When it comes to Japan, I can sometimes feel, I don’t really know how to describe it… protective? defensive? I realize that everyone who has spent time living abroad or studying a place, its culture, its history, and so on, might also feel something like this about the way in which others choose to depict a place that they have developed their own understanding, their own interpretation of. I have studied Japan for a long time. I lived there. I realize that my relationship to Japan, its cultures, histories, and peoples, is not the same as the experiences of others. It is not superior to their relationship to Japan either. Or lesser than. But I have to admit something: I think that years of study exposed me to too many fetishized and exoticized depictions of things Japanese, and now I cannot help but look for this in each and every portrait of Japan by a non-Japanese. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it makes it hard for me to sit through some films (and lectures, books, articles, conversations, songs, plays, and so on…)
I watched Kubo and the Two Strings with my son, and I tried really hard to not to pay too much attention to how much the story was built around tokens of Japanese culture. And by tokens, I mean items, things that have been designated as representative of Japanese culture. Tokens that have been repackaged and repurposed and commodified and exported by Japan. Kubo felt like a film that was built around such tokens with the samurai warrior at its core and elements of things Japanese sprinkled throughout. Animism (from Shinto religion) gives life to a monkey doll and to a beetle. Cultural arts, like origami and shamisen, are talismans that protect against harm. Kubo, like a daruma, has one eye and a mission to fulfill. Kubo’s journey was fun, but it felt like a story built around an exotic fallacy; the myth of Japan. Was this an ad for Cool Japan? I couldn’t get past it. And I can’t help but think that if the plot had been better, the story stronger, maybe I could have. The fact that I couldn’t makes me think that I just might be right.