It is worth waiting through the end credits of Laika studio’s latest stop-motion marvel, the samurai and sorcery epic Kubo and the Two Strings, as they artfully express something of the sensibility of the film.
First there is the haunting, Japanese-styled rendition of George Harrison’s I-Ching-influenced While
My Guitar Gently Weeps, performed by Regina Spektor, over visuals influenced by the work of Japanese artist Kiyoshi Saito, who was himself influenced by the French Impressionists.
Second, we see the work that went into animating the giant – five-metre! – skeleton demon puppet, apparently the largest stop-motion puppet in history with its mix of stop-motion, puppetry and computer-generated imagery.
This is a movie that exists, as it were, in the middle of a conversation between East and West and Old and New. Or rather, it is a case of decidedly Western filmmakers – Laika is based in Portland, Oregon, and its chief executive and the director of Kubo, Travis Knight, is the son of Phil Knight, a co-founder of Nike – as they try to imagine as faithfully as possible an Eastern milieu, all the while using cutting-edge technology like 3D printing and rapid prototyping to extend the range of one of the oldest tricks in cinema: stop-motion animation.
It’s not for nothing that the studio, responsible for such creepily creative works as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, is referred to as an artisanal Pixar. It may not yet be at Pixar’s level of storytelling, but its craft is at least as impressive.
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a boy who lives in an isolated cave with his mother, and who earns a living by telling stories in the village square. He brings his stories to life with his magical shamisen – a Japanese lute – and origami. Kubo’s eye was stolen from him by his grandfather, the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), and his samurai father Hanzo was killed by his mother’s sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara), enraged that his mother had left the heavens to marry a human.
Kubo looks after his mother, who was injured when she escaped from her father. She tells him stories of his father, but she is getting more confused. And she has one rule: that Kubo should never be out after dark, for that is when her family can hunt him down.
One day while at the village, Kubo learns of the festival where the villagers communicate with their dead. Kubo, anxious to speak with his father, tries but fails. As he leaves disheartened, he realises, too late, that night has fallen and that his aunts have come for him. He escapes, but the village is destroyed, and he is almost taken, when his mother uses the last of her magic to send him to the Far Lands, to find his father’s armour so that he might defeat his grandfather.
In the Far Lands he is joined by Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), who has a charm that he always carries and that was brought to life by his mother with a mission to protect him. They are led in their quest by a small origami version of Hanzo, who first leads them to Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a warrior who once served Hanzo but who was turned into a beetle-man and has little memory of who he is.
He helps them find the various parts of the armour. Their quest leads them to face giant skeletons, monstrous underwater beasts and other trials, all while being hunted by Kubo’s aunts and grandfather.
The film’s theme is of love and loss and memory. The Moon King seeks an icy perfection, one without the sufferings of mortal life, but blind also to its joys.
Kubo has never known his father, and this loss makes his life a melancholy one. Its spirituality is vaguely Shinto-Buddhist on one hand, with respect for one’s ancestors as key, and vaguely humanist on the other, with its emphasis on memory and story as a way to keep the dead alive. This is another instance of the East-West dialogue that suffuses the film, one that highlights the universality of human experience, while not downplaying cultural uniqueness.
But this also brings out one of the flaws of the film – that in its eclectic blending, it doesn’t have a coherent philosophical core. This flaw is seen most clearly in the film’s peculiar ending, which is not redemptive or retributive. It is a “happy ending” but one that’s unclear and doesn’t quite make sense.
Despite this misstep, Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautiful film, exquisitely crafted and telling a compelling story. It reminds us of the very human magic of the cinema.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).