While I firmly believe that ParaNorman is still Laika’s strongest film to-date, Kubo and the Two Strings is yet another solid masterpiece from the incredible studio.
Without getting into too many spoilers, the story follows a young boy named Kubo, the child of a Moon princess and a human samurai warrior. The Moon King and his other daughters scorned this union, and in their anger, they attacked the family, killed Kubo’s father, Hanzo, and stole one of Kubo’s eyes. Kubo’s mother Sariatu, managed to survive and fled with him to safety, but she suffered a head injury that rendered her occasionally weak and forgetful, most often during the day.
Years later, Kubo and his mother live in a cave on a seaside cliff outside of a small village. He uses her shamisen and his own inherited magic to manipulate paper, telling the stories his mother told him to the local village with fluidly-changing, seemingly-alive origami. He takes care of his mother, and does his best to heed her warning not to stay out after sundown, as that is when his grandfather can find him, but when the time comes for a local festival honoring dead relatives (Obon), Kubo lingers a little too long in the graveyard and is promptly discovered by his aunts. Sariatu sacrifices herself so that Kubo can escape, and she tells him that his only hope of defeating his grandfather is reassembling the three scattered pieces of his father’s armor.
Many times throughout the movie, I found myself thinking back to The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, also known as The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Afterwards, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was not the only one.
While I wasn’t thinking about “spiritual sequels,” I did think that Kubo and the Two Strings must have drawn some inspiration from the classic fairytale. In both stories, the people of the moon don’t seem to understand or appreciate all of the complex emotions of those who live on Earth. They see mortal life as an endless parade of pain, suffering, death, and filth, and honestly think that it would be kinder to “liberate” people, or erase all of their memories and take them away from it all.
But whereas The Tale of Princess Kaguya had themes of inevitability and tragedy, leaving her with no choice but to return to the moon, I can’t help but think of this story as a slight refute to traditional Buddhism. Or, similarly, and perhaps more relevant to western audiences, the philosophy in Christianity of trying to distance oneself from the very things that make us human, in order to be more “Christ-like.” Kubo doesn’t get too much into the nitty gritty, but it does point out that mortal life can offer us beauty, joy, and deep connection with one another.
Kubo and the Two Strings has lots of adventure, humor, and fun, but it is also about perspective, family, maturity, grief, acceptance, and forgiveness. It achieves all of this in such a wonderfully timeless way, too; there are no pop-culture jokes and nothing is just easily spoon-fed to the audience, but the story still manages to be approachable and sympathetic. It’s reminiscent of Spirited Away because of its “foreign intrigue” and appeal, but also because of its likeable, complex characters, and when you boil the plot down to its bare bones,
it’s a very familiar coming-of-age journey for a young hero. What kid couldn’t get behind that?
I also adore that, without name-dropping much of anything, the movie references so much of actual, real-world Japanese culture. As a Japanophile myself, I appreciate that immensely. In fact, I’m struggling to keep from geeking out about it right now.
As I’ve said, ParaNorman had a stronger, less obvious message to impart, and Coraline will always be my personal favorite, but Kubo and the Two Strings is definitely a close contender in my book. It was enthralling from beginning to end, in a setting and situation that is so close to my heart that it hurts. Watching the scene where a child cares for his rapidly mentally deteriorating mother, all without a word of dialogue, was heartbreaking, but it is something that many people in the world have gone through, perhaps even young viewers, and it could inspire them to wonder, and reflect on what love really means to them. It could help them see that they are not alone, and that by itself is worth the price of admission.
Overall, despite only having four feature films to its name, Laika is proving to be an exceptionally talented animation studio, perhaps even on par with Pixar. It clearly has the power to make an impact; to ensure that its movies will be well-loved and remembered. Even Boxtrolls, which was bizarre and downright mean-spirited at times, as its charm and universality.
The stop-motion characters are unique in design and not too polished and pretty like they tend to be in traditional animation. The stories are creative and moving and definitely warrant the time it takes to bring them to the big screen. I’m stunned near to tears at the sheer amount of effort put into every frame, and eagerly look forward to the day when I can show films like these to my own kids.
They can have their visual junk food too, for sure, but if they’re anything like me, they’ll enjoy not being talked down to, and instead being talked up, every once in a while.
*Pictures and other media used in this review do not belong to me. The majority of them belong to either Laika and Studio Ghibli.