This summary contains spoilers – character and story details for Kubo and the Two Strings – if you must blink, do it now.
The new stop-motion fantasy film from Laika travels through a ancient Japan inspired by mythology such as The Bomboo cutter and mythology surrounding the moon diety Tsukuyomi.
It also calls out to various strange creatures called “yokai”.
But what are these things?
They’re not just a ghost or a spirit, according to the Nintendo game and anime Yokai Watch.
They are their own class of fairytale characters. And fairytales are often cautionary tales.
Even if the creators at Laika did not explicitly consult these specific spirits from Japan’s folklore and yokai history in depth, the cultural symbols, creatures, and ideas are still invoke and resemble yokai.
Kubo and the Two Strings brings to life some of these obscure monsters. Sometimes the resemblance is comic, and even a bit hazy. The movie narrative still has elements that are in harmony with the folklore and folk knowledge that surrounds these yokai. The cautionary aspect of some of these creatures remains.
Here are some that I spotted:
When telling an enthralling tale about Hanzo and the Moon King to his friends and neighbours, Kubo folds a giant spider from paper. This is a Tsuchigumo.
The Tsuchigumo appear early on, when Kubo begins telling a tale of Hanzo and the Moon King. His tiny, paper hero dispatches an enormous paper spider. While the legend of the Tsuchigumo (which translates as “ground-spider”) is from centuries before Kubo was born, They’re a fearsome opponent for him to pit against his hero hanzo.
Kubo’s elderly friend Kameyo demands a “fire breathing chicken” appear in the paper samurai story. Kubo obliges with a yellow, red-confetti spewing monster, which resembles the Basan.
A fire breathing chicken is a Basan. Kameyo asked for it because it sounded funny to her. The folklore behind the bird is a bit comedic – its fire does not burn anything, and produces no heat. That’s just like the ineffectual paper confetti Kubo crafted for Kameyo.
A Bakekujira is a ghost whale, that resembles a skeleton, and is said to bring bad luck and misfortune to anyone who sees it. Kubo and Monkey sought refuge from a snowstorm inside a frozen, dead whale.
The whale itself was frozen, and long since dead, however there was something eerie about the ocean giant frozen and lying in the ice. After staying inside it for shelter, misfortune did find Kubo as the story progressed. Arguably, this had nothing to do with the whale from earlier in the film, but the connection can’t be ignored completely. However, this may be just a case of folklore correlation, and not causation.
Mischievous, supernatural sparrow yokai do exist – the Yosuzume. Kubo encounters a sparrow, and creates his own flock of the tiny birds with blue paper of various shades
Kubo is tired and frustrated after meeting his bossy, monkey companion. Naturally, he feels like letting out some of the frustration. That’s when he sees a sparrow, and inspiration strikes. Kubo himself is the bringer of misfortune here. He sends one of his birds after monkey, who does not appreciate the ninja-like stab from behind. The folklore surrounding the Yosuzume in particular is associated with bad luck – it’s recommended not to let these birds fly up a shirt sleeve, anywhere near your body.
The giant skeleton – the O-Dokuro or Gashadokuro – has been covered expertly on tumblr by GloriousPancakes
The giant skeleton has several folktales surrounding it. The film even references the famous print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi “Mitsukuni defying the giant skeleton spectre”.
As depicted in the film, the Gashadokuro is capable of disassembling itself to fit into small spaces.
At an emotional high-point in the film, Kubo’s Shamisen breaks, losing its strings. A broken Shamisen left in disrepair can shift into a yokai classed as Tsukumo-gami.
A Tsukumo-gami (translates to “haunted relics”) are sufficiently aged antiques that gain a life of their own if they are loved, and then left behind. Usually, and completely understandably, they are remorseful, but in the case of the Shamisen-choro the instrument was so well loved in life, a shade of the master musician’s spirit remains with the instrument. Thankfully, Kubo finds a novel (and powerful) solution to repair his shamisen. No guitars were harmed, or left to gently weep, in the making of this film.
Those where my thoughts, but did you spot any yokai hiding in the film? Let me know in the comments.
- http://yokai.com/ (2016) Matthew Meyer.
- Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide (2012) Hiroko Yoda, Matt Alt, Tatsuya Morino.