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The original Hagakure contains the teachings of the samurai-turned-priest Jocho Yamamoto (1659-1719), and was for generations preserved as moral and practical instructions for daimyo and samurai of Saga Han, a large domain in northwestern Kyushu.
The Book of Life may be the most beautifully animated film you see this year (it would be an act of cruelty to ask me to choose between it and The Boxtrolls, and they’re different enough to frustrate comparison).
The Book of Life is one of those movies that if you “turn your brain off” and just watch, you’ll still deeply enjoy. Thematically, the story plays with friendship, the rivalry between strength and art, the meaning of heroism, the tension between family legacy and individual ambition, the place of violence and of course the power of Love. What makes The Book of Life great, rather than merely good, is how seamlessly these are woven into a coherent tale.
Manolo Sanchez (Diego Luna) has a musical soul, but is the last in a long line of famous Mexican bull-fighters, and expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. The story opens on the Day of the Dead, when Manolo is remembering his mother and Joaquin his father.
Much of the Day of the Dead iconography is introduced with no explanation for non-Hispanic viewers.
The film’s family dynamics are also quintessentially Hispanic: when Manolo descends to the Land of the Remembered, he’s reunited with his mother, his grandfather and his uncles, cousins and more – the entire Sanchez family. The way The Book of Life engages gender roles also speaks to particularly Hispanic cultural shifts. Though her arc is probably the least compelling, Maria is also the strongest character in the film.
She is a strong leader who also shows a willingness to put the common good ahead of her own desires. Maria is a strong female character in a film that uses her to critique traditional gender roles. Manolo wants to be a musician, but according to his father, that’s not a “pursuit worth of a Sanchez man.” Manolo is torn between the Sanchez legacy and his own desires. To regain his life, Manolo wagers with Xibalba, who reads Manolo’s greatest fear in his eyes: to win, Manolo must defeat every bull the Sanchez family ever killed, all at once. Manolo isn’t afraid to kill bulls; he’s afraid that being fully himself means he’s not a true Sanchez.
Manolo’s apology turns the memory of the violence against the bulls into dust, and his family acclaims him as the greatest Sanchez of all.
The USAmerican experience is substantially different: when we conquered the native peoples, we sequestered them, relegating them to reservations. As a result, Hispanic culture today is much more ambivalent toward violence and the accompanying machismo than white USAmericans tend to be.


Only a bit later, Manolo again expresses himself through song – this time with a Hispanicized Radiohead’s “Creep”.
The story of Manolo, Maria and Joaquin is told to five very white kids on a field trip to a museum (they’re observed to be on the ‘detention bus’).
The Book of Life is an invitation to the rest of America to listen to the Hispanic experience, to learn from its unique heritage and rich traditions, and to grow, to become more whole as we become more diverse. Perhaps we can learn from a culture more honest about the violence that troubles it (rather than cling to a mythic innocence even as our police forces stockpile billions of dollars of military-grade weaponry). BOTTOM LINE: The Book of Life is an excellent story that demonstrates how much the Hispanic world has to contribute to the American experience. Thanks for stopping by!Norville Rogers is a web emporium of content ranging from thoughtful to zany, often both. If you find an error on a personalized item, please contact us as soon as possible so we may correct it for you. Contact us before returning the item so we can provide you with instructions on the best way to return the item. It later became known all over Japan, and during the Second World War Jocho’s precept ‘I found that the Way of the Samurai is death’, became a slogan to spur on Kamikaze pilots.
To watch is to witness deep storytelling that draws on a number of themes, ideas and influences to tell a powerful tale that is at once deeply embedded in Hispanic culture and still universal. It offers the Hispanic experience as an essential aspect of American identity, one full of promise for our way forward. As a rule, I discourage this sort of viewing, but it’s nice to see a film that works at least on this level. Angel, “in the heart of Mexico, which is the center of the world,” as the narrator describes it. La Muerta and Xibalba, who’s tired of ruling over the Land of the Forgotten (where no fiestas are ever had) wagers that Joaquin will win Maria’s heart. What little mythology we’re given at the opening of the film is enough to orient us to the characters and no more.
While the men around her repeatedly talk about her as a possession – they’ll “win” her, they ask her father to marry her, etc., Maria at every turn is her own woman.
When he refuses to finish the bull (a rather clean euphemism for killing it), his father disowns him, declaring, “You’re no Sanchez.” His deceased relatives are similarly incredulous at his unwillingness to participate in their legacy.
The level of influence on the British and French cultures is markedly less than the Triple Alliance (Aztec) and Mayan cultures had on the Central American Spanish colonizers. The Book of Life offers love, self-sacrifice and apology as legitimate alternative to violence.
For all the Hispanic culture, this film is in English (with Spanish peppered liberally throughout).
And still later, he serenades Maria with none other than Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, once again reimagined for a mariachi player. La Muerte and Xibalba (in disguise of course), introduce white American kids to this very Hispanic story such that it becomes their story. Perhaps we can learn that an earnest, heartfelt apology coupled with a demonstration that we will be different will go further than blindly clinging to the imagined glory of our past (a glory that stubbornly ignores the pile of bodies it cost).


It’s a little manic, and gringos like me probably can’t help but feel a bit like outsiders, especially when we watch the Day of the Dead celebrations and poor Manolo in the midst of his extended family. But as our culture becomes more and more Hispanic, stories like this will help us navigate into a healthy future, where every culture is bettered by our encounters with the Others. Subscribe to short emails alerting you to new content (orange banner to the left or at end of each post). Gutierrez (who also co-wrote the screenplay), the film centers around the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
And yet the clearly religious rituals are at once Catholic and Mayan, unapologetically showcasing the syncrinicity that is at the heart of Hispanic Catholicism (the priest who becomes a luchador for the final battle with Chakal was a nice touch as well). She refuses the romantic ploys both men use to win her affections, and she clearly loves them both, but doesn’t toy with them.
He aplogizes for the centuries of violence the Sanchez men have rained down upon them in the name of masculinity, of entertainment, of pride.
These kids who are disillusioned with the culture in which they find themselves find themselves a bit more whole through an act of remembrance. In this, his adaptation and interpretation of it, Yukio Mishima deals with its teachings on action, subjectivity, strength of character, passion and love, and delights in giving prolific examples of Jocho’s practical advice from proper behavior at a drinking party to child rearing. Though it’s a love story, it’s not just a love story, and it avoids many of the tropes even animated comedies often fall into (the way the love triangle among the three main characters resolves is really excellent). Angel being the center of the world, it sits atop the Land of the Remembered, an endless fiesta for the dead who’re remembered by the living. He mourns with the bulls over their senseless deaths and offers up a promise to be better moving forward.
Near the core of Hispanic identity is a paradoxical violence: Hispanic culture is birthed of the legacy of conquistadores bearing swords. In the Hagakure, the most important influence on his life – and his death – Mishima saw striking similarities between his criticisms of materialistic post-war Japan and Jocho’s criticisms of the sumptuous decadence of his contemporaries; and it is this emphasis which gives it its immediacy.
The conflicts are reasonable and relatable (and nearly none of it comes from the film’s only real “villain”).
The Land of the Remembered is ruled over by La Muerta, while her spouse Xibalba is relegated to the Land of the Forgotton.
Much as the Day of the Dead, Hispanic culture is a syncretism of European Spanish culture and values with the native peoples those Spaniards conquered. He ends the cycle of violence that cost his ancestors their lives, imagines a better way forward, and then calls it into existence. We all wonder if violence might be a necessary evil, even as we hope love might be a better way.



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