Kubo and the Two Strings is an animated masterpiece that is visually mesmerizing from beginning to end. The most recent passion project of studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls), Kubo is a stop-motion animation (with computer generated enhancements) that truly dazzles.
In the words of director and CEO Travis Knight, “At its core, Kubo is a stop-motion samurai film.” And then it piles all sorts of layers on top of that. It is an ambitious project to say the least and I admire the studio for taking risks and telling a less conventional tale in such a beautiful format.
However, the plot itself was tricky for me to track. There was the main character (Kubo) who has a family guitar (with more than two strings to start). He has mysterious magical powers and can turn paper into intricate origami when he plays it. He lives on his own on a mountain top with his mentally ill/magically senile mother. Kubo loves the stories his mother tells him when she is able, and is hungry to know about his father. Later he tells his mother’s incomplete stories in town for spare change to make ends meet. The townspeople always beg to hear the end of the story, but frustrated Kubo does not know yet; as he does not know himself.
He only has one eye because his grandfather, the moon king, stole the other one as a baby. One day, when he doesn’t get home before nightfall, his aunts (really freaky ghost aunts, by the way) come down from the heavens to try and capture Kubo and take his other good eye. Kubo’s mom fends off the aunts, dies, and sends Kubo on a quest to track down his long-dead father’s sword, armour, and helmet, in order to defeat the moon king and his crazy aunts. Along his journey is where Kubo breaks the old guitar strings, which are like his connection to his family’s past, and starts making up his own stories. Add in a talking monkey and samurai beetle that help Kubo on his adventures and provide some comic relief in between the action sequences… and you have yourself a stop-motion circus.
The film ends with an epic battle between Kubo and his moon-king grandfather. Kubo uses his guitar with two strings; one made of hair from his mom and the other made with hair from his dad and (spoiler alert) the moon king loses and ends up as a human with no memory of his reign as an evil king. Instead of telling the grandfather the truth of the pain and terror he caused – the villagers rally around him and tell him all of the kind, empathetic and enviable traits he has, as well as all the good deeds he has done. As the moon-king, Kubo’s grandfather saw emotions and compassion as weak and punishable. Somehow Kubo intuitively knew that the connection to family and community, knowing your story and your truth, made you strong.
For all the plot twists and weak hero’s journey archetype the film did have, its message about the power of the stories we tell ourselves and how memories are the most powerful kind of magic, really resonated with me. We control our past and our future by the narratives we apply. How will you live your story? How will you tell it?
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother, who is passionate about helping others and writing.