Fairy tales originate from the need to explain a violent, dangerous, and fundamentally irrational world to children who’ve yet to experience it. Like religion, they transmit social taboos and ethical codes, only in the guise of entertainment. As early as Plato, social thinkers understood the power of these tales to instill ideology. The philosopher required that the guardians (philosopher-warriors) of his imaginary republic be taught useful lies about Greek heroes and gods as part of their education, lies that cast them as fierce role models worthy of emulation by the authoritarian guardians. While Plato had in mind a proto-fascist utopia based on the military dictatorship of Sparta, the makers of Kubo and the Two Strings have conceived a similarly violent world in order to impart to young viewers a gentler ideology, in line with our society’s benign multiculturalism, about coping with grief and loss.
The film follows an artistically gifted orphan, Kubo (Art Parkinson), on a quest for of a magical suit of armor that will help him defeat his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who killed Kubo’s father and forced his mother to take him into hiding with her. At the beginning of the film, Kubo’s mother is slowly losing her memory along with her magical powers, the last of which she expends to save Kubo from the clutches of her evil sisters (all voiced by Rooney Mara), the Moon King’s henchwomen. As Kubo comes to terms with the loss of his parents and the emotional trauma of familial conflict over the course of his journey, he introduces the children in the audience to issues that they, too, may one day have to face: the deterioration of their parents’ physical and psychological health, the deaths of their loved ones, and the dissolution of their families.
An American production, this stop-motion animated film is set in a fantastical vision of medieval Japan, forming part of a rich history of combining occidental and Japanese literary and theatrical traditions in order to look at both cultures anew. As when Akira Kurosawa set Shakespeare’s plays in medieval and modern Japan and American filmmakers remade Japanese films as westerns, Kubo and the Two Strings employs a Japanese setting to show American (and other foreign) audiences a different way of conceptualizing death, mourning, and memory. In presenting a metaphysical conception of the afterlife inspired by Shinto and Buddhist traditions, the film offers a powerful metaphor for the manner in which we carry the memories of our departed inside ourselves, one that both complements and provides a compelling alternative to Judeo-Christian beliefs on the subject.
Rather than simply appropriating Japanese customs and visual traditions, the film uses its foreign setting to show how creatively and intellectually productive such cross-cultural communication can be for both sides. For example, though they wear Noh masks that are appropriate to the story’s folk motifs, Kubo’s evil aunts are nevertheless closer to the Furies of pagan Greek tradition. Unlike that of many similar Disney films, Kubo and the Two Strings’s cross-cultural exchange does the native traditions justice while lucidly explicating them to an occidental audience.
On a formal level, the combination of old-fashioned stop-motion animation and cutting-edge CGI endow the film with a lush materiality, at once fluid and deeply corporeal. Complementing the film’s symbolic promotion of maintaining traditional practices in the modern world, this mixture of old and new technology mirrors Kubo’s magical use of origami puppet theater to bring his own past to life. Presenting his puppetry as a kind of proto-cinema, the film uses state-of-the-art animation techniques to celebrate the low-tech traditions that paved the way for modern cinema.
From the interior of a frozen whale carcass to a haunted fortress and a riverside graveyard illuminated by the souls of the dead, the story’s diverse backdrops are rendered with meticulous care, providing lushly detailed settings for the film’s many inventive fight sequences. These scenes, featuring ingeniously designed gods and monsters, bring to mind the films of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, as well as the myths and folk stories that inspired his work. Like the divine musicians in many of those myths, whose music tamed wild beasts and overpowered their enemies, the true source of Kubo’s power is his shamisen, the most electrifying musical armament this side of the flamethrowing guitar from Mad Max: Fury Road. Kubo’s music is his greatest weapon in his fight against the powers that tore his family apart, an apt metaphor for the film’s underlying message about art’s ability to provide personal healing while treating larger social wounds.