Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) by Travis Knight
Review by Andrew Swafford
I’ve been riding the LAIKA hype train for a while now, and it seems they’re finally getting their due in the eyes of critics by being placed among the ranks of what now seem to be the big four animation studios of our day: Disney; Ghibli; Pixar; LAIKA.
Gearing up for Kubo and the Two Strings, I rewatched LAIKA studios’ three previous films for context: (1) Coraline, an Alice-style dark fairytale about dream families and dream bodies both alluring and macabre; (2) Paranorman, a cathartic plea for empathy (Zach wrote about this perfectly here) that blends the aesthetic of 80s cult movies with early American puritanical history; and (3) The Boxtrolls, a gross-out/slapstick allegory for scapegoating and Victorian-style class divides that accidentally self-describes as “a hurricane of yuck” (this is a compliment).
And up until the very moment that Kubo swung into high gear, I was prepared to make a very specific argument about how LAIKA distinguishes itself amongst its competition. Said argument would go something like, “Disney films are supremely entertaining, Ghibli films have a distinct old-world soulfulness, Pixar is the king of sentimentality, and LAIKA is unbelievably smart.” It almost works as a Hogwarts-style house system, in which every studio has their own personality type and set of sensibilities that cater to four different types of moviegoers--and the analogy feels almost too obvious after rewatching The Boxtrolls, which is a wickedly smart satire with loads of thematic nuance and technical innovation, but lacks a bit in the heart and humanity departments.
Then Kubo happened, and LAIKA broke me. The directorial debut by LAIKA CEO and lead animator Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings is a fantasy adventure film that shows the studio seemingly absorbing the essences of their predecessors while maintaining the complexity and sophistication that has always made LAIKA what they are--and the result is even more touching than it is cerebral. And all this is to not even comment much on the jaw-dropping tactile craftsmanship that LAIKA brings to the table here, because I hardly have the vocabulary for it.
Kubo and the Two Strings is set in a mythical version of ancient Japan and tells a story that spans three generations, all of which are filtered through the eye (singular) of our titular protagonist. His father was a legendary fallen samurai warrior, and his maternal grandfather is a powerful blind mystic known only as “The Moon King.” Kubo is a storyteller, like his mother, and he retells his father’s battle stories through magical dancing origami figures that he controls via musical puppetry--his instrument being the beautiful shamisen, which is essentially a three-stringed Japanese banjo (the timbre of which is played with throughout Dario Marianelli’s gorgeously organic score). For the first act of the film, Kubo spends much of his time caring for the mother who has passed this storytelling tradition on to him, currently suffering from a gradually fading memory. She feels distant and unresponsive, and therefore the movie opens with a sense of intergenerational loss that isn’t too far off the thematics we discussed about Ozu’s Tokyo Story in Episode 105 of the Cinematary podcast.
Quite suddenly, the film then takes a turn that I’ll avoid spoiling here...but you should know that it is predicated by a Kubrickian scare moment that had me legitimately frozen in my seat, and then the entire story opens itself up to a style of high fantasy that reminded me of works such as Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, the Legend of Zelda series, Song of the Sea, and the poetic video game Journey. After Kubo is dropped into a world that is definitely-not-Kansas and serves as a parallel of sorts for his own, he must go through standard hero’s journey trials and tribulations with the help of fellow adventurers met along the way. All the while, it’s hard to tell exactly where the line between Kubo’s old plane of existence and this new one, if any, is.
If the last two paragraphs read like a particularly odd information dump, I apologize. I’m tempted to just write my Lobster review again here, as one of Kubo’s strengths is the way it builds its bizarrely complex world by simply telling a story within it and explaining zero percent of the tertiary trappings. There’s a weird sense of dream logic that the film operates on, as I was able to suspend my disbelief immediately upon encountering the film’s magical elements--probably because of LAIKA’s otherworldly ability to bring to life imaginary creations like whirlwinds of origami paper and hypnotic undersea eyeballs--but the details are elusively difficult to nail down in writing.
However, the machinations of Kubo’s magical universe don’t ultimately matter all that much for a great reason--the film has heart like no LAIKA film has had before. This is a poignant story about family and grief that really succeeds at utilizing a set of tried and true fairy tale tropes in a way that could easily come off as cliché but never does, due to the emotional realism of the story. Kubo’s relationship with his father and mother feels authentic, and when we see them bicker back and forth, pull proverbial legs, and lovingly command their kid around, the film gets to a very specific and core element of family relationships that really worked on me.
It’s crucial to mention that the narrative is not just Kubo's--it’s the story of his family’s stories, passed down between generations in reverence and sometimes fabricated purposefully to create better futures. It’s a story about storytelling, but it wisely understands that we don’t just tell stories to escape into fantasy or to entertain ourselves; stories are the voices that link generations and allow the presently living to learn from past lives, informing a person's idea of who they can be. I’ve always loved narratives that provide quasi-human connections, in which I can constantly learn from new mentors and be exposed to ideas that change my perception of the world. This is the spirit that Kubo presents as well, as our hero learns the tale of his father from his mother, passing it on to fellow villagers--even giving his grandfather a new story to counteract one that had already caused too much harm. And as a match cut between a sword and Kubo’s shamisen illustrates, they are a much-needed opposing force of creation in a world constantly threatened by forces of destruction. Tellingly, Kubo can't beat the big bad with the sword--he needs to win the baddie over with music.
All this talk of old stories reaching and influencing future generations reminds me of a West African religious idea (shown below) that claims that death is merely the end of life’s first cycle--infinitely more can follow if a person’s essence is passed down to future generations via storytelling and mythologizing.
It also feels tied to Japanese spirituality and ideas (that I admittedly am not an expert on) about ancestor reverence and reincarnation as well--the end of one story is the beginning of a new one, but the voices of the past continue to guide those still living. (It is here that I have to note that I would have LOVED for this film to come from a Japanese director and feature a Japanese voice cast--but director Travis Knight discusses both topics in this excellent interview, explaining that the primary inspiration for the story being the religious convictions of his wife, who is Japanese.) A single shot at the end of Kubo portrays the emotional side of this spirituality beautifully, as the spirits of both parents stand behind their plaintive but empowered son, creating a closing note that feels distinct from any kind of sentimentality attempted in children’s cinema before.
In the spirit of rebirth and new stories, I think it’s fair to say LAIKA may have emerged, unequivocally this time, as our best animation studio. Ghibli has closed its doors, supposedly for good. Pixar has been more-miss-than-hit in the past few years and shows no signs of slowing down on the sequels that have stagnated their sense of creativity. Disney is Disney--providing consistent entertainments but rarely breaking new ground. Those cycles are winding down, while this one is still finding its peak--LAIKA is the reincarnated spirit of Disney’s lost magic, Pixar’s emotional stirrings, and Ghibli’s world-weary soulfulness, and they have plenty of their own sharp scripting and technical innovation to spare. See Kubo at all costs.