Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Joshua 1:1-2, 9
1After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, 2“My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. 9I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
9Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Three Minute Film Summary
Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop-motion animated film by Laika studios, which is known for making children’s films that are somewhat dark in tone, and don’t shy away from difficult topics, like death and tragedy, but which also contain a lot of deep spiritual imagery and subtext.
The hero of this story is Kubo, a young boy living in a magical version of ancient Japan. When Kubo was just an infant, his grandfather (the evil and God-like Moon King) stole one of his eyes and killed his father, the legendary samurai warrior, Hanzo. At the opening of the story, Kubo lives in a cave taking care of his mother (who suffers bouts of memory loss) and earning money in the local village by telling stories, playing his enchanted shamisen (a traditional Japanese instrument) and by practicing his own enchanted version of another traditional Japanese art, Origami (folding paper).
The action begins when Kubo’s aunts (evil, witch-like spirits) come on behalf of his grandfather to take his other eye. Kubo escapes, but loses his mother in the process. Kubo then embarks upon a quest to find his father’s enchanted armor, the only thing that can protect him from his grandfather. He is joined on this quest by a demanding, but protective monkey, and by a giant insect-like samurai beetle. Piece by piece, they recover the armor, as Kubo’s own magic grows stronger. Along the way, he bonds with Monkey and Beetle, and eventually learns that they are none other than his own mother and father in enchanted form. Ultimately, Kubo returns to his village and with his newfound confidence in his abilities and in his family identity, and defeats his grandfather the Moon King in battle, saving the villagers, who embrace him as his larger, adopted family.
A Hodgepodge of Biblical Parallels
The story of Kubo has its roots more in eastern mysticism and Buddhism than in Christianity, but there are some pretty strong biblical parallels interspersed throughout the film. I don’t think these parallels are necessarily intentional on the part of the script writers, but they are certainly worth noting and recognizing.
Kubo’s story is a variation on the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. In the Bible, the prophet Jonah runs away from God, crosses a stormy ocean in a boat, shelters in the belly of a whale, where he ultimately accepts his destiny and goes to the people God has sent him to, proclaiming a message of hope and reconciliation.
Kubo, on the other hand, runs away from his god-like grandfather, and on his first night shelters inside the belly of a whale. Then he crosses a stormy ocean in a ship, and eventually accepts his destiny and returns to the people of his village, proclaiming a message of hope and reconciliation (more on that later).
Kubo’s story is also reminiscent of that of Joshua, the young warrior who was chosen to lead the forces of Israel after the loss of his mentor and father-figure, Moses. Joshua had to summon great courage and inner-strength in order to defeat giants and other larger-than-life inhabitants of the promised land.
Kubo’s fight is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against spiritual forces. Against them, he is commanded to find and put on the “breastplate impenetrable,” the “helmet invulnerable” and the “sword unbreakable.” Of course, this should remind any Christian of Ephesians 6, where the Apostle Paul tells us that against spiritual forces we should put on the “helmet of salvation, the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “sword of the spirit.”
But then in the film’s final battle scene (which we’ll see later) between little Kubo and his evil grandfather (who has taken the form of a giant dragon) Kubo realizes that a samurai’s armor just isn’t his thing…and he takes it off in favor of a more “humble” weapon…his shamisen, which he strings with three strings, representing his father, his mother, and himself.
This should be familiar to us: In the Bible, in 1st Samuel, the young shepherd-boy, David, takes off the armor he has been given by King Saul, and instead chooses the weapons he is more familiar with (a sling and five smooth stones) to face the giant Goliath.
Filial Piety in Eastern and Western Tradition
A core theme in this film is what’s called “filial piety” or the reverence given to ones parents and ancestors. It’s a common misconception among Christians that Asian religions practice ancestor worship. “Worship” by definition is devotion given to those believed to be gods or dieties. Reverence on the other hand is respect given to those who are acknowledged to be human. At both the beginning and end of the film, Kubo is shown speaking to his deceased parents. This is not worship, but devotion. Even Jesus, in three of the four gospels, is described speaking to the deceased spirits of Moses and Elijah, and this is not considered “worship.”
Actually, filial piety is a cornerstone of both Western AND Eastern civilization. In Judeo-Christian tradition, it shows up as the sixth of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother.” There is no time limit placed on this commandment; honor and reverence extends even beyond the earthly lives of our parents, and at many places in the scriptures, we are commanded to remember and honor all the saints who went before us. In the film, Kubo’s care for his mother and his reverence for the memory of his father eventually grows into an appreciation for all of his people and ancestors who have proceeded him. It is in them that he finds a sense of identity and purpose.
A Strand of Three Cords
For most of the film, Kubo’s magic derives from his shamisen–a traditional Japanese instrument that is similar to a guitar or a banjo, but with three strings. The movie is called Kubo and the two strings because his shamisen has only two–his mother broke a string while using the instrument’s power to save him as a child. Later, Kubo uses the instrument to save himself, each time breaking a string. In the final battle with his grandfather, there are no strings left, so Kubo takes a strand of his mother’s hair that he had worn on his wrist, a bowstring that had belonged to his father, and finally a strand of his own hair, and uses all these things to restring the instrument. The message is that all his magic, his power…comes from the memory of his parents, his family, and his power is strongest when these three strands are woven together as one.
This is the same message we get from Ecclesiastes, which teaches that two are better than one, and that a threefold cord is not quickly broken. We are made to be part of something larger–a family, a community, a people.
The Cloud of Witnesses
That community shows up in Kubo’s final battle–he is surrounded by both the living and the spirits of the dead, as he articulates the value of loved ones and the memories we share with them. The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews says something very similar when he shares the stories of the saints of old who have gone before him, and then speaks of the “cloud of witnessess” that surrounds us and points us to the saving grace of our savior.
Jesus, Buddha & Divine Family Dynamics
So far, I’ve been pointing out similarities to this story and our Christian story. But I think it’s also important to point out the differences. Both stories center around a divine family, and a child that is part god and part human. In the Bible, God’s divine Spirit comes upon the human Mary to conceive a savior, Jesus. In the film, Kubo’s mother is the divine being, who rejects her divinity and falls in love with the mortal man Hanzo in order to conceive a savior, Kubo.
But there’s a critical difference here: In Christianity, God is intrinsically good, loving, benevolent. In the film, the god figure, Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King is not. At worst, he is portrayed as evil and antagonistic. At best, he is dispassionate and detached. And in that sense, he actually represents an entirely different worldview: Buddhism.
I want to be careful here. There is much in the Buddhist tradition that inspires me. Some scholars of world religions have even pointed out that Buddhism is not really a religion, but rather a set of disciplines. I spent a few years studying those disciplines and found many of them compatible with Christianity.
But for me, there was always one thing I couldn’t get past. One of the core tenets of Buddhism is that all suffering comes from attachment…and therefore to end suffering, we should not be overly attached to anything. In order to attain Nirvana, or perfection, we must become detached, fixed and unmoved, like the celestial bodies in the heavens. This is exactly the philosophy articulated in the film by the Moon King.
In the climax of the movie, when Kubo’s grandfather tells him why he wants to take his eye. He says:
“As long as you cling to that silly, useless eye…You can’t come up to live with me… In the heavens! You’ll be stuck down here in this… hell! Staring with that lonely eye at hate and heartache and suffering…And death! Where I want to take you, we have none of those things. It’ll just be you, with your family. When you’re up there with me, you will be beyond stories. You will be… Immortal! You will be…Infinite!
While I will admit that’s probably not the best interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, Kubo actually rejects it, and instead embraces suffering, embraces humanity and all the flaws and imperfections that go with it. Likewise, Jesus rejects the view of the Pharisees that God is cold and legalistic, and instead embraces the outcasts, the flawed sinners, and those rejected by society.
Learning, Forgetting, and Remembering Who You Are
Memory is a key theme in the film: Kubo’s mother suffers from bouts of memory loss, and his father (in the form of Beetle) has forgotten that he is Hanzo, the samurai. Kubo journeys many miles with Monkey and Beetle without realizing they are manifestations of his parents. In fact, in the form of Monkey and Beetle, Kubo’s parents don’t even recognize each other until the very end. Here we might be reminded of the walk to Emmaus, and the disciples who traveled with Jesus after his ressurection without realizing who he was, until he prayed and broke bread with them.
But the most poignant scene of the entire film comes after Kubo has defeated his grandfather, the Moon King, and somehow his grandfather becomes a mortal man…who has lost all memory of who he was. Given all the death and destruction the Moon King has caused, Kubo and the people of his village would have every right to be angry with him and take their revenge now that he is in such a weakened form. But instead they do something very unexpected.
I usually try to show three or four clips of the movie we’re discussing, but today I wanted to show one, much longer clip–the climax of the film–that captures so many of the things we’ve been talking about and weaves them all together. Watch as Kubo confronts his grandfather, as he embraces his humanity, as he takes off his armor and re-strings his instrument. Watch as the cloud of witnessess, the communion of saints (the living and the dead) gather around him, and watch as that same community makes a critical decision in the closing moments of the story.
Wrapped up in this scene are the powerful themes of forgiveness and redemption. In Kubo’s story, the evil God is forgiven and embraced by the people. In Christianity, it’s the opposite: A loving God forgives and embraces a sinful people. In either case, what happens is the end of one story, and the beginning of a new one; a clean slate, and a chance to live in community with one another. To remember is not always just the act of calling to mind events of the past. At the core of the word, to “re-member” is to make someone a member again; a member of the community, a member of God’s family.