American Popular Culture Home American Popular Culture Home
American Popular Culture Home About Americana Contact Americana American Popular Culture Archive
Style Food Travel
Emerging Pop Culture
Magazine Home
Visit Press Americana



Directed by Travis Knight and written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, the film Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), by Laika, is a Japanese style adventure story of heroism, magic, and monsters in all the best ways possible. It involves sword fighting, intense battle scenes, and a little bit of comedy to level out the seriousness of the situation. For a children's movie, Kubo and the Two Strings deals with intense issues, like the loss of family members, disability, and coming of age. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is not our average hero, though. Where other heroes would win by force and perseverance, Kubo wins by being a strong orator.

Over the course of the film, Kubo succeeds because of his power of oratory. He even inspires rhetoric in others, such as the townspeople who come to his aid at the end of the film, which happens because Kubo knows how to perform epideictic rhetoric. Kubo is akin to Gorgias, a fifth century Greek orator in Athens. Gorgias reflects on the power of words to inspire greatness or lead to disaster. He spoke with a style that enthralled audiences and inspired others to greatness. Kubo, like Gorgias, uses his words to captivate his audience by performing epideictic tributes to the samurai in the beginning of the film. His stories become an example the townspeople use later in the film to support Kubo. The epideictic style is then placed in contrast with the logic-based theories of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, a dispute that plays out just before the final battle.

The history of rhetoric is complicated, with varying methods of construction which include certain voices and exclude others. Constructing a complete history of the rhetorical practices which led to Kubo and the Two Strings would be too large a task to accomplish here, but one thing that can be done is to examine important orators who either provide context or examples of the type of rhetoric that the film demonstrates. Spacing these individuals out chronologically will provide a structure to understanding what epideictic rhetoric is and how it relates to the film.

Thomas Conley's book Rhetoric in the European Tradition provides a standardized examination of rhetorical theory across centuries of European history. Overall, Conley's book is meant to be a history of rhetoric in Europe until the twentieth century, but specifically important is his discussion of the early Greek orators and Augustine. Rhetoric in Greece can be divided into two categories: the Sophists and those against them. Sophistic rhetoric lacks a coherent agreed upon standard, besides a focus on language over an overall truth. Unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the Sophists did not believe that rhetoric was meant to find a universal reality; for instance, Protagoras believed in individual perception as the only way one interprets the world, and therefore truth cannot be shared. In contrast, we see a focus on universal truth in Plato's The Republic. A rather famous section of the work uses the metaphor of a cave to represent truth. All ideas cultivated inside the cave pale in comparison with the reality illuminated by the sunlight outside. Conley provides readers with a general synopsis of this divide in rhetorical interpretation between the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but his bias seems to reside with the latter group rather than the former, evidenced by the relative length of the sections discussing each orator.

While readers do see some favoritism for Plato and Aristotle, what Conley does do is clarify the divide between Protagoras and Gorgias, the two Sophists he focuses most on. Where Protagoras concentrates on the two sides of arguments, constructing a rigid point and counterpoint-based rhetoric, Gorgias was interested in playing with language. He wished to see how he could excite emotion in his listeners, how he could manipulate their understanding, and connect with them. For this reason, Gorgias is more of an artist or a storyteller, capable of manipulating language for narrative and visual effect, and actively trying to improve his skills. Conley does warn that "Gorgianic persuasion could easily become a cynical exercise in manipulation by one who has mastered the techniques of charming one's listeners," a valid concern for rhetoric which has no moralistic code to follow. Still, Gorgias is a prime example of what good oratory can do.

Gorgias of Leontini was born outside of Sicily before 480 BC, and when he made his way to Athens, he became known for his grand style. Conley atatesthat "Gorgias [seems] to have begun extemporaneous oratory" and that "he also introduced poetic words for ornament and dignity." In other words, Gorgias differed from other Sophists by the ways in which he played with his language and encompassed eloquence into his speeches instead of reserving himself to logic. We can see an example of this style in his Encomium of Helen, in which he argues that Helen of Troy should not be blamed for the war. For instance, he says, "To understand that persuasion, when added to speech, is wont also to impress the soul as it wishes, one must study: first, the words of astronomers who, substituting opinion for opinion, taking away one but creating another, make what is incredible and unclear seem true in the eyes of opinion." Here he is explaining how rhetoric should be studied by using a metaphor with astronomy, a major science of the time. Unlike Protagoras who would clearly lay out his points and then determine the best option, Gorgias adds flair. In fact, in Plato's Gorgias, Socrates asks him, "will you be willing, Gorgias, to continue in this present way of discussion, by alternate question and answer, and differ to some other time that lengthy style of speech which Polus made a beginning." Here Socrates is suggesting that Gorgias tends to pontificate, to give extensive detail and explanation to things that Socrates wants direct answers to. Socrates also makes a comment about Gorgias's students, when he says, "Polus, when Chaerephon has asked in what art Gorgias is skilled, you merely eulogize his art as though it were under some censure, instead of replying what it is." Gorgias's language differs from the logical and systematic style of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. All three of these rhetors favor a "correct" way of constructing arguments, of a truth which can be found through philosophy and constant contemplation. Gorgias does not believe in a universal truth, as he argues in On the Nonexistent and Nature. He says, "things considered in the mind will exist even if they should not be seen by the sight or heard by the hearing, because they are perceived by their own criterion." Since they are searching for a universal truth, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle dispel Georgian rhetoric as too wordy. Gorgias's style lends itself to epideictic rhetoric, specifically the kind described by Aristotle in On Rhetoric.

In On Rhetoric, Aristotle demonstrates his skill at classification and presents a view of public speaking which is mildly sympathetic to rhetoric. While he continues in the tradition of Socrates and Plato of prioritizing philosophy, he does concede that certain situations do exist that call for rhetorical skill. Specifically, Aristotle breaks rhetoric into three types; judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. Epideictic rhetoric is defined as a dialogue which praises or blames a subject. He holds a level of ambivalence for epideictic rhetoric, suggesting that it is one of the few places where orators can lie a little to better praise the subject with beautiful words. Once the purpose of epideictic rhetoric is laid out, Aristotle dives into the aspects of virtue such as "justice, manly courage, self-control, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom." Each of these virtues are topics for the orator to use when praising a subject, while proving that these are missing in an individual persecutes them. Despite his lack of respect for the epideictic in comparison to the other forms, Aristotle spends time explaining the main features of this type of rhetoric. When using this rhetorical style, the speaker must place emphasis on a subject's virtues. Aristotle focuses on elegies and any time a person should be praised, but this definition can expand further to include historical ballads and heroic epics, because in both cases the focus is on the virtuous accomplishments of the subject. Not unlike some of the characteristics of Gorgian rhetoric, by praising virtues, the orator inspires his audience to respect the subject.

In the same period as Protagoras, Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle also lived Isocrates, who influences other rhetors to come. Key to Isocratic rhetoric is eloquence and the teaching of it. According to Conley, "his program of rhetorical study and the ideals it represented would continue to be influential for centuries to come." Conley sums up Isocrates theory: "familiarity with noble themes and models and a sense of appropriateness, of the right word at the right time (kiaros), assist the rhetor not only in the artful composition of discourse but also in right reason and good thinking." In other words, Isocrates believed that proper training in good rhetoric could also be a moralistic compass to proper action. Isocrates is said to have developed the first progymnasmata, a system of educational activities which would build upon each other until the rhetor was skilled in all types of oratory. The progymnasmata was then revised and reworked by other Greek and Roman rhetors, including Aelius Theon, who, according to George A. Kennedy, "alone among the Greek authors of progymnasmata he describes classroom methods consisting of oral reading, listening, memorizing, paraphrasing, elaborating, and contradicting what has been read."

Taking Isocrates's educational scheme and elaborating on it was Cicero a Roman scholar working in a time of turmoil in his society. He was heavily influenced by Isocrates and had a hand in creating, as Conley describes it, "a standard system of education, the enkyklios paodeia, an important part of which was rhetorical training." These systems often focused on memorizing successful speeches, stock themes, topos, and stasis theory. This system would form the basis of Augustine's education in the Middle Ages.

Augustine provides a stable foundation for rhetoric to grow in Christian doctrine. While his own era saw rhetoric as a pagan activity, having learned and taught the practice of oratory in his youth, Augustine naturally integrated some of his lessons into his sermons. His treatise, On Christian Doctrine, on how preachers should go about their work fixates on audience interpretation, considering who is listening, what their knowledge base is, and what their previously held beliefs are. An example of Augustine's focus on audience comes in section twenty-five where he discusses the congregation and how a preacher can reach his flock. Augustine states that "this indeed must be insisted upon, that we may be understood, not only in conversations with one person or with several, but also much more when a sermon is being delivered." This entire section focuses on clear and concise language, respecting the fact that in the situation of a sermon, audience members will not speak up if they are confused, and that they will need repetition of a concept in multiple modes until they show signs of understanding. Consideration of tone, diction, speed, and subject all play into the ideas that Augustine presents.

Many of Augustine's examples come from the Bible itself, a collection of stories which hold contradicting significance depending on the listener. In his time, Augustine would have seen the Bible as complete truth, or a type of epideictic rhetoric in which, for instance, the Apostle Paul's ministry demonstrates praise for God and all those seeking salvation.  There are some who continue to believe the Bible is historical fact, there are others who argue its fictitious elements are signs of its status as myth, but in either case these stories are about people, and they project a strong positive image of God, Jesus, and the apostles. Augustine was therefore examining methods of using epideictic rhetoric to convert pagans into Christians.

Something that comes out of all these orators is the necessity of listening to good rhetoric to learn by. In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias warns that there have been speakers who use their words like witchcraft, to guide others away from justice. Plato and Aristotle obviously dislike Sophistic rhetoric because it has the power to manipulate others without a code to keep it in check. Cicero starts off De Oratore with a debate on whether rhetorical skill is gifted to an individual or learned. Augustine encourages those who have completed their monastic training to listen to good rhetors and learn how to manipulate language correctly. Even the progymnasmata include listening activities as part of education. Near the end of Kubo and the Two Strings, we see the villagers who listen to Kubo speak, demonstrating proper epideictic rhetoric.

So far Western Rhetoric has been the focus of this article, but Kubo's journey is set in medieval Japan. The landscape between Eastern and Western rhetoric during this period is vastly different. For this reason, it is presumptuous to apply Aristolian, Georgian, or any other type of Western rhetorical practice to Eastern stories without consideration.

An example of the pitfall that arises when reading Eastern texts through a Western lens comes in Steven Comb's reading of The Art of War through Greek parsimony. In the article "Sun Tzu and the Art of War: The Rhetoric of Parsimony," he tries to argue that The Art of War is also a rhetorical manual for Asian society. He makes parallels between Sun Tzu's calculated method of interpreting an opponent, constructing a high ground, and attacking only when necissary through metaphoric connections. While Comb presents a solid foundation for the history of Asian rhetorical practice, he quickly demonstrates the opposite of his intention by misinterpreting Taoist, Buddhist, and Asian philosophy in general. Instead of diving deeper into the Taoist philosophy of wu-wei, a theory of natural nonresponsive action, he interprets it as purposely waiting to respond until the Kairos is right. Those well versed in any Eastern Martial Art will argue that wu-wei, a state of empty mind, involves deciding that no action is better than any action at all, not waiting for the correct moment to strike. The issue with Combs's work is that he interprets through a Westernized tradition of viewing conversations as battles which must be won.

Two response articles to Combs's work identify the major issues of his theories. Ringo Ma explains in "Taoist Philosophy and The Art of War: A Response to Combs' Rhetoric of Parsimony," that Combs does not understand the true meaning of wu-wei. To read an Eastern piece of philosophy using Western theories misappropriates the culture and social norms. Also, Jon Croghan and Shaun Treat examine the ways viewing rhetoric as a battle has little to do with Eastern cultural interpretations of communication, which provides another contradiction to Combs's reading. Responses to his work vary from understanding to complete contradiction and reflect why it is important to consider context in these situations.

One way to combat this cultural appropriation or misinterpretation is to look for works that represent theories like the discussed topic. It is often difficult to decide which works in Japanese or Chinese reflect theories of rhetoric, and which reflect theories of art, as many Eastern philosophies see everything as a form of art. Epideictic rhetoric focuses on virtue. Just as Aristotle constructed a list of topos for virtue, Inazō Nitobe discusses the samurai code of Bushido.

Inazō Nitobe wrote and published the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, in which he explains the culture and moral code of the samurai who became feudal lords and vassals in this period of Japanese history. Like the European knights, who needed to develop a code to interact with one another, Japanese samurai had to construct a moral compass for how to interact. Nitobe's list is slightly shorter than Aristotle's — justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, honor, and self-control — but the overlap which arises from these two lists can construct a new one that reflects the virtuous man in Kubo's world. Nitobe's list is important for two reasons: first, because Bushido was a code created for the Samurai, and Kubo's main stories center around the samurai Hanzo. Like the codes constructed in Medieval Europe to regulate knights to courtly behavior, the code of Bushido, in Nitobe's description, was meant to encourage proper action among warriors. Second, Nitobe makes a valiant attempt to translate a moral philosophy from East to West. He is well versed in Western iconography, as well as Western custom, but he is also a native of the Eastern culture and therefore has the clearest understanding of how Bushido continues to be translated in modern society. While this list provides a stable foundation for examining Eastern culture, there is one more thing to consider when evaluating Kubo and the Two Strings.

While Kubo and the Two Strings is set in ancient Japan, the story writers, directors, and production crew are dominantly Caucasian North Americans. Director Travis Knight spent time in Japan, which influenced his drive to make the film and his desire for authenticity in visual style. However, he is not a Japanese storyteller, he is a Westerner who grew up with Western traditions. Also, most of the cast are Americans, as well as many of the production workers from Laika. For instance, early in the film a character calls the coins she has received pennies, but their shape and design look like the modern Japanese yen. This fact is important because it demonstrates the ways in which Western production and market affect cultural accuracy. The company obviously attempted as much as possible to be accurate in the work they presented, but with a mostly American audience, and a strictly Caucasian team, it is understandable that some Western influence can be attributed to the film. 

To merge Eastern influences with Western rhetorical theory, a new list of topos must be constructed identifying similar traits from both styles. Keeping the lists of Aristotle and Nitobe in mind, areas of overlap signal virtues in which both cultures find value and will be most important to Kubo and the world in which he lives. Viewers are therefore looking for someone who embodies justice, courage, self-control, benevolence, and liberality in their actions. For both Aristotle and Nitobe, justice means that a virtuous man obeys the law, acting out only when necessary and not taking what does not belong to him. Courage means maintaining calm in difficult situations and not being afraid of death to the point where it stops a virtuous man from performing his duties. Benevolence means being good natured and kind. Finally, liberality means being generous with material possessions, especially and including money. In the film, scenes exist in which Kubo performs epideictic rhetoric using these forms of virtue, and the townspeople perform an epidictic speech, which is directed at the main villain.

Kubo is a young orator, working to keep his mother (Charlize Theron) and himself fed in a small medieval Japanese village. Despite lacking his left eye, Kubo is a happy child. His main source of income revolves around weaving interesting narratives that captivate his audiences, but he also has the magic to make origami figures come to life with a strum of his Shamisen (a Japanese instrument akin to a banjo). His mother has moments of lucidness in which she shares with her son the stories of his father the mighty Hanzo, but these moments are hindered by long stretches of a trance-like state. His mother's most important piece of advice for Kubo is not to stay out after dark. The one time he disobeys this order, he is faced with the frightening truth about his family: his grandfather and aunts are trying to destroy his individuality and make him like themselves. To do this, he will be relieved of his remaining eye and forced to live with them in an emotionless world of perfection for all eternity. Upon his discovery, with no other way to protect her son, Kubo's mother sends him off to find the three pieces of a magic armor that will guard him from his ancestors. Kubo escapes and starts on a quest. He faces many obstacles on his journey, but having acquired all the pieces he needs, he decides to face off against his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) to win his freedom.

Belittling the mortals and their pitiful existance, the Moon King represents logic and coldness. Viewers root for Kubo to win, but it is not a sword that wins him the fight. Kubo realizes that he is not a warrior, he is not strong enough to fight his grandfather physically. Instead, Kubo picks up his Shamisen and fights with his words. He uses his power of storytelling to bring his grandfather into reality from the ethereal state he was once in. Faced with a man Kubo doesn't know, he is unsure how to respond when his grandfather tells him, "I seem to have forgotten my story." Then the people of the town step forward to offer tales of generosity, kindness, justice, and respect to replace the lost memories. The people of the town immediately accept the Moon King and convince him that he is a generous and honorable man.


The first scene in which epideictic rhetoric is used is when Kubo enters the town to perform. In this situation, he is presenting the story of Hanzo, a mighty samurai who displays many virtues. He is courageous, displayed by the monsters he fights without hesitation; he is just, as he seeks out retribution for the Moon King's crimes against him; and he shows self-control by waiting to raise his sword until he is in danger. Despite having these concepts portrayed to the audience through images to speed up the timing of the film, virtues are presented through Hanzo's actions and the ways in which the audience reacts to them. Kubo has the town's undivided attention from early in the morning until late in the evening. Like Gorgias, who held audiences captivated with his rhetorical skill, Kubo is a strong storyteller. When the scene ends abruptly, and Kubo must leave in a rush, viewers may assume that his stories were made up, but in the next scene his mother speaks of Hanzo as well, calling him Kubo's father. Therefore, Kubo is performing epideictic rhetoric; he is praising a real person who performed great deeds.

This scene equates Kubo with Augustine, as both are well versed in manipulating the emotions of their audience. In Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana, he reflects on a sermon he gave in which all the listeners were moved to tears and immediately repented their ways of bad behavior. While he didn't admit that his rhetorical training was what caused this reaction, he does concede that he had to change tactics to rally his audience's attention. During Kubo's performance, we see the investment of the crowd from adults jumping in to answer questions to cheers as Hanzo defeats enemies. One audience member, who is sprayed with paper confetti after a battle, demonstrates a visual image of sickness. He is so involved in the story that he sees the paper confetti as the "guts" of the beast Hanzo is fighting and shows visible disgust at being covered by it. The confetti are not a realistic representation of blood or gore, so the citizen's reaction comes from a connection to the story. Such a connection must be built by the storyteller. Augustine is clear about this point when he says "moreover, as a listener must be pleased if his attention is to be held, so must he be persuaded if he is to be moved to action." If Kubo was not a strong orator, he would not hold the people's attention, and they would not be moved to participate in the action of the story. Kubo makes a strong connection with his audience and therefore pulls them into his epideictic rhetoric.

Another scene in which rhetoric appears comes during the confrontation between Kubo and the Moon King. In this scene, the rhetoric changes a little. Here the Moon King seeks to praise his own world, his own reality, while belittling the mortal realm and Kubo's parents. He tries a tactic that is reflective of Socrates and Plato. By using logic, his grandfather persuades Kubo to join him. Kubo holds tight to his more Sophistic rhetoric. This exchange occurs between them:

Moon King (MK): As long as you cling to that silly, useless eye, you can't come up to live with me in the heavens. You'll be stuck down here in this hell. Staring with that lonely eye at hate and heartache and suffering and death. Where I want to take you, we have none of those things. It will just be you with your family, where you belong.

Kubo: My family is gone. You killed them.

MK: No. The brought their fates upon themselves. They disgraced me and upset the order of everything.

Like Plato and the cave metaphor, here the Moon King separates the heaven from th mortal realm by suggesting it is lacking. The mortal realm has ugliness, has pain and suffering, but there is a place beyond all these things that is perfect. For Plato, the enlightened philosopher who escapes the cave must come back to save others, despite the ridicule he might face. The Moon King is also trying to recruit Kubo, but he is not doing it to save the boy. He yearns to restore order. He mentions this very point in the last lines of that section.
While the Moon King tries to use logical thinking on Kubo, it fails. Instead, Kubo clings to his epideictic rhetoric, to the sophistic belief that all perception is individual. Kubo's counter to Platonic logic is as follows:

Kubo: That's how your story goes.

MK: Oh Kubo. When you're up there with me you will be beyond stories. You will be immortal. You will be infinate.

Kubo: No. You're wrong. Not infinate. All stories have an end.

Gorgias would suggest we all have our own perception of reality, and therefore truth is subjective. Kubo is saying the same thing, using story as a replacement for truth. For Kubo, each person has a life and that life has a beginning and an end, but we cannot control when that end will arrive. During the time that we are here, we perceive the world around us and create our own story by how we interact with nature. Counter to the Moon King's perceptions of the mortal realm, Kubo feels that his life on Earth is worth sustaining. While this scene is less a demonstration of epideictic rhetoric itself and more a battle between Sophistic and Platonic theory, the Moon King provides a nice contrast to Kubo as an orator.

These scenes are some of the main ways in which rhetoric is represented in Kubo and the Two Strings. What makes the film unique is that the main character is an orator instead of a warrior, and he proves his skills time and again through epideictic stories. His stories teach others how to speak, so that they can help him in the final battle against Platonic logic. Kubo wins his battle by being eloquent like Augustine — and those who inspired the bishop — and dedicated to Sophistic rhetoric like Gorgias.

The goal of this article has been to explore the role rhetoric plays in the film Kubo and the Two Strings. Kubo demonstrates epideictic rhetoric, eloquence, and audience awareness, and his success as an orator teaches the townspeople how to praise the Moon King, a man they have never met but wish to inspire to greatness. The progression of rhetoric has been explored through rhetors that Kubo is similar to — Gorgias, Isocrates, Cicero, and Augustine — as well as those he is a foil to like Socrates and Plato. The definition of virtue has been accessed in both the Eastern and Western tradition, as the film contains Eastern elements despite being produced by a Western film company. To avoid cultural appropriation or misunderstanding, a list of virtues was constructed between Aristotle and Nitobe, a melding of Western and Eastern value into a common thread of justice, self-control, liberality, and genteelness. Scenes from the film were then selected based on their relevance to rhetoric and as they demonstrated epideictic rhetoric, or an opposition to it. Through this lens, Kubo's place as a sophistic rhetor was established.
Kubo demonstrates a command of epideictic rhetoric through his use of eloquence. He commits to the sophistic view of the world which maintains that truth can only be obtained through perception. By demonstrating good rhetoric, he teaches the villagers how to help him at the resolution of the film. This is rhetorical theory playing out on a modern stage, amid popular culture. The script demonstrates to others the power of words and favors rhetorical technique over physical strength. Kubo is not only a teacher of the townspeople, but he is also a rhetorical guide for modern viewers if guided properly with a clear understanding of theory. Gorgias, Cicero, and Augustine would all prescribe that someone who wishes to learn rhetoric should listen to good rhetoricians, so they can learn. It is therefore important that we recognize the value of teaching with newfound tools, such as the film Kubo and the Two Strings, which allows for connection with the text while using historical theories and training to elevate the work.

From guest contributor Brielle R. Campos

February 2019



[back to top]


Home | About Us | Contact | Archive

© 2019 Americana: An Institute for American Studies and Creative Writing

Website Created by Cave Painting