Kubo and the Two Strings: Shamisensational


“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. Please be warned. If you fidget, look away, or forget anything I tell you, our hero will truly perish.”

With this haunting caveat, Kubo and the Two Strings unravels a masterful animated adventure which, through simple elegance and enormous sincerity, successfully plucks at the very heartstrings of all audiences.

Kubo starts out dramatically, absolutely immersed with symbolism, and somehow manages to carry this richness throughout the entirety of the film. We are swept into the tale much as baby Kubo and his mother are swept away by enormous waves, banished by the Moon King.

The gravity of the situation is immediately perceptible through the narrator, present-day Kubo, when it is revealed that the child and his mother are escaping their murderous family.

We are shown through skillful stop-motion animation the strife that pervades Kubo and his mother’s simple life hidden away in a cave by the ocean, and are awed by how dutiful of a son he grows up to be, tending to his sick and often-absent mother.

While this theme of devoted filial piety is one of the many beautiful tributes to the story’s East-Asian core, another, and perhaps the most powerful, is the centrality and essentiality of storytelling.

Kubo grows up to be the finest of children, and famous in the small village nearby for his ability to weave a tale out of thin air. He accompanies all of his tales with his mother’s magic shamisen, a Japanese musical instrument, which is capable of moving paper and folding origami as he needs, and he tells the story his mother tells him every night: the adventures of his legendary samurai father Hanzo and his quest to seek an invulnerable suit of armor.

During the festival of the dead, Kubo attempts to make contact with his purportedly dead father. However, while all the other villagers have managed to speak to their dead, Hanzo’s presence is nowhere to be found. Frustrated, Kubo waits patiently until the sun sets.

With the rising of the moon, however, he is immediately visible to his evil grandfather, the Moon King, and his daughters, Kubo’s witch aunts who chase after him and burn down the city in their wake. His mother gives her life to save his and sends him off to a distant land with both her shamisen and his father’s robe to keep him safe.

Suddenly, Kubo finds himself forced to live out the story he told every day for a living as he himself seeks the suit of armor to defend against his grandfather. He is accompanied by a monkey, whom his mother incarnates from a talisman, and a giant beetle, who is supposedly a cursed samurai.

They go through many adventures, all the while growing closer together as a loving albeit strange familial unit. The animation and music that carries them through is spectacular and no less than a story of such significance deserves.

This is unsurprising considering it was directed by Travis Knight, who is known for working on stop-motion films such as the notable ParaNorman and Coraline. Just as in those movies, the underlying message and artistic themes chosen for Kubo are prevalent throughout the entire duration of the movie.

Cinematographically, the movie is a work of art. There was not a moment when I wasn’t in awe of the beautifully inspired backdrops, and the figures of the characters themselves were extremely expressive as well.

The only problem I have with this production is that only white actors were cast to play the main characters. While this may seem like a small issue, especially considering that Kubo is an animated movie, it is in reality perpetuating the phenomenon of taking away roles from people of color, specifically Asian actors.

Asian people have few enough windows of expression in popular media as it is. I could care less that it’s Matthew McConaughey’s first animated movie. To take away so many potential opportunities while at the same time presenting a story founded upon Japanese culture is hypocritical and cruel.

With that being the case, the execution of the story as well as the story itself remains nothing short of remarkable. And perhaps it’s because I don’t see people who look like me with traditions like mine on the big screen and haven’t since Mulan, but I wept. I did.

Kubo and the Two Strings manages to carry a note that is at the same time incredibly heavy and incredibly light, bestowing, much like its signature magical shamisen, a conglomeration of stupefication and childlike wonder upon all those lucky enough to experience it.

And that really is the least of it.