Kubo And The Two Strings
US (2016) Dir. Travis Knight
Stop motion animation has been something of a lost art in the wake of CGI, with only Aardman being the most prominent keeper of the faith. American studio Laika have quietly been making headway with their blend of old fashioned stop motion and modern technology and their latest outing is by far their crowning glory.
Based on Japanese folklore the titular Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a young boy with a missing left eye, taking care of his ill mother Sariatu while earning a crust telling stories with magical origami figures and his shamisen playing. Sariatu insists that Kubo returns home before sundown in case Sariatu’s evil sisters Karasu and Washi (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) try to steal Kubo’s other eye.
During the Bon Festival Kubo accidentally stays out late trying to contact to his late father Hanzo as part of the ritual, and is attacked by his aunts. Sariatu makes the save, using her magic to spirit Kubo to safety, but when he awakes Kubo finds himself in the company of a live version of his woodcraft Monkey (Charlize Theron). Together they go on a quest to find Hanzo’s armour to help defeat the Moon King.
Usually when Americans try to tell a story using the culture from another country there is always the fear of it being heavily diluted and adjusted to make it more palatable to US audiences. Putting aside the concession of this being in the English language, director Travis Knight appears to have a decent grasp on Japanese culture, admitting that this film is also influenced by Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki.
Aesthetically Knight and his team from Laika have done an impressive job in recreating the feudal Japan period for this fantasy tale, from the buildings and background scenery to the outfits and personal accoutrements. This shouldn’t sound like much of a stretch for the artists but the difference is in creating the Japanese aura to match the visuals, and while this isn’t Studio Ghibli (what is?) this is a fair effort.
The title referring to the “two strings” might seem misleading if you take it literally which is only part of its significance. Kubo’s ubiquitous shamisen has three strings on it, and it is made clear from the onset that it has magic abilities, making sheets of paper and origami figures come alive in front his enrapt audience with a pluck of a string. The direct relevance of this is revealed later in the film but not before its metaphorical meaning is teased first.
Memories and duality are key themes of this story, with the main characters having two identities, Sariatu has two sisters, there are two Hanzos in the story – one is a small origami version to prove comic relief – and the dual purpose of Kubo’s shamisen. It is not as schizophrenic as it sounds but it isn’t treated with the same existentialist depth as if this were an anime production; you can actually follow this storyline and not get a headache!
Keeping things simple enough to allow younger audiences to follow, the import of possessing the golden armour is to achieve immortality and a power beyond that of the heavens. The Moon King has selfish motives for this, Kubo is driven by a sense of justice in the wake of his mother’s sacrifice in saving him. The last of Sariatu’s magic went to bringing the wood carved Monkey to life to guide Kubo on his mission, but she has a secret of her own.
Along the way they encounter an anthropomorphic stag beetle (Matthew McConaughey), formerly a samurai with no recollection of his past and he joins the quest, providing muscle and further comic relief in tandem with Little Hanzo. If you pay close attention you may be able to figure out Beetle’s past for yourself, one of the less challenging pieces of the puzzle to fit together.
The screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, from a story by Shannon Tindle, is universal enough to keep all ages invested but does get a little dark in places, especially with the Moon King’s mission to steal Kubo’s remaining eye being a main plot point and the emotional deaths that occur. On a more subtle note, the dialogue is rather lyrical and in keeping with the rhythms of the philosophical bent in classic Japanese verbiage.
If the story doesn’t grab you then the visuals certainly will. Immediately the colour palette stands out through the depth of the primary colours and subtle textures beholden to the Japanese wood block art and ink washed paintings for the backgrounds. A combination of 3D printing and animatronic puppets were used, including a 16-foot tall skeleton monster, while the movements reflect the stop-motion techniques with added fluidity using CGI.
Heavy on action and fantasy whimsy, this film boasts some stunning set pieces, beginning with Sariatu negotiating a stormy sea in a small boat, to the dancing origami scenes and a spectacular battle between Monkey and one of the sisters on a ship made of leaves! The human character designs are a sort of western-Asian composite in traditional Japanese dress, except for the sisters who hide behind sinister Kabuki-style masks.
Another closely observed facet is the music soundtrack from Dario Marianelli, a smooth blend of traditional Japanese music and orchestral score than doesn’t intrude on the scenes or spoil the moment. The shamisen playing is also true to the original style, avoiding the temptation to use anachronistic modern humour by having Kubo bust out some Hendrix-esque soloing.
Remarkably and disappointingly, Kubo And The Two Strings is Laika’s poorest drawing film and lost out to the predictable winner of Zootropolis at the Oscars, yet is a more ambitious work on so many levels. So, put aside any prejudice you may have about the Japanese influence and give this delightfully magical and exciting film a watch.