Hollow Beauty and Rotten Cores: What does your story stand for?

Kubo and the Two Strings is a truly beautiful film.

I can write endlessly about how astonishingly goregous it is as both a technical achievement in puppetry and a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The sheer ambition of realising that vast stop-motion world is breathtaking. It also has utterly beautiful moments of characterisation and Charlize Theron’s Monkey is just brilliant in every possible way.

So I really don’t want a word of what follows to dissuade you, dear reader, from actually watching it.


I came out of the cinema feeling dissatisfied and the word I keep coming back to is that it’s just… hollow.

It’s not that the movie lacked heart, the emotional beats are all there. But it’s that the beautifully visualised setting of fantasy Japan never quite touches the core story that its telling and in the end it feels like it’s nothing more than elaborate wallpaper.

Perhaps it comes from a misplaced desire to create a tale that is timeless and placeless[1], a fairytale that is unmoored from any cultural detail, but the characters just exist slightly apart from the world they inhabit. Beetle is full of heart, but he is very much that generic warrior trope, no more a samurai than he is a knight or a viking or a legionaire. There are flashes, such as when he gives his reasons for why he needs to redeem himself by following Kubo, but by and large he tends towards the generic.

The film draws copious inspiration from Japanese culture. It’s easy to see that in every frame, from the use of origami to the cues taken from ink wash paintings and Noh masks and classic woodblock prints. The director, Travis Knight, waxes lyrical about his love for Japanese traditional art and it is clear he very much did his homework.

And yet despite all those aesthtic influences, the story itself feels empty to me[2].

It is easy to leap to the conclusion that all this is because the team making the film isn’t Japanese[3] and that this is all just about cultural appropriation rather than wallpaper fantasy[4] and how I want stories interact with their own setting.

But strangely, it doesn’t feel like appropriation in the sense that a story alien to the culture has been clad in its kin. Kubo simply tries too hard to be of no culture and no allegiance. It contrasts very starkly with films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, which both fully inhabit their worlds and have so much to say about their cultures[5].

Which brings me to the point of stories that are told about a culture or are from that culture but go against that original grain. Stories that do not feel true to their origins.

The Monkey King (2014) is a Chinese production and it tells the story of the Monkey King’s early life, before he meets Tripitaka and undertakes the great Journey to the West. Monkey, irrepressible spirit and all, is the avatar of rebellion and is a fundamentally subversive character. He upsets the hierarchy of the court to show it to be a sham and we are meant to delight in the chaos he causes. The celestial court of the book is a thinly veiled stand in for the mortal court and much of the tale can be seen as calling them out for their corruption and immorality.

But The Monkey King puts that all aside. Instead, we have a regal and benevolent Jade Emperor being beseiged by an almost satanic Bull Demon. The thematic core has been fundamentally changed. The rebellious edge of Monkey is gone and he is a foolish pawn in the hands of the Bull Demon who is rebelling against heaven because his romantic love for one of the gods. Heaven is shown not to be corrupt, immoral and hypocritical, but fundamentally good. With heavy handed symbolism, the story becomes a fantasy tale of good versus evil[6].

I loathe that The Monkey King for taking a tale of righteous rebellion and making it a story about how the existing hierarchy is justified. It tempts me to conclude that its some sort of censorship or propaganda at work. That this message for the status quo and swift retribution to those who attempt to upset it is part of that protest-adverse culture of China.

But tha all said, the film does do something with its material. It says something. However rotten its core, it very decidedly has one.

Disney’s Mulan also proves a fascinating example as it took a story originally about filial piety and made about Mulan discovering her own identity. It was not very well recieved in China, back in the day, and many have criticised it for its deviations and for taking a traditional Chinese folktale and twisting it to be about values alien to that original culture.

But I would argue that their interpretation of Mulan isn’t alien to the text. This isn’t just an American artist imposing their own moral upon another’s culture. The story of Mulan struck a note in my child self and resonated deeply, but I don’t think it was because of its stated moral of filial piety. That was not the reason I memorised the poem as a child.

And even the folk poem doesn’t focus solely on the familial ties. It also ends with a sly line of how it is impossible to tell apart a male rabbit from a female one when they running side by side.

This has been a decidedly less focused piece of writing than my others, and I apologise. I think what I want to say, is this:

To recast old stories — and other people’s stories — in our own image is an inescapable part of storytelling.

I will take the gods and demons of my ancestors (or other people’s ancestors) and tell stories that they would find heretical. That is likely inevitable.

But when I do so, I would like to do it with purpose. I don’t want to stumble blind into blasphemy.

So when I’m writing a story, especially one where I am drawing heavily on another culture or another time, I should think about what that culture itself values[7] and what my stories are saying. I should take that step back and ask What does it stand for?

[1] Perhaps in this I am betraying my own belief that there is no such thing as a truly timeless story. For all that a story may still resonate across different cultures, each of its pieces take on new meaning. Shakespeare is different in the Bush.

[2] So much seems to be pointlessly vague. The festival is simply termed the festival and the script but alludes to reincarnation rather than stating it outright. There is at the very edge of having something interesting to say about the idea of reincarnation and meeting people you once knew wearing new faces, but all that remains at the edges. And is itself contradicted by the more overt message of finality and that all stories must end. Which is itself arguably a very Buddhist concept of transience but its framed so generically that it just floats by without meaning.

[3] It’s also worth noting that the voice cast are really very white. The director also inexplicably tries to defend the cast by pointing out that the characters aren’t human and thus don’t require Asian actors. Except, spoilers, they are human. 
Disney’s Mulan managed to cast mostly Asian actors in both main and supporting roles and that was in the 90s. We can probably do a little better.

[4] A term I may or may not have made up. It simply means a story in which the setting and culture acts merely as wallpaper and the characters feel like modern people rather than someone who has been shaped by their culture.

[5] It’s not simply that the idea that industrialisation necessitates the literal killing of the ancient gods of the forest is amazingly cool, it is also that the feels grounded in Japan’s mad dash to modernise.

[6] For more about The Monkey King, please read LoveHKfilm’s review. Their reviewer is rather more charitable than I am about the film’s reinvention of the classic.

[7] This is not to say that cultures are themselves singular and monolithic.