ‘the story’, we arrive at a grander protagonist of Kubo and The Two Strings, namely, ourselves – humanity.
If we are to forget the stories of the past and their heroes, if we are to forget the processual train by which our history becomes a grounding for our own action, for even an instant, we remove the most significant grounds for understanding ourselves. By forgetting our own stories, we, as humanity, will surely perish.
In this manner, through all these reflections, we can see that from the first utterance alone, Kubo is a self-reflective story about ‘the story’ and its existential significance. Humanity is indeed a central theme of Kubo, and this will be the subject of discussion in my next reflection, concerning Kubo as a promethean character – reinforcing my interpretation of the central hero as ourselves.
Promethean Revolt and Kubo
The final reflection that I would like to discuss concerns the notion of the underlying theology buried within the narrative of Kubo, specifically in its relation to the Greek Promethean myth. In the literature on the film, it is often forgotten that Kubo is in fact not strictly human, at least in the mythological sense. In a similar vein to the likes of Heracles, Orpheus, Perseus, Karna, Romulus and Remus, or even Percy Jackson and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), Kubo is a demigod. Simply put, a ‘demigod’ is the progeny of a god and a human, paradigmatically proving themselves as worthy of being a god by some feat of ‘heroisation’, such as the twelve labours of Heracles. In Kubo’s case, he is the child of Hanzo (a mortal, human warrior) and Sariatu (the goddess daughter of the Moon King). Although this may seem somewhat trivial, it has significant interpretive consequences for understanding Kubo.
Throughout Kubo, the central characters journey to locate armour that can be used to defeat the Moon King. The Moon King, voiced by Ralph Fiennes, seeks to remove Kubo’s sight in order to make him blind to his humanity, to make him ‘beyond stories’ as an immortal – refolding the importance of ‘the story’ back into frame. During the final scenes, The Moon King contends that Kubo’s place is with him as an immortal, blind to the humanity and love of others, resting infinitely with ‘his family’. Interestingly, in response to Kubo’s retort, The Moon King states that his parents chose their mortal fate, attempting to disturb his divine order. Here the significance of Kubo’s status as a demigod holds its importance.
The claims of Gods in both mythology and theology to uphold some divine order are numerous. Equally, so are those who wish to rebel against the will of major gods, who disrupt the order of things for some purpose. Kubo, like almost all demigods, is faced with a choice – (a) to join his grandfather as an immortal, which would entail his compliance with the divine order of The Moon King, or (b) to rebel against the godly order. In Kubo’s case, at the close of the story, he chooses the latter and overturns the order of The Moon King, not by killing him, as he states is his intention, but by transforming him into the very thing that he considers to be worthless, a human. As opposed to mythological figures like Heracles, who chooses to join Zeus at Olympus and be a part of his divine order, Kubo sheds the armour he has spent the film searching for and engages in the most powerful magic of all – that of humanity.
First of all, the beauty of this scene is astonishing. Unlike other tales of demigods, Kubo’s choice to remain mortal is out of love for humanity itself. Left with nothing but friends and stories of loved ones, Kubo removes the enchanted armour to transform the Moon King. This moment locates its significance in that it symbolises Kubo shedding his divinity as he removes the enchanted armour. It is at this instant Kubo has made his choice, to be no more than any other human, and to use that humanity to existentially disrupt the divine order of The Moon King. Interestingly, Kubo justifies this in almost aesthetic terms, stating: “for every horrible thing down here, there is something more beautiful. My mother saw it, so did my father; I see it. Even with just one eye”. Kubo, ultimately, acts so not as to defeat The Moon King, per se, but to defend humanity from his order, to defend its beauty. This form of revolt is therefore promethean in its defence of humanity. Perhaps some elucidation of this is required.
For those who are unaware, Prometheus (Προμηθεύς) is a central figure of Greek mythology. The son of the Titans Iapetus (Ἰαπετός) – The god of craftsmanship and mortality – and Clymene (Κλυμένη) – the goddess of fame and renown, Prometheus is often thought to be the god of forethought and whose story has been replicated across cultures throughout history. There are three parts to the Prometheus myth, these I will call: (a) creation, (b) the fire, and (c) punishment. Let’s take each in turn.
The first part of the Prometheus myth concerns creation. In Greek Mythology, Prometheus created mortal men in the likeness of gods using clay and water from Panopeus in Phocis with the consent of Athena (Αθηνά), the goddess of wisdom, who breathed life into his creation.21 Prometheus is the creator-god of humanity, and as such has been used to symbolise the defence and promotion of his creation, ourselves, across cultures.22 In this sense, humanity is the product of Prometheus, something that the mythological figure holds dear.
The second part of the promethean myth concerns ‘the fire’.23 During a sacrificial meal marking the ‘settling of accounts’ between humans and gods, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus, placing two offerings before the Olympian: a selection of meat hidden inside an ox’s stomach, and bull’s bones wrapped in ‘glistening fat’. Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices, and thus humans would keep meat for themselves and burn bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This infuriated Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution, disenabling them from consuming cooked food, manufacturing tools, or even seeing in darkness. Prometheus subsequently stole the fire back from Zeus and restored it to humanity. In this, we see that Prometheus is more than just a mythological creator figure, but one that defends his creation against the divine whim of other gods, and in doing so, Prometheus restores to humanity its capacity to overcome nature, signified by the Olympian fire. This is often referred to as ‘promethean revolt’, whereby an agent revolts against the will of the gods and nature, accordingly, for the sake of humanity as a whole.
The final part of the Promethean myth concerns the punishment for such crimes against Zeus.24 For adorning humanity with fire, wholly undermining the divine order of Zeus, Prometheus is bound to a mountain in the Caucasus, whereby an eagle was sent to gorge on Prometheus’ immortal liver every day, growing back by night – at least until he is released by Heracles. Without a doubt, Prometheus suffers for his crimes. This tells us that when engaging in Promethean revolt against the gods, one may achieve one’s aims of bettering humanity, but this does not excuse the divergence from the divine order. Prometheus suffers for his creation, for humanity. How does this relate to Kubo however? Kubo relates to all three parts of the promethean myth, culminating in his devotion to humanity and rebellion against the gods.
In relation to the first, Kubo is not the creator of humanity, à la Prometheus. One would have to go through an extraordinary process of eisegesis in order to read into the narrative of the film such an interpretation. However, this being said, Kubo is a creator. Although this notion could have been a reflection in and of itself, as it is so self-referential and introspective, I have chosen to include it here because of its theological underpinning. Kubo, remarkably, is an animator.
If we recall back to the first section of this paper, one will remember that animation is the deceptive fabrication of movement in order to create the illusion of life. Whilst Kubo engages in storytelling, on multiple levels no doubt, some form on animation always occurs with the utterance of his performative speech act. The first time we see this occur is in the village. After uttering “if you must blink..” (etc.), he strikes his shamisen and the paper begins to fold and unfold before him. Whilst enchanting the townspeople of his father’s ventures, the magic of ‘the story’ that Kubo harnesses brings the paper to life, in order to display the fabrication of motion and the illusion of life. This happens again in the final scene, where Kubo summons the spirits of ancestors, once again animating by providing the illusion of life through movement via his human magic of storytelling. Seen in this manner, the narrator, equally, at the beginning summons the narrative of the film to life through the same means.
Indeed, just as McLaren contends, animation is the art of movements that are drawn; and as opposed to the technical magic of SMA or celluloid animation, Kubo’s magic sits with the human capacity to transform finite mortality into immortal life. Kubo’s capacity to animate connects him to Prometheus in the first count this way – he too is a figure of creation, expressed in his capacity to animate.
In relation to the third count of prometheanism, circling back to the second momentarily, Kubo does indeed suffer a punishment for his rebellion. Although Kubo’s crime is promethean rebellion against a divine order, his punishment is not as severe as Prometheus’. However, Kubo does not escape ‘punishment’ for want a better term, but does in fact experience a sense of recurring loss. In the transformation of his family into the mortal-immortal state, crystallised in story modality, his retelling of their existence is equitable to the eagle feasting on Prometheus’ liver day upon day – anybody who has lost loved ones, let alone all of their loved ones, will testify to this fact. Alongside this, Kubo’s punishment manifests in the shape of material loss – for a brief moment he is reunited with the incarnations of his mother and father to form the nuclear family unit, only to have those he loves killed before him, so he can achieve the goal of his prometheanism. Kubo is indeed punished through suffering some loss, however, this is a punishment accumulated throughout the film. As he disturbs the divine order, so too is his own order disturbed; ending in the fact of his material loneliness and becoming an orphan at the close of the film. But, the defence of humanity is worth the price, as Kubo himself comes to admit.
Lastly, the revolt itself. Prometheus tricks Zeus and steals his fire. Kubo is neither a trickster nor a thief, so why the comparison? The comparison comes to the surface of interpretation when we take into account the act of rebellion. Both Kubo and Prometheus are of divine character in some manner. Both chose to defend humanity and suffer for its defence. In both cases, the divine order is disturbed for the sake of humanity and its potentiality to something greater than the insect-like pathology designated by the gods. This mysterious quality is the beauty that Kubo references his mother and father recognising, and that he can see with only one eye. This is the symbol of ‘the fire’ that Prometheus steals back for humanity. Kubo reclaims the human existence as more than meagre and inferior beings from the divine order of The Moon King, and in doing so breaks it to rubble.
Indeed, Kubo displays all three of the traits associated with the Promethean myth, as a somewhat divine figure that choses to rebel against the divine in order to aid humanity. For Prometheus, this occurs due to the admiration of humanity as its creator; for Kubo this occurs in order to immortalise the human through their mortality, reclaiming the status of humanity as that concerning ‘mere mortals’, but as creators and immortals in their very being.
This reflection sought to elucidate something of the theological undertones of Kubo. It noted that at the heart of Kubo is a story about a promethean figure who rebels against a divine order so to promote the interests of humanity and it’s potential. Kubo is not necessarily Prometheus reincarnate, I would not wish to suggest this as such a claim would consist of the greatest ‘overreaching’. However the parallels between the two characters are beyond ignorance. The story of Prometheus always returns to some central notion about the capacity for humanity to overcome some divine order, and in this way rebel against their so-called pre-ordained status in such a structured cosmic system. As Kubo taps into these themes, it too may cast a commentary on the theological status of man as a whole. We are not divine, but our stories have the power to divinize through memory, and that is the beauty of being human.
In conclusion, the purpose of this piece was to reflect on animation broadly, and to interpret Kubo and the Two Strings in order to illustrate that animated films may provide a source for academic illustration and contemplation. Before I leave the reader with some final thoughts, let us retrace our steps.
On the first count to reflect on ‘animation’ broadly, I claimed that by delving into the etymology of the term, we see its connection to breathing life into a non-living entity. From here, I used the discourse around the thought of the animator Norman McLaren to elucidate the basis of animation in conjunction with the linguistic term’s etymological origins, ascertainin a working conceptualisation of ‘animation’ itself. Subsequently, I claimed that animation is the deceptive fabrication of movement in order to create the illusion of life.
Moving from this, the second reflection of the first part concerned stop-motion animation (SMA) and its association to the illusion of time. Through an interpretive analysis of the kind of animation that LAIKA employs, this reflection utilised the latter work of the semiologist Roland Barthes to rethink the relationship between philosophical reflections on ‘the photograph’, mortality, and animation. This section found that SMA is unique as the only modality of cinematic film concerned with the art of resurrection, bringing to life that which has never lived by resuscitating and successively displaying the dead moments of its capture.
The second part of this piece moved its attention to Kubo and The Two Strings. What it broadly located was that the notion of ‘the story’ is central to the narrative of Kubo. ‘The Story’ is what ties the film together, relating it to a number of academic and intellectual discourses from the topic of human finitude, to immortality, performative speech acts and so on. Within each section, some different reflection is laid bare for the reader to ponder. The first concerned ‘the story’ broadly, and its connection to the thought of Hannah Arendt. The second engaged with the question of Kubo’s self-reflective character on the topic of ‘the story’, utilising the thought of the ordinary language philosopher John Austin to analyse the opening plea by the narrator. Together, these sections found that the film is more than just a narrative but a commentary in which the spectator becomes an agent partaking in a story about the magic of ‘the story’ itself.
What makes this fascinating is that Kubo is not just another children’s story therefore, but a reflective exercise in humanity. The question of humanity was addressed in the third and final reflection, through a mythic-theological lens. Here Kubo was paralleled to Prometheus, allowing us to bear witness to the essence of Kubo’s drive to shed his divinity for the sake of humanity in revolt against the gods. Kubo is indeed a promethean figure who intends to disrupt the divine order of The Moon King. He does this so to promote the creative potential and beauty of humanity, posited in his admiration and magical capability behind ‘the story’, illuminating the film’s humanism.
Nevertheless, how should we take these three reflections together? All-in-all Kubo is a reflective work in which we become the spectator-agent witnessing the beauty of our own humanity as if in a mirror. Kubo is a reinforcement of our existential finitude, tapping into those existential themes discussed in both continental and analytic philosophy throughout the past century. This shows us that animation, on both first and second counts of this exploration, can be more than just an art form for entertainment or the depiction of narrative, but provide a rich source for those essential questions that rest at the heart of both political and philosophical discourses.
There were a number of quasi-reflections that I chose not to include in this work, mostly in order to spare the reader. A few themes I chose not to discuss concerned the roles of: family, the redemptive and healing power of music, or even the notion of ‘the cave’ that is a continually recurring theme. On the first, that of ‘family’, it seems somewhat obvious to me that it is a central theme of the film, considering that the adventure Kubo trails is one of the hero’s journey, finding himself closer to his family as he believes to be farther from them in actuality. The title ‘Kubo and The Two Strings’ is often questioned as the shamisen that Kubo plays has three strings – so why the title? Simply put, the film is dedicated to the parents of Travis Knight, the director and producer. After the credits, a short dedication appears in which the basis of the ‘two strings’ concept is revealed – they refer to parents. Kubo’s two strings are his mother and father, with whom the adventure of the film takes place, whether Kubo realises this or not. This being said, although this is interesting, and obviously central to the intended themes of the narrative by the creators, it speaks for itself – i.e. that family is important and that through family we remember the stories of our ancestors. As this theme, like the others not reflected upon, are somewhat overt, I chose to reflect on those that hid beneath the surface of the film. I hope this is not held against me.
Throughout this piece, we have travelled across a number of themes and illuminated the praise of humanity that LAIKA’s work explicates in Kubo, whilst prefacing this discussion with an almost phenomenological grasp of animation itself. This therefore made the claim that animation should be thought of in the same vein as the art that hangs in our galleries, the poetry we cherish, the plays we often recount, or the music that brings us to tears. Animation is so much more than just drawing movement, but in the act of being movement that is drawn, giving life between frames, we see that we humans are constantly capable of granting life in an illusory form to the stories those before us have lived and that we create.
Finally, at its heart, animation really is the most human of all cinematic art forms. In this manner, tapping into the existential character and finitude of the human capability and capacity to fabricate our world. Animation creates something with life that is genuinely as yet unseen and unique, adding to the basis of the world in-between us humans, the world of human artifice, in the same way that life is given to objects in between the frames of an animated film. As McLaren states, it is the in-between-ness of the animating process that adorns the inanimate with the breath of life; thus so too can animation itself add to the creative actuality and potential of the world we forge in-between ourselves as social beings.
Indeed, films like Kubo are far more than movies to entertain, but are movies that reveal to us, with our performative compliance, the beauty of our own existence and finitude in a life-affirming temperament. For this, such works of animated brilliance should be cherished as just that – works of brilliance. To reduce such works to the status of ‘children’s entertainment’ and the artist to the ‘children’s entertainer’ therefore would be a crime of the highest order. And, quite frankly, that really is the least of it.
I would like to begin by thanking Mr. Cameron Maltwood, who is no doubt tired of reading my drafts by this point. Thanks again for your discussion and thoughts, as always. A very special thanks must be given to the animator Rebecca Moritz for her immensely helpful and insightful conversations on the topics above. This piece would have been impossible without an animator to bounce ideas around with. Please find the work of Rebecca Moritz on her website at the following address: https://www.rebeccamoritz.co.uk/. You may not know it, but I am forever grateful for your discussion and friendship. Thank You.
1 For more information on the so-called Disney format and style of animation, see: Esther Leslie (2004) Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and The Avant-Garde, London: Verso; Johnson Cheu (Ed.) (2013) Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers; Lauren Dundes (Ed.) (2019) The Psychosocial Implications of Disney Movies, Basel: MDPT; Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (1995) The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, New York: Hyperion Books.
2 Paul Wells (2003) “Animation: Forms and Meanings”, in Jill Nelmes (Ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies, Third Edition, London: Routledge, pp. 213-235, p. 214.
3 Charles Solomon (1987) The Art of The Animated Image: An Anthology – Volume I, Los Angeles, CA: American Film Institute, p. 11.
4 Paul Wells (1998) Understanding Animation, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 10.
5 Sylvie Bissonnette (2019) Affect and Embodied Meaning in Animation: Becoming-Animated, New York: Routledge, p. 3.
6 Barry J.C. Purves (2014) Stop-motion Animation: Frame by Frame Film-making with Puppets and Models, Second Edition, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., p. 8.
7 Roland Barthes (2000) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage, p.14.
8 Barthes (2000), p. 15.
9 Ibid, emphasis added.
10 The Scene-by-scene Script analysis of Kubo by Scott Myers was used as a helpful guide to structuring this section, see: Scott Myers (April 24th 2017) ‘Script Analysis: “Kubo and the Two Strings” — Part 1: Scene By Scene Breakdown’, Go Into The Story, https://gointothestory.blcklst .com/script-analysis-kubo-and-the-two-strings-part-1-scene-by-scene-breakdown-ee5a8a8932 (Accessed 23rd April 2020).
11 For this etymological connection, see: Brian Joseph and Richard Janda (2003) “On Language, Change and Language Change – Or, Of History, Linguistics, and Historical Linguistics”, in Brian Joseph and Richard Janda (Eds.), The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 3-182, p. 163; Walter W. Skeat (1993) The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., pp.473-474.
12 Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, Second Edition, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p. 184.
13 Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, p.7.
14 I do not intend to evoke a strictly postmodern notion of rhizomatics (from Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus’) with this utterance, as this would be to rupture with the scope and focus of this piece. Rather, I wish only to invoke the notion of the rhizome in its most descriptive form.
15 Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, p. 193.
16 Hannah Arendt (1993) Between Past and Future, London: Penguin Books Ltd., p. 95.
17 J.L. Austin (1975) How To Do Things With Words, Second Edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 5.
18 John R. Searle (1976) ‘A Classification of Illocutionary Acts’, Language in Society, 5 (1), pp. 1-23. I have chosen to utilise Searle’s taxonomy as opposed to that of Austin because Searle builds from Austin in order to clarify the illocutionary act and rectify some issues with Austin’s taxonomy of illocutionary speech acts.
19 J.L. Austin (1975) How To Do Things With Words, p. 6.
20 Austin refers to such an event as an ‘infelicity’, as one of the “things that can be and go wrong on the occasion of such utterances”; J. L. Austin (1975) How To Do Things With Words, p. 14.
21 Hesiod, Theogony: 211-232; Robert Graves (1955) Greek Myths, London: Cassell Ltd., p. 34.
22 A Really good example of this is in our epoch is with the release of the 2012 film ‘Prometheus’. As part of the popular fictional ‘Alien’ series, this film dealt with the extra-terrestrial origins of human life on earth and the seizing of ‘eternal life’ itself; culminating in the not so subtle signifier of Prometheus as the name of the ship the characters’ venture takes place on.
23 Hesiod, Theogony: 507-566.
24 Hesiod, Theogony: 521-529.