I have been living in Japan for about three years and I am very much in love with this country’s culture. In my time here, I have tried to pick up various Japanese traditional crafts – one of them includes playing the shamisen, which is a three-stringed guitar-like instrument. I have been practicing the shamisen for nearly as long as I have been writing this column. So when I heard of the latest film by Laika – a stop-motion animation studio that I have lauded much in past articles – about a boy, living in ancient Japan, who uses magic and the music of his own shamisen to move origami, needless to say I got really excited. To put it more casually, I was super hyped for this movie! Probably more hyped about a film than I have been in a while. Being this excited for a film, I was essentially setting myself up for much disappointment. But upon watching it, not only did this movie meet my expectations, it surpassed them. I was expecting a fun action epic, which it was; but what I got was a much deeper story with more emotion and harsher truths than are normally told in a children’s film. This film is Kubo and the Two Strings.
The premise feels like a traditional epic, and in the beginning scenes the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) tells a tale that would later reflect the adventures he would go on. Kubo tells stories in his village to make a living for himself and his ill mother. One night, against her wishes, he stays out past sundown and is attacked by the daughters of the immortal Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo must then go on a quest to gather the sword and armor of his missing father to defeat the Moon King. Along the way he is accompanied by Monkey (Charlize Theron), a snow monkey brought to life with his mother’s magic, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), an amnesiac samurai warrior cursed to take the form of a beetle-like man. The storybook quality of this tale permeates the themes of the plot. Kubo’s stories of his father, the warrior, Hanzo, become very important to his quest. And the parts where a character is explaining their own tale are accompanied by Kubo’s shamisen and his origami magic, just like when he would tell a story to the villagers at the beginning of the film. The main point that they drive home is that what a person does in life, no matter how simple or how grand, is their “story”.
What story, or at least one told via a movie, is without good visuals? I have, in the past, praised the superiority of Laika’s flawless stop-motion animation. The movements, facial expressions, and tone are just as great as ever. But this time, what made Kubo stand out from Laika’s previous works was its environment. It really made you feel like you were in Japan. From the dream sequences, to Kubo’s walk to work, to the path to the graves, the setting was so beautiful and immersive. It got little details just right, such as the shape and color of the Japanese maple leaves, or the style of the torii gate that you would see at a Shinto shrine, or even the sticky quality of the rice that Kubo feeds his mother. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everything felt like it was on a much grander scale. Laika’s previous films take place in a small town, or even mostly in just a single house. Kubo spans various environments – a golden wheat field, a vast ocean, a dark cavern. The initial scene where Kubo exits the cave he lives in to head to the town took me by surprise as it zoomed out of Kubo to show the steep mountain he lives on. I do not even know how the animators managed to do some of this with just models. It seems that Laika never ceases to amaze me.
While the settings make the story look like it is set in Japan, the music, certainly makes the story sound like Japan. Nearly every scene is accompanied by the sound of the shamisen. Naturally, whenever Kubo is using his magic or telling his stories, he, himself is playing it. But sometimes, when other characters are talking, like when Monkey and Beetle are arguing, you can hear Kubo plucking away at his instrument in the background. The more sweeping and epic musical portions have other Japanese musical instruments in addition to the shamisen. The three-stringed instrument manages to pick up and calm down when the scene demands it, and its more percussive quality is used to make sharp or silly sounds to match funnier moments. The movie even has a shamisen version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps!” As a shamisen player myself, I have a personal attachment to this film. Below is part of Kubo’s storytelling scene. Note the use of the shamisen.
Though the animation and the music are nice, expertly done touches to the overall movie, I think the strongest point of Kubo and the Two Strings is its characters and its themes. As I said, I was expecting great animation and music from this film, but I wasn’t expecting how deep and profound it would get. The connections between the characters and how the viewer grows to like them are tightly woven into the development of the plot. The three main characters each have their defining moments and the viewer is able to understand their motives. Even the main villain, the Moon King, is rather well defined despite his relative lack of screen-time. There were points in the story’s arc that were admittedly very predictable. But the way the film “revealed” its major plot points were so epically done that it didn’t feel forced. Not only that, but with the movie’s “story” theme, the predictable moments didn’t feel cliche and instead felt like the plot was fulfilling its story book medium. In this way, the parts that I could see coming didn’t feel like they were a detriment, but were more like flourishes to a heroic journey.
The part that did manage to take me by surprise was at the end. Kubo has at this point become much like the Honzo in his stories – a lone warrior fighting the Moon King for taking his family from him. The movie could have done so many things wrong, or at least, done things not quite right at this point. They could have had our young warrior strike down the enemy in vengeance, or there could have been a “not really dead” scenario that are so common in kid’s movies. What it did was so much greater. As the now retired writer of “Second Breakfast”, Chris Melville, had to say about the film, it “delivers one of the strongest and most useful children’s stories about death I’ve ever encountered“. It is a bittersweet ending, but it is treated with so much compassion and empathy. The film recognizes that all stories, and lives, must end. Yet that is also the beauty in life. It is the fleetingness of Kubo and his family’s lives and the endurance of their love that sets them apart from the film’s antagonists. And it is the memories of those that have departed that allow our heroes to prevail.
It is this final aspect of Kubo and the Two Strings that makes it an important film; especially for kids to watch, who are often fed an unrealistic version of death. This movie helps us come to terms with the concept of death, and I respect it greatly for not holding things back. It is a gorgeous movie, in terms of animation, music, and themes. It may be too soon to tell, since I have just watched it, but Kubo and the Two Strings may be one of my favorite animated films to date.