“Philip Pullman vs. Hayao Miyazaki”
A Review of Kubo and the Two Strings by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, One Reel
In The Usual Suspects, Roger Kint stated that “the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That may have been true in the 20th century, when fascism and communism terrorized the world, but now the Devil has shifted his strategy. In the 21st century, his trick is getting people to believe that Jesus Christ promotes his agenda. Kubo and the Two Strings, which had tremendous promise, is such a trap. Keep kids far, far away.
Snatching a trope from Disney, as a baby Kubo (Art Parkinson) is rescued by his goddess Mother (Charlize Theron), but not before his grandfather, the Moon King, kills his human father and rips out his left eye. They spend the next twelve years in a cave hiding, with Kubo earning money on the streets of rural Japan by telling stories with his shamisen. “Never go out after sunset,” Mother tells him, “or my sisters will find you and take your other eye.” Kubo is not only a great storyteller, but divine blood gives him special powers. As he plays the shamisen, origami figures come to life and dramatize his stories. While he has the admiration of the townspeople, his life is still a mystery. Injured in the rescue, his mother suffers from an unknown mental disorder, and it’s hard to discern whether her tales are true. As he learns more about his past, the tables are upset again and again, culminating in a hero’s quest to find his father’s armor and confront his grandfather. The spirituality starts out simple as well but becomes more complex before revealing its sinister nature in the third act.
At this point, an important distinction needs to be made here between traditional paganism and neo-paganism. Ancient pagan societies, deprived of God’s direct revelation given only to the Israelites, had to make do with the natural law that God gives every human person. Born with the impulse to worship, they created religious systems out of the most important aspects of their immediate universe: water, the sun, food, plants, fire, war, sexuality, family, the Moon, and so on. While severely flawed, their search for truth was genuine, and early Christian missionaries were able to use their philosophies to bring them to Christ. Paul’s ministry to the Greeks in Acts 17 is a perfect example. Kubo and the Two Strings is steeped in Shinto tradition, like the films of Hayao Miyazaki. This does not cause any problems as long as it remains honest. Yet soon, Kubo loses its way.
Neo-pagan systems are those from societies that are culturally Christian yet choose to return to pagan ways of thinking; the New Age movement is the most prominent example. This cannot be helpful because it knows the Truth and actively denies it. The practice of magic (spells, curses, hexes) in either case is never morally acceptable. Yet traditional paganism can be useful in literature to help illustrate unseen truths as long as children are mature enough to understand the distinction. In the beginning, Kubo seems to be advocating a pagan worldview with underlining Christian themes. Yet soon it is revealed that the evil Moon King is a stand-in for the theistic Deity. “I want your eye,” he says, “so that you cannot see the imperfection of this world.” In this regard, Kubo is similar to the Philip Pullman’s atheistic His Dark Materials series, where God is actually an upstart angel who is accidentally killed by the protagonist. These darker, anti-theistic themes are mixed with Christian tropes to make it more digestible to a Western audience. The New Age movement does the same thing.
Like Pullman’s hero, Kubo conquers his grandfather with the help of his deceased parents. However, the Moon King does not die but is reduced to an old man who cannot remember his past. “Who am I?” he asks Kubo. Kubo smiles. “You are kindest, most compassionate man in the village,” he says. Kubo creates a noble lie to turn the King into a humble peasant, writing him “a new story.” This idea of taming evil is unfortunately common in children’s literature. While every person deserves mercy, sin itself can never be made docile. It must be destroyed. People also need to be saved by Truth, not falsehoods.
Even in regards to its background, Kubo twists ideology to fit a modern interpretation. Ancestor worship is common in the Shino religion, but those who are gone still exist as spiritual beings who can help the living. In Kubo’s world, ancestors – who are shown onscreen as ghosts – are memories. Memories are nice, but cannot intercede on your behalf. “They never die as long as we remember them,” Kubo states. I would remind him of Wood Allen’s adage: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live in my apartment.”
Kubo has received huge critical acclaim, largely for the quality of its animation. This is a fair opinion; the animation is breath taking, full of color and life. The writing, voice acting, and music too are spectacular. However, these qualities only make this film an even sadder tragedy. With ParaNorman and Boxtrolls, Laika has had a bad track record recently of promoting New Age progressive spiritual values, and Kubo reaches a new low point. If Pixar is the pinnacle of Hollywood animation, Laika is the bottom of the barrel. What a waste.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 26th, 2016.