***This article may contain spoilers for the film Kubo and the Two Strings.***All Asian-American children have one: that one story where they failed to meet their parents’ perceived expectations.
I was never naturally the smartest kid in the room growing up. A speech impediment and consistently ethereal short-term memory often made me hesitant to ask the questions that I needed to ask. However, through aggressive tutoring from my stay-at-home mother, I was often ahead of my education. And up to high school, I was able to skate by with a focused persistence using the foundational methods that I had learned previously.Diversity is not just important for diversity’s sake.Looking back, I probably tried harder outside the classroom than in. At one point in time, my church’s version of Sunday school revolved around competitive biblical knowledge. Throughout the year, our young minds would be inundated with various stories of Scripture. We would commit this knowledge to monthly tests, all in preparation for a yearly exam during which we would compete with other church youth from all around the country. Our performance on these examinations meant our ranking within our church community, locally and nationally. I remember the anxiety and the mental preparations that I would undergo, as serious as any athletic ritual before the big game—this one exam meant everything.
It seems completely inane in retrospect. A two-hour exam consisting of 5 short answers, 3 long essays, and 100 multiple-choice questions that children willingly (or not-so-willingly) put themselves through for a plastic, gold-plated trophy and a byline in an annually circulated magazine. But to me these trophies meant the recognition and validation not only of my community but also, subconsciously, of my parents.
I didn’t want them to see me fail.Among its many thematic elements, the recent Laika-produced animation Kubo and the Two Strings (KATS) is about loss and how humanity deals with grief through stories. While the superficial focus of KATS is concerned with the loss of a loved one, we see each of its characters face various amalgamations of this problem: the loss of a body part, the loss of a sibling, the loss of perfection, the loss of memory, and the loss of identity. How the characters deal with their resulting emotions following the injury done to body or mind filters them in the story’s moral universe of both good and bad, light and dark.
Laika is an animation production house that has made its name for intricately designed stories about youth facing the darkness of life. KATS continues in this tradition from the start by throwing the audience into a turbulent storm at sea, tossing a young woman to and fro in a boat. The much-repeated phrase throughout the film is here introduced to us for the first time: “If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.” The woman takes out an instrument and, through the power of sound, slices through an impending tidal wave. We see her and an infant curled prone onto the shore as the tide beats back and forth.
The titular protagonist, Kubo, is a storyteller by practice and also the narrator of the story that we are watching. Through the power of his magical instrument, a shamisen, we see him conjure origami figurines to life to do battle in comedic and dramatic ways. By day, he entertains a village with his epic adventure stories, soundtracked by his lute. At each sunset, due to the cautioning of his mother, he hurries home. Because his desire to explore clashes with his mother’s fear of what lurks in the dark, Kubo wrestles with a typical child’s conundrum: How do I balance obedience to my parents with my curiosity of the outside world?
KATS is nothing if not committed. The filmmakers pack such abundant life and depth into each scene, the “do not blink” mantra comes close to an admonishment to the audience for not paying more attention to Laika previously. While watching it, several moments made me further appreciate the power of animation and, ultimately, cinema. The blend of sound, design, and motion is a vital characteristic of the film that is captured here in moonlit forests of fog or a swarm of origami-built birds. Each environment and character has been designed with loving care . . . and yet I felt that an integral part was amiss.
Earlier this year, the Oscars were surrounded by the controversy of (once again) having myopic nominations in terms of race and film. Like other present movements, its conversation starter (#OscarsSoWhite) went the way of hashtag purgatory, never to be seen again. However, dialogue continued about the process of storytelling and why diverse individuals should be shown in diverse parts for diverse audiences. Laika had this spotlight turn to them after the release of KATS, due to the only prominent Asian casting of George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in mostly miniscule roles. This response, from director Travis Knight left much to be desired:
What we’ve done all along is try to tell diverse stories. . . . I think it’s a bigger issue. It’s telling more diverse stories with more diverse characters, and that’s what we’ve tried to do every step of the way. And our casting process is part of that. We’re basically colorblind in terms of how we cast our films, and I think you can see it when you look at the totality of our movies.
Many might have an issue with individuals projecting themselves onto a story they are supposed to be critiquing. But isn’t that one of the points of telling diverse stories—actually connecting with diverse audiences?After years of winning trophies for biblical examinations, my collegiate academic experience was a rude awakening. No longer was I expected to memorize and regurgitate. Instead, I had to dissect, examine, and reconstruct. Two weeks after graduating, I would find out that I had failed two of my classes. I remember lying on my bathroom floor thinking that all my hopes of going to graduate school in the fall and dreams of going on my first international mission trip in a month had just gone up in smoke. For a month, I went through the motions of everyday life not knowing how to tell my immediate family. My family was never a broken home, but at some point in my collegiate life, I had split my identity into fragments of the known and unknown. My family had only known the real me for several years of my life, so telling them of my failure over the last four years was excruciating. Failure was devastating since I had viewed life only through the lens of success and how that success was perceived in the eyes of others. After almost failing out of undergraduate (and then graduate) school, I could no longer live in the comfortable pretense of a lie.
For these reasons, I identified with Kubo’s extended family. I paid special attention whenever the twin sisters, Kubo’s aunts, came on screen. Their kabuki masks and their desire for perfection were instantly relatable to me and my own guises to cover my imperfections.
Diversity is not just important for diversity’s sake. When we have stories that are not just temporarily trying out cultural garments but weaving in the thematic struggles of the culture, it is the storyteller’s duty to create the best possible art to point to truth in that culture. Some may argue that artists hold no such responsibility and should create whatever art they believe best reflects their own truth (e.g., Quentin Tarantino). Great storytelling has, and will, involve storytellers and audiences telling and consuming stories that are not their own. However, both parties must realize the intrinsic danger in this practice: the vast freedom to explore a story that is not your own inherently results in a blind spot of empathetic insight to those who actually live the story.
But if we believe that stories help mold culture, then hearing and seeing Asian-American actors wrestle with stories of perfection versus failure will create an environment that creates change and dialogue within these family circles. It is not just about throwing a token character in the mix; it is seeing a holistic agent live in a story that reflects our world. It is about letting someone else see a window into your world while also being able to see an abstracted version of yourself wrestle on a larger screen with what you wrestle with in everyday life.In pushing for more truth in stories we see, we must be responsible as storytellers in our own niches.Long before he was helming mythological car racing sequences in the Fast and Furious franchise, Justin Lin began his career with a quiet-by-comparison, critically acclaimed darling Better Luck Tomorrow. The film focused on a group of four Asian-American high school students growing up in Orange Country who slowly spiral downward into a mix of hedonism, petty crime, and murder. While most Asian Americans may not be able to recognize themselves in the characters by film’s end, many will see the all-too-common constraints, from the pressure to succeed to the dissonance of constantly chasing happiness. The opening scene firmly shows the viewer the latent horror with pursuing the Asian-American story of success: two men dozing in a quiet, sunlit suburban backyard are startled awake by a cell phone ringing in the hands of a dead man buried beneath their feet.
While Better Luck Tomorrow suffers from some on-the-nose narration, it succeeds where Kubo fails by fully committing to the essence of the story from all angles. The story for the former is able to take its audience off the beaten path by creating not only a believable environment but characters who are true to the world that it presents. If Kubo’s creative team was willing to hire a creative consultant on Japanese environment, why would they not be more inclusive with more of the main roles for Asian-American actors? If Kubo could only be made with prominent Caucasian actors in the primary roles, it seems that paying attention to inclusive detail is only pertinent until talk about Hollywood ultimately being a business arises.The final act of Kubo and the Two Strings places Kubo’s grandfather as a vindictive god character who wants to see the ending of stories altogether in eternity. Kubo is placed on the side of “good” as the fighter for all stories while his grandfather is labeled as “bad” as the ender of all stories. But what if eternity is not the end of stories as we see it? In the conclusion of his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch wonders, “If the cultivation and creation of culture is our basic human task and will carry over into the new Jerusalem, what exactly will that eternal creativity look like? Will Bach go on composing, Rembrandt go on painting, Dante go on writing tercets[?] . . . Eternal life . . . is not simply just more time” but “a different kind of time” (266). If Crouch’s hypothesis on eternity is correct—that our time will be a continuation of our creative pursuit here on Earth—this makes our responsibilities as storytellers incredibly vital. In every part of our daily life, each of us tell others and even ourselves a certain type of story about the world. These are the same stories we will be refining and creating anew for eternity.
In 2014, Reach Records artist KB released a six-song EP titled 100. The titular song focused on giving one hundred percent to everything one does, no matter how menial one’s task might feel. Its ethos can be summed up in Brother Lawrence’s saying that God “regards not the greatness of our work, but the love that prompts it.” While it may feel daunting to consider that your story and how you shape it can impact someone’s view of eternity, it is crucial to practice in our everyday life. Whether one has creative tendencies or not, intertwining the idea of eternal storytelling and present love can help an individual walk with the Asian-American community as we struggle with the idea of perfection.
Despite dialogue moving in the right direction, mainstream American cinema is not developing at the rate it should stories that reflect its multifaceted audience. Change will not just come from restructuring award committees but from motivated producers and studios creating opportunities for new storytellers to tell stories that impact their respective cultures. As Asian Americans, we must not be satisfied to see scraps of our stories presented on the big screen but push for change beyond token representation.
However, in pushing for more truth in stories we see, we must be responsible as storytellers in our own niches—such as the stories we choose to tell or to omit about our “perfection” and failure as individuals or as family units. Kubo refuses to end his story without a happy conclusion, though the death of his parents is still a raw wound to him. The film ends with a frame that depicts around him the spirits of his parents, made alive through the power of stories. While it may not be as inclusive as it thinks, art like Kubo and the Two Strings gives audiences not only the ability to analyze how they present the stories of their families to the world, but also the opportunity to imagine what stories we will tell to one another when time itself ceases to exist.
Image via AV Club