‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ and the Buddhist Moon

The moon figures prominently in the newest LAIKA animated feature, “Kubo and the Two Strings.” The moon in European lore is feminine, but the moon in Japanese mythology is male. Japanese myths mix with religious associations: Buddhism finds special significance with the moon.  How “Kubo and the Two Strings” represents the moon causes a cultural clash that might not be evident to most Americans.

Americans might be most familiar with Artemis (as well as Selene and Hecate) in Greek mythology. In Roman mythology, Diana is the goddess associated with the moon. Yet Diana and Artemis were children of gods. The sun and the moon are not the foundation of Greek and Roman mythology. They were children of Zeus.

In Japanese mythology, the sun goddess is Amaterasu (天照) ōmikami and she is the sister of the god of storms, Susanoo and the god of the moon, Tsukuyomi. The threesome were asexually born from Izanagi as he purified himself after entering the afterworld seeking his wife, Izanami, a journey reminiscent of the legendary musician Orpheus who sought his wife Euridice. Amaterasu took Tsukuyomi as her husband, but after a bitter tiff told him to stay on his side of the celestial heaven.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is about the eponymous Kubo who as an infant escapes with his mother and is washed ashore.Kubo is half-blind. His left eye was plucked from him by his maternal grandfather and Kubo’s long bangs hide the black eyepatch he wears. In old Japan, one of the two occupations open to blind people was becoming musicians (the other was masseur). Jumping forward to when Kubo is a young boy, his mother is now sickly and  weak and Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) must care for her. Living in a cave on a cliff high above the sea, Kubo must each day journey to the nearest village and earn money by playing his shamisen (a string instrument with what is usually a squarish body–in this case it’s more of a trapezoid–and three strings that is played with a large plectrum) and telling wild tales that are enacted by paper that magically fold and form origami characters. In particular, he tells about the great warrior Hanzo, tales his mother has told him, but she hasn’t told him everything.

Amongst the villagers, he has befriended an old woman, Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro), an older man Hosato (George Takei) and a man called Hashi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). His mother has warned him that he must always keep his monkey-shaped talisman with him and he must be home before the sun sets and to return before sunset, means he doesn’t finish his tale for his enthralled audience. One day he doesn’t return in time, hoping to meet his father’s spirit during Obon. Instead he meets his evil aunties (Rooney Mara), pale-faced women with black hats, capes, shirts and pants, who hover in the air. His grandfather is the King of the Moon (Ralph Fiennes), an immortal . Kubo’s mother left her magical life to marry Kubo’s father.

His aunties intend to take Kubo back to his grandfather who will take Kubo’s remaining eye, but Kubo’s mother saves him, using her last bit of magic to transport him to a distant land, transform his monkey-shaped talisman into a live monkey (Charlize Theron) and tell him to seek out the things his father had searched for: the armor impenetrable, the sword unbreakable and the helmet invulnerable. During their search, they meet a Beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) who can’t quite remember who he was except that he knew Kubo’s father.

On this quest, Monkey and Beetle spar, with Monkey being impatient with Beetle’s forgetfulness. A red origami samurai provides some clues. Eventually Kubo will have to battle with his aunties and confront his grandfather.

“Kill Bill” fans might recognize the name, Hanzō. Quentin Tarantino’s character is was a nod to a famous warrior of the pre-Tokugawa period: Hattori Hanzō (1542-1596). During the Sengoku era, Hattori (服部 半蔵) is believed to have saved Tokugawa Ieyasu and then helped Ieyasu become the shogun who ruled over a united Japan. He was also known under a nickname of Oni no Hanzō or the Demon Hanzō to differentiate between him and Watanabe Hanzō (also known as Yari no Hanzō (Spear Hanzō). The press notes state that Hanzo’s image is a homage to Toshiro Mifune who is best known for playing samurai characters in Akira Kurosawa films, especially the 1954 “The Seven Samurai.”

The other names could have some meaning. Kubo (久保) is generally a last name. According to the press notes, the name was story artist John Aoshima’s nickname as a teenager. Kameyo (亀世) likely means Turtle Generations. Hashi curiously is a common word for either bridge (橋) or chopsticks (箸). I’m not sure how well thought out the naming of the characters were.

According to the press notes, Kubo’s eyepatch is homage to Date Masamune (伊達政宗) and Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi (柳生 十兵衞 三厳) who both had eye patches. Date Masamune (1567-1636) was known as the one-eyed dragon and was a daimyo from the Tōhoku region. Mitsuyoshi (1607-1650) as a samurai from Nara.

Having a Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) as a samurai actually builds on the insect’s name in Japanese: kabutomushi. Mushi 虫means bug. Kabuto means helmet. Kabutomushi means helmet bug. These beetles are often caught and raised as pets. You often see them in anime, on TV and in films.

Obon itself is not a native Japanese ceremony. Once called urabon-e, the word comes from the Sanskrit Ullambana and comes on the 15th day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar. According to legend, an Asian Indian man had a dream that his deceased mother was suffering from hunger in the afterlife. He left offerings for her, but although the bowl was filled his mother count not partake. A Buddhist priest told the man that his mother had committed various earthly wrongs and this was her punishment, however, she could be saved by calling upon the Buddha’s mercy. This is supposedly how the Ullambana started.

The concept was introduced to Japan in 657, the third year of Empress Regnant Saimyo’s reign. At that time, it was observed by the nobility, becoming an annual event in 733. Eventually the event spread to the masses. In Japan, the observance changed into a time for joy, when the spirits of the dead were believed to return to their earthly homes. Lighted lanterns were set out to guide the spirits and foods, especially vegetables were placed as offerings to the dead. In contemporary Japan, it became a time when people returned to their hometowns.  The floating lanterns (toro-nagashi) in the water meant to guide the spirits of the dead home.

Buddhism came to Japan first via Korea and then often through Chinese connections. I mention this because the Grandfather and the aunties seem to be more Chinese or continental East Asian than Japanese. The press notes state that his collar was inspired by Klaatu, from the 1951 “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Buddha, however, lived before Christ, born 563 or 480 B.C. and dying about 483 or 400 B.C. Buddhism came to Japan in 552 A.D. according to the “Nihon Shoki.”

Another reason that this Buddhist influence is important to note is because more than one review thought the animated feature was about Shinto beliefs such as Jordan Hoffman writing for the Guardian. Hoffman felt the movie was like a plate full of vegetables, another illustration of a cultural rift as children in some culture relish vegetables. Andrea Rittschof in her review for Slice of SciFi also noted that “‘Kubo and the Two Strings is respectful of the culture of Japan, even having scenes highlighting Shinto concepts with the villagers having shrines where they speak with the spirits of those who have passed on.” The shrines that Rittschof is apparently referring to are gravestones in a cemetery.

When Buddhism came to Japan, the relationship between Buddhism and the moon had already been established. Buddha was supposedly born on a full moon day. His renunciation, his day of enlightenment, the delivery of his first sermon and his death all supposedly occurred on a full moon day. The first full moon day of May or the fourth lunar month is Buddha’s birthday (Vesak). For this reason, Buddhism, the moon has positive associations and various festivals in several Asian countries are tied to the moon.

In Shinto mythology, the moon god is Tsukiyomi. Is he also the “king” of the moon and if so, who is the mother of the three daughters? Amaterasu, the supposed mother of the first emperor or did these daughters result from asexual propagation? Tsukiyomi wasn’t, according to one legend, a nice guy. He killed the goddess Uke Mochi because he didn’t like the way she prepared a gorgeous meal, but in other variations of the legend, Tsukiyomi is killed by his other sibling, Susanoo. Still, the descendants of Tsukiyomi would be relatives of Amaterasu and, through her, the emperor of Japan.

Although I haven’t found it in the press notes, some references to “Kubo and the Two Strings” related the Moon King to Raiden (e.g. USA Today and Indiewire). Raiden is the Japanese god of thunderbolts and, according to Joya, worshiped as the god of mercy. In farming regions, stone tablets were worshipped as the farmers prayed for rain.

While having a monkey and a samurai beetle are charming enough, one almost wishes that the sisters also had animal companions, such as killer or ninja rabbits. In Japan, rabbits are associated with the moon where they are thought to live and pound mochi cakes. They are, like birds, supposed to fly.

Centipedes, on the other hand, are a poisonous insect native to Japan and there are tales of a giant centipede (in Japanese mukade or hundred legs) that attacked and tortured humans according to Joya. In most cases, the centipede does symbolize evil spirits, except in the case of the Osato village in Saitama where it is a deity of the Sakagami Shrine.

There are other points to be made. When producer/director Travis Knight talks about Japan and the setting for “Kubo and the Two Strings, he mentions a fantastical ancient Japan, but the creative influences are from Hokusai, Hiroshige and the late Edo period. Think about that. According to Merriam-Webster “ancient” refers to “of or relating to a remote period, to a time early in history, or to those living in such a period or time; especially :  of or relating to the historical period beginning with the earliest known civilizations and extending to the fall of the western Roman Empire in A.D. 476.”

If one was speaking about Ancient or Archaic Greece, that would be the time period between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C.  That would correspond with the Jōmon period (14,000-300 B.C.) in Japan. Hokusai lived from 1760 to 1849 and was a painter and woodblock printer of the Edo period as was Hiroshige (1797-1858).  To put this in perspective, Queen Victoria’s father, King George III was born in 1738. Queen Victoria was born in 1819 and died in 1901. Hiroshige and Hokusai died before the United States entered the Civil War (1860-1865). The Edo period was from 1603 to 1868, beginning the same year that Queen Elizabeth I of England died (24 March) and ending the same year the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution and Ulysses S. Grant won the presidential election.

Think using early Victorian or late Elizabethan clothing for an ancient England, even fantastical land. Would it work for you?

imgresThat is really a minor problem, compared to the more philosophical thematic one: Portraying the kingdom of the moon as harsh and cold, with princesses who are literally called witches and look like they could easily land in Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and yet showing the humanity and love 220px-Tomoe-Gozendisplayed on the Buddhist tradition of Obon, a tradition that has positive associations with the moon. According to the press notes, the sister’s costuming was inspired by Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247), a famous female warrior, as well as other female ninja warriors. (The costume of Kubo’s mother is modeled on women courtiers of the Heian era, 794 – 1185).



This is the Japan of sayings like “Tsukiyo ni kome no meshi” (“Moonlight and boiled rice,” meaning one never ties of eating a simple meal by the light of the moon) and according to Mock Joya’s “Things Japanese,” children were once raised to call the moon nonosama, “a term which is originally a baby word for Buddha.” Joya describes how mothers used to tell babies that the moon was Buddha watching over them and how in various regions the moon is celebrated in festivals. One reviewer compared the evil aunties’ faces to a Noh mask. That may be a stretch. noh_mask

In the end, while I enjoyed the animation, the fantastical world where a magical shamisen makes origami act out stories of great warriors, I cannot overcome the contradiction of having an evil Shinto god of mercy and an evil moon in a film that looks to the Buddhist festival Obon as the solution and the resolution of the dysfunctional family problem.

This essay and others can be purchased on Amazon: Monjilla at the Movies: Essays on Anime.




    • Some people enjoy engaging their brains.

      Artistic license applies to live action as well as animation.

      I am sure there are some people who want to say “Just enjoy the damn film” for “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) which is live action or “Uncle Tom’s Bungalow” (1937) or “Angel Puss” (1944) or Disney’s “Aladdin” before corrections were made to the lyrics.


      • The use of the Moon King here- and the whole story- seems to echo the use of the moon in Princess Kaguya and/or the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

        The echoes are strong- both present a Princess of the Moon escaping her father because she prefers earthly experience over the Moon King’s definition of “perfection.”

        Kubo does take it a step further- since older stories never feature mortals triumphant over gods – but that archetype is currently common in both American and Japanese stories (it is surprising how much Japanese Anime and videogame narratives deal with toppling gods).

        The Bamboo Cutter may or may not be anti-Buddhist (especially in various tellings like the Gibli version). Regardless, it is definitely Japanese, and thereby gives credence to the interpretation of folklore presented in Kubo.


      • Sorry Garden Ninja. The protagonist of “The Bamboo Cutter” is female. The protagonist here is male. The moon is a world that is NOT evil and the moon is not represented as evil. In “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the Moon King is represented as cruel and evil as are his other daughters.

        “The Bamboo Cutter” also has tasks to be completed in order for the princes to win the hand of Kaguya. Some of the princes attempt to fool her. One gives up. Another dies.

        In “The Bamboo Cutter,” the suggestion is one of duty to the family and class differences. This is not a point of “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Further, “The Bamboo Cutter” is not Buddhist in character and “Kubo and the Two Strings” doesn’t seem to understand Buddhism. Buddhism and Shinto are both part of Japanese culture. I do not feel that “The Bamboo Cutter” is “anti-Buddhist.”

        “Kubo and the Two Strings” is not “Japanese” because it is an American tale about Japan. “Kubo” resembles the tale of Momotaro more than “The Bamboo Cutter”–a boy must complete tasks on an adventure and has animal companions. “Kubo” also has more in common with “Kintaro” because in some variations, the mother of Kintaro is a princess who has is separated from her husband. Kintaro also has animal friends and battles monsters.

        And yet the problem of Kubo remains–the interpretation of Shinto and Buddhism because O-Bon is Buddhist.


  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but “Kubo” seems nominally anti-Buddhist, since ultimately Kubo continues to “cling” to his family relationships and even brings his grandfather out of a detached state to become a feeble old man, dependent on other people. Since the Buddha named corporeal attachment as one of the three poisons, is the grandfather’s proposed blindness a form of enlightenment, and Kubo’s rejection of it a rejection of Buddhist ideas in favor of more… Western values, maybe?


      • Yeah, the director probably isn’t especially committed to propagating those themes if his strongest link to Buddhism is his mother-in-law. 🙂

        While I’m here, though, I have one other question. I’ve watched two of these animated Japanese/set-in-Japan movies now, “Spirited Away” and “Kubo,” and while they’re beautiful to look at I feel that their plots are not conventionally satisfying. The characters overcome challenges a little too easily and sometimes make logical leaps that require knowledge the viewer doesn’t have (like Sen identifying Haaku as the spirit of a river that she fell into as a toddler, for example). Is this just the filmmakers’ individual intent, or a consistent feature of Japanese storytelling that doesn’t much sense to Western expectations?


      • I can only respond to the Haku example. Japan associates dragons with rivers and natural features have spirits. So that isn’t such a great leap of logic IMO.


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