Kubo and the Two Strings (USA, 2016)
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.” – Kubo, Kubo and the Two Strings
Both beginnings and endings can be difficult in a film. Charged with different tasks, each has different pitfalls that have to be avoided, different forms of drudgery that are necessarily performed. A beginning of a film is assigned the often unthankful task of exposition, a function that is at its worst something the audience has to bear through before “the real good stuff happens.” Endings are different. After two hours of emotional investment, an audience can be less forgiving of an ending’s faux pas, which at its worst can destroy all the goodwill that the film has sought to built-up.
The opening of Travis Knight’s animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings is a strong one. In the beginning, we see a young woman on a skiff fighting to reach the shores of an island as waves of monstrous heights threaten to engulf her and her son Kubo. We hear the protagonist’s voiceover, cautioning the viewers that if we blink, if our attention falters, it’s the hero’s life that will be at risk. True to the narrator’s words, the lives of the young woman and her child are soon jeopardized when the young woman becomes distracted and turns her back on a swell of sea wave that have once again gathered to vanquish her. With so much at stake, the film seems to ask us, can you dare look away? As spectators, our immersion in the story is no longer just about aesthetic enjoyment and has transformed into something far more urgent and exhilarating, a moral imperative. To give oneself entirely to the story is to save the characters from oblivion.
In the prologue, Kubo and his mother survive, although not without cost. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) emerges unscathed, although he is missing one eye, a product of his grandfather’s doing. Kubo’s mother (Charlize Theron) is scarred after her confrontation with the roiling waves. Kubo’s mother also mourns after the loss of her husband and is often too lost in her heartache to take care of her son. Now a young child, Kubo spends his time visiting a nearby village and telling fantastical stories with his samisen and origami creations, stories that his mother has told him about his warrior father. His stories enthrall the villagers, but Kubo never gives them an ending, partially because his mother has instructed him to always return before nightfall lest his grandfather, the Moon King, find him, but also mostly because he doesn’t know what the endings actually are and is “bad at them,” as he confesses.
Longing after a deceased father whom he knows only through his mother’s stories, Kubo tries to communicate with his father’s spirit. His efforts accidentally invoke the attention of the Sisters (Roony Mara), his mother’s unearthly sisters and they pursue him, wanting to claim the single eye he has left. Summoning all the magic she has left, Kubo’s mother sends him away from the island. When Kubo wakes up, he is alone in a blizzard, with Monkey standing guard over him. Monkey, an apotropaic charm that Kubo’s mother insisted he always carry, was brought to life by Kubo’s mother to protect him on his mission. She tells Kubo that the only way for him to defeat his grandfather is to reclaim every piece of his late father’s armour.
Traveling with Monkey, Kubo sets to collect all three pieces of his father’s armour – his sword, his breastplate, and his samurai helmet. On their way, the two meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a man trapped in a beetle’s form who claims to have served Hanzo, Kubo’s father. Beetle has scant memories of his past, but he pledges his fealty to Kubo and his mission. When one of the Sisters catches up with the trio, Monkey prevails in the battle between her and the Sister, and it is revealed that Kubo’s mother’s spirit was reincarnated as Monkey. Monkey tells Kubo the story of how she and Hanzo fell in love. Initially sent by her father, the Moon King, to kill Hanzo because Hanzo had grown too powerful as a mortal, she fell in love with Hanzo instead, her father became determined to destroy all of them. Later, after Kubo has fallen asleep, Monkey confides to Beetle that she won’t be able to last long as the magic that sustains her is fading. Beetle promises that if that happens, he will take care of Kubo and watch over him.
Guided by a dream Kubo had, Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle arrive at Hanzo’s old fortress to retrieve the last part of Hanzo’s armour, the samurai helmet. However, their arrival there is soon discovered to be a trap. The surviving Sister has arrived to hunt them down. She tells Kubo’s mother that Beetle is actually Hanzo and that they decided the best punishment for him was to condemn him in this form and erase all of his memories. Beetle perishes in the fight, and Monkey soon follows as she sacrifices herself to save Kubo.
When a grief-stricken Kubo returns to the island where he grew up to gather the samurai helmet that was carefully hidden in the village all this time, he is faced with Raiden (Ralph Fiennes), his grandfather and the Moon King. Raiden tries to convince Kubo to give up his eye, his tie to mortality, and join him in the heavens. When Kubo refuses, Raiden transforms into a monstrous beast and tries to kill Kubo. A battered Kubo uses mementoes from his parents – a strand of hair from his mother and a bowstring from his father – to repair his samisen. Aided by his samisen, Kubo harnesses the power of remembrance, especially the memories of loved ones now lost, and the power of storytelling to defeat the Moon King’s cold apathy. The lives of humans may be transient, Kubo proclaims, but their legacy endures through the art of storytelling. The Moon King is turned mortal and becomes an old man with no memory of who he was in the past: the villagers supply him with fabricated memories, claiming he was one of the kindest men they had ever known. The ending is bittersweet, with Kubo expressing to his parents how much he misses them and how happy he was that they could spend time with each other as a family.
It would be an understatement to say that Kubo and the Two Strings, a story whose protagonist’s storytelling abilities is magical in the literal sense, occupies itself with the import of storytelling. Both the plot and the setting of the story encourage – and in fact, practically insist on – interpretations that the film follows the template of the monomyth, otherwise known as the hero’s journey, a narratological concept articulated by Joseph Campbell and most famously exemplified by the Star Wars franchise. For instance, “Belly of the Whale,” one of the stages of the hero’s journey that is described by Campbell as a threshold the hero passes as he embraces the unknown and the supernatural, is actually physically presented in the film as Kubo and Monkey seek refuge in the corpse of a whale after they have left the island and begun the more fantastical part of Kubo’s journey. Chockfull of allusions to the “hero’s journey” template, Kubo and the Two Strings is unabashed in its aspirations to craft a story worthy of being considered as a modern making of a myth.
While such ambitions are commendable – and indeed, if there is one word that can be used to describe the film, the word would probably be commendable – the film often suffers from being too forceful in trying to convey to an audience its message on the power of storytelling and the significance of facing one’s loss and grief. The ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is an especially glaring example of this. Kubo’s speech about the tenacity of stories against the onslaught of indifference and forgetfulness loses its emotional appeal fast when the keyword “story” appears one time too many and the whole scene ends up reading as a poorly-delivered soapbox.
Many reviews have marveled at how visually stunning Kubo and the Two Strings is, but it seems ironic that for a film that revolves around storytelling, the story itself is actually the weakest part. The film, likes its protagonist, seems to have a hard time with endings. While the hurried pace and clumsy dialogue of the denouement certainly do the film little good, the problems of the ending is actually symptomatic of the problems of storytelling present throughout the whole film. For one, the motives of the antagonist of the film, the Moon King, and the mythology surrounding him are so ill-defined in the entire film the big face-off between him and his grandson at the end is robbed of emotional gravitas.
Kubo’s grief over the loss of his parents, one of the most important emotional anchors of the film, also suffers due to problems in characterisation. The interactions between the protective, no-nonsense Monkey and the cheerful, blundering Beetle provides much fodder for comedic relief, but falls somewhat flat at creating believable romantic chemistry between the two characters, who are supposed to be wife and husband. Scenes that are meant to paint a picture of Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle coming together as a family also similarly suffer, as the film seems to have a hard time finding a balance between comedy and pathos, the light-hearted and the heart-wrenching.
Is Kubo and the Two Strings a beautiful film? The answer would be an uncomplicated yes, especially when one considers the level of commitment required to complete a stop motion animation production so grandiose in scale. Whether or not it is a good film is a more difficult question to answer. While the beginning is magnificent, the rest of the film is comparatively lackluster in its storytelling and the ending is one rambunctious mess. And although the actors do a fantastic job (Theron is especially capable with her comedic timing), my enjoyment of Kubo and the Two Strings was qualified by the fact that the film can also be seen as another participant of whitewashing. The film, which is clearly set in Japan and boasts Japanese characters, has Caucasian actors playing all the major roles, while Japanese-American actors like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa are sidelined and play only minor parts in the film. One can argue for the fluidity of identity in a performance, but when larger institutional bias against non-white actors are very much an entrenched reality, it seems even more problematic that even when a film has such clear Asian signifiers, actors of Asian descent still don’t get the chance to shine.