[NB: Just a brief introductory note on the premise underpinning these ‘reviews’ (a rather too rigid term for the fluid responses we’ve produced, but it will have to suffice for now): Rashomon (1950), for those who've seen it, is an Akira Kurosawa film about a brutal incident that takes place in the woods, the chief narrative innovation of which revolves around the fact that the film takes the form of characters' differing interpretations of events, which communicate at cross purposes with one another, and will often flat-out contradict what the audience has already seen and ‘interpreted’ themselves. Our Rashomon ‘review’ series, inaugurated with these responses to Kubo and the Two Strings (quite an appropriate choice, as it happens, given that Kubo…’s plot revolves around the narrative possibilities of memory, and is steeped in samurai-era Japanese history and folklore), applies the same premise of competing ‘eye-witness accounts’ to the field of reviewing, with hopefully valuable, or at the very least enjoyable results.]
1: Flo's Response
2: Rochelle's Response
I was convinced, throughout the film, that the cockroach was voiced by George Clooney.
I spent every moment of his time on screen trying to see elements of Clooney’s face in the cockroach’s features. I thought about Antz and how they made Weaver look so much like Sylvester Stallone, and Z so much like Woody Allen, and how that marked my expectation for animation to match reality by creating a visual tie between the person providing the voice and the character appearing to speak with that voice. When the credits came up and I saw it was Matthew McConaughey, I briefly felt annoyed with myself in a very nerdy way. Come to think of it, the cockroach looked a lot more like McConaughey than I first realised.
In the row behind me, there was a kid sitting between his parents, asking questions throughout the entire film: who is this, what is that, why is she crying, how did he get there, was that a chicken? It felt like watching the entire thing with the director’s commentary turned on, except it was that small voice inside the director that isn’t grown up, isn’t in charge, and isn’t entirely sure what it is contributing its energy towards. That same voice inside me started the film obsessed with the title: two strings? Why two strings? What do they refer to? The shamisen has three strings, so why two? What is happening? There was no mummy or daddy for me to ask these questions, and George (not Clooney) gets confused when I talk during films, so I sat there stewing, like the impatient child behind me, watching but really waiting for answers.
When the action, the music, and the visual beauty picked up, I got swept into the story, and I suppose that’s the point. When I emerged, I realised I had been watching strings upon strings, a writhing heap of strings.
Another thing I hadn’t realised going into the film (I don’t pay attention to film posters or reviews, clearly) was that the whole thing was rendered mostly in stop-motion animation, which, after so many CGI animated films, wasn’t something I’d expected. It explains my strong reaction to the film’s textures, the minutes I spent marvelling over the slightly translucent appearance of the skin around the monkey’s mouth and eyes, the ropey texture of the character’s hair, which, according to this article is real human hair coated in silicone and held in place with tiny wires.
Kubo’s magic, too, is held together by strings and wires. In fact, so much of the film contains the strings of its title. Playing the shamisen brings to life the sheets of origami paper Kubo carries in his backpack; they fly around his head and take on shapes that allow him to turn the story of his family into puppet-theatre for people in the marketplace to enjoy. Kubo plucks the strings and the paper folds itself into his father the warrior, into the pieces of armour his father must find, and into the Moon King, whom his father must defeat. And then it folds itself into a belligerent chicken, for laughs. Laughs are an important part of storytelling, an old lady tells Kubo; in fact, the whole film can be read as a class in storytelling, and in the value of translating life’s events, especially the big, otherwise inexplicable and cruel ones such as the death of parents and heartless actions of relatives, into stories.
What struck me most was the message of forgiveness at the end. The idea that reincarnation and memories are linked, and that they make forgiveness possible because they imply transformation rather than things being stuck in a single shape forever: death is not the end of all things because things continue to exist and transform through stories, through memories, and they live alongside us. The forgiveness Kubo offers his grandfather is touching because it involves the entire community, who all offer the old man new memories, new parts of his identity to replaces the ones he has lost. He is no longer the Moon King, but he can now continue his existence as Kubo’s grandfather. The strings are ties between people, ties made visible by stories and memories, by the way we related to one another.
The story Kubo tells is the story as told to him by his mother, when she isn’t lost in an amnesiac state of sadness. At the beginning of the story, the very beginning, when Kubo’s mother hits her head against a rock, we don’t yet know the role memories will play in this story, and yet this is the moment she loses control over hers. When she dies, she returns to Kubo briefly in the form of a monkey, and she ties the strand of hair he ripped from her head around his wrist. To protect him, she says. When the Moon King threatens to take his other eye in the final confrontation, Kubo ties the hair to his instrument and uses it as a string. The memory of the mother held by the hair is brought to life on the shamisen, in the same way that the monkey-shaped trinket can hold the mother’s personality and come to life as a companion on Kubo’s quest, to help him survive. Kubo wears his father’s robes in hopes of ‘growing into them’, and before she dies his mother puts a spell on them so that they may fly him away when he needs them to. Much in this universe is designed to help Kubo, to protect and support him, pull him forward or help him land in a safety net, provided he does the hard work. In a way, this is a nice analogy for what we would all hope our parents would do for us: let us walk our own path, but be there when we get into trouble.
Having spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of weeks watching, obsessing over and writing about Coraline, our trip to see Kubo and the Two Strings felt remarkably well-timed. If you’d asked me beforehand what I thought I’d find most exciting about the film, I’d have said something about the craft of its construction (who doesn’t love stop motion puppets of talking monkeys?), or its visual impact. In fact, what struck me most was the gap between the comparative safety of the world of Coraline and the very real (and indeed fulfilled) sense of threat in Kubo. There’s nothing cosy or evasive about Kubo’s take on mortality and loss, which is precisely why the film works so well.
I grew up on a steady intake of Disney films replete with exploding pit ponies and maimed dogs, to say nothing of the shooting of Bambi’s mum, but those stories incorporated death as a tonal counterpoint to the wholesome optimism of the rest of the narrative. Just for the record, if it had been the winsome child protagonists of Escape from the Dark who had been blown up in that mine I wouldn’t have given a toss, but that pony dying absolutely destroyed me. However, I knew that Kubo… was of a different order of magnitude right from the opening sequence, when the audience is introduced to baby Kubo, already one-eyed thanks to his Moon King grandfather’s zealously enforced views about not mixing in with the mortals. In Coraline, the protagonist is threatened with having her eyes replaced with buttons, but it’s a pretty empty threat. Coraline belongs to that tradition of fairytales where the resourceful child defies, battles and defeats the powerful monster. Her lost parents are returned unharmed and completely unaware that they were ever in any danger at all.
Kubo…, on the other hand, doesn’t screw around. Kubo’s mother, Sariatu, is killed not once but twice (once as herself and once as Monkey, Kubo’s guardian), both times at the hands of her own sisters, two psychotic masked assassins whose weapons of choice are what look like silver porpoise harpoons. Kubo’s father, Hanzo, previously presumed dead, has no sooner been revealed in his new identity as Beetle than he too is unceremoniously dispatched by one of the Sisters. The fact the Sisters are after Kubo’s remaining eye is, by this stage in proceedings, rather light relief. By the end Kubo has been orphaned twice over, and has to fight his lunatic grandfather singlehanded, with nary an origami samurai for support. Even Bambi got to keep his dad, for Christ’s sake. Give the kid a break.
I think that it was around about the time of Hanzo getting nailed that I realised that this film is managing to achieve something quite remarkable, namely, a frank and open discussion of death that isn’t likely to scar child audiences for life. Written as a list of tragic casualties, Kubo might be in danger of sounding rather brutal, but the deaths of Kubo’s parents contribute to a much broader awareness and acceptance of mortality within the film. To start with, two pivotal scenes take place within a cemetery, which is not seen as a place of fear or horror but of collective remembrance. The Obon ceremony that opens and closes the main narrative doesn’t represent bereavement as something to be challenged or denied, but rather as a burden than can be lightened by being publically acknowledged and shared. Kubo even challenges the notion that the only fulfilling response to loss is vengeance, breaking another long-cherished narrative axiom.
This would all be extraordinary enough, but the film sites this unexpectedly balanced discussion of death within a visual landscape that itself reflects the inevitability of decay and dissolution. Kubo first encounters Beetle in a snowy version of Shelley’s Ozymandias, where enormous fallen idols litter a barren tundra. It’s left to the audience to imagine the fate of whatever civilization was represented by these ruins, but the later scenes in what was once Hanzo’s ancestral home replicate that destruction on a domestic and far more affecting scale. The film acknowledges not only the merciless swiftness with which loss can occur, but also lets the audience imagine how happy Kubo’s life could have been had that loss been preventable. Magic powers or not, the lad is really put through the wringer.
Ultimately, Kubo… admits that mortality is a universal force that generates both horror and beauty. On one side there’s the skeleton guardian of the Sword Unbreakable, a lurching, slack-jawed horror that reconstitutes itself from a scattered array of bones and griblets in order to attack our heroes. However, on the other, there is the gorgeously ethereal ship composed of fallen autumn leaves, which Kubo creates in order to sail across the Long Lake. Any film that offers children (and adults) such an honest and complex discussion of loss and death, beautifully crafted or otherwise, is a powerful piece of magic.
3: George's Response
I’ve been marking a trend in recent(ish) films with child-protagonists, which show children not just as vacant, happy ciphers, but as thinking, feeling beings . Films like Inside Out and Where the Wild Things Are, spaced apart, might not add up to a clear picture, but there’s a pattern with a particular interest in seeing how children deal with depressed parents and similarly ‘mature’ emotional challenges.
Kubo and the Two Strings fits into this category. It reminded me of someone I once taught whose child had been diagnosed with ADHD and similar ‘disorders’ by the school system. Eventually the parent took the child to a child psychologist, who diagnosed stress caused by a threatening teacher. The child changed schools and the behaviours associated with stress – not some kind of fucked up mental disorder, which frankly, is power’s way of labelling behaviours and points of view they don’t deign to work with – dissipated. (You might actually think of the various mental states in Where the Wild Things Are as nothing more complicated as potential behavioural responses to the stress of relocation.)
The opening sequence to Kubo… set me thinking in terms of how cycles of parenting and patriarchy (the film’s specific power hierarchy traces back to the grandfather, the Moon King) ground behavioural patterns and neuroses in children. The film’s premise and the various brief synopses I read about it, pitch the film as examining how a child becomes a carer to a depressed (single) parent and then sets about having a life of his own. Which, once the film begins and the initial backstory is done with, establishes Kubo firmly in the realm of fantasy.
Kubo is a hardy little tyke, forced from a young age into the role of carer for his depressed mother. He earns money by using his magic, and a broken guitar-like instrument, a samisen, to tell stories with origami paper in the nearby village’s marketplace. He seems indestructible: he’s the servant to the parental drama playing out, in some ways, a godlike device able to triumph over all. His one-eyed vision has absolutely no bearing on the film’s perspective, or his ability to operate in the world – he’s a dead shot with a bow and arrow, despite the lack of depth perception. Frankly, the only reason he has one eye is for plot purposes: it gives his grandfather something to do.
The presentation of the mother’s depression is relatively simplistic (reminiscent of the father in Submarine). She’s an enervated sop prone to trailing off mid-sentence and staring for long stretches at nothing. Yet a key addition to her depressive state is a short-lived manic phase that takes her in the evening, when she continues the story Kubo broke off from telling in the marketplace, earlier the same day.
This moment is perhaps my favourite. The narrative structure is technically wonderful, extending the story we (and the marketplace audience) were disappointed by for its lack of ending. And again the story-within-a-story doesn’t finish (sacrilege!): the mother’s manic phase soon dwindles and the delight we, and Kubo, briefly shared at her animation – an emotional joy for its contrast with her depression; for the sense that she’s finally ‘performing as a mother should toward her child’; and the magical way she tells the story – all end so suddenly, it’s as if we’ve been given a slender vision of the beautiful life Kubo might be living, and then it’s snatched away.
It’s heartbreaking, tender, perfectly pitched. And at the same time, it weaves together the story we thought Kubo has been making up, and his real life. The storyteller becomes the story with all the panache and pathos of a double pluck on your heartstrings. And it’s the way stories are told that really moves: the magical samisen animates paper and leaves and sets them folding and spinning into visual metaphors for the stories he tells. The plucky, samisen-inspired soundtrack underwriting each story is simultaneously minimalistic in its melodies and rhythms and also full of space to draw you in, as an audience member, to create the characters yourself. Of course, that’s a deception – the film itself provides orchestration, depth, colour, visuals – our imaginations are fully saturated in many ways by the animation’s lush stop-motion-meets-CGI – but I couldn’t help feeling it was using a kind of deliberate crudeness, keeping the focus simple, the narratives very much those of a boy with a head full of adventures, so as to allow the emotion to bubble up.
Once the epic quest begins, there’s not much to it at first: Kubo picks up companions, magical or weird, or otherwise, and then plods off for some frivolous ‘find these three items and battle the boss’ quest episodes. And then, and then, the bits you suspected, but weren’t quite sure the film was clever enough to grasp, really do come to the fore: the companions take on increasing emotional significance and the underlying problem of power structures become psychological drivers of Kubo’s own life story.
I found myself thinking in loose (and, yes, sure, crudely informed) psychoanalytic terms for what then plays out. But that’s the film’s strength: it doesn’t let the superficial quest take over from the heart of it, which is an interrogation of the psychology of a grieving child-turned-carer.
And yet, and yet: I didn’t like the ending! Seriously, after all that panache and style and pathos, Kubo’s final conclusion about the nature of storytelling, for all its tugging at the heartstrings, didn’t speak to me. I think that it was too easily earned and too one-sided. That’s it, really: it simplifies the role of stories, which is especially heinous for me given how the stories he tells throughout the film are so wonderfully rich. They are escapist, yet morally they cycle back to the moment; they’re ways of imagining future possibilities, so they’re a critique of the past and present; and yes, in a small way they serve memory, but not solely in terms of the film’s own conclusion – stories are containers for the memories of those we loved – but also that they’re ways to make sense of the emotional trauma caused to us by the world, by the people we loved.
Underlying Kubo…’s main narrative thrust are hints of a deeper, possibly even sadder tale: that of how the grandfather turned into such a right royal bastard. The final good vs evil conclusion, the dissipation of the worm-pop-moon-king in a wave of orange light, reneges on the commitment to psychological depth and grieving I felt the film made early on, and which sustained me throughout.
Yes, OK, you have to end somewhere. But the hasty retreat from the implications of Kubo’s development are too much a conservative, or conforming, swerve for my tastes. The wonder of the storytelling throughout really means so much more than that: storytelling is a vital tool for helping Kubo makes sense of loss, depression and the threats in the adult world. And that’s more than just a container, it’s vitality itself.
 Not that they’re not fun, but it took a few sequels for one of the adopted kids in the Despicable Me franchise to develop some depth. As much as I enjoyed the one-sidedness of the humour of a joyous child who hugs monsters and overcomes adult social boundaries, really, it wears off quickly, whereas the emotional depth of Inside Out, which is the film’s focus, held my attention throughout and still stays with me. And that, even as I acknowledge the faults in the metaphors/patterns used to make sense of theinternal/external worlds.
4: Simon's Response (after Brainard, après Perec)
I remember, a few days before seeing the film, a conversation with friends during which I worried at length that recent children’s films seemed petrified of honestly scaring their audiences, favouring instead the kind of after-school lessons about tolerance and friendship that always ruined Inspector Gadget and Masters of the Universe when I was a kid; and how happy I was that Kubo… pulled no punches in the terror department. (If I had had access to a cushion, I would most likely have hidden behind it.)
I remember a scene on the shore of a vast lake in which leaves tumbled end over end in an increasing breeze past the camera, disappearing at the right hand edge of the frame, the gale blowing them rising in intensity as the scene progressed, then suddenly dissipating, then the camera pulling back to reveal a gorgeous multi-coloured skiff entirely composed of fallen leaves: a vessel of autumn, waiting on the placid waters.
I remember an animated origami chicken that breathed fire and shot out eggs like cannonballs during one of Kubo’s storytelling sessions in the village square, and finding myself a trifle disappointed that the audience wasn’t provided with a full-sized equivalent later in the movie. Something to consider for a sequel?
I remember being mightily impressed by Matthew McConaughey’s pitch-perfect George Clooney impression throughout, and thinking “This is nearly on a par with Tony Curtis’ take on Cary Grant’s impossible mid-Atlantic tones in Some Like It Hot. Nearly, but not quite.”
I remember being surprised at the viciousness of the onscreen violence – the battle between Monkey and the aunts on the autumnal leaf-boat was particularly visceral, for example – and thinking that there’s arguably something inherent in stop-motion animation that lends these actions a physical heft (and a concomitant level of threat) they might be denied if rendered in CGI.
I remember liking the fact that Monkey is somehow simultaneously comforting and mildly frightening, and thinking that a great deal of that is due to Charlize Theron’s vocal authority.
I remember enjoying the pedantic joke about Paper Samurai not being the product of ‘real’ origami (real origami involves folding only, apparently; ‘cheating’ origami involves cutting in addition), and wondering whether this might be a sly nudge in the ribs of stop-motion purists who would otherwise be tempted to critique Kubo… for its (modest) deployment of CGI.
I remember being thrilled at the post-credits sequence, where the animators pull the curtain, so to speak, to one side, and let us witness in time-lapse the filming of the skeleton battle; thrilled because at no point had I assumed the skeleton was to scale in relation to the characters, but had to be the product of some kind of trickery, but here it was, real as daylight, and quite intimidatingly large, even provided with the knowledge that it’s only a puppet.
I remember finding Kubo’s villainous aunts just a smidgen alluring, and wondering the film-makers had planned this, or whether this was just my own personal kink.
I remember thinking that eyes are given an almost fetishistic role to play in the narrative of Kubo… – for example, the Moon King wants to steal Kubo’s remaining (right) eye, having already divested him of his left ; there’s a forest of eyes beneath the ocean which can see into our innermost beings – and what that might mean in the context of a movie who’s protagonist is repeatedly telling us, and our onscreen analogues, not to blink.
I remember the tactile crunch and whisper of snow beneath the characters’ feet as they trudged through the ice-bound ruins of some lost civilisation.
I remember thinking “Jason and the Argonauts” during the battle with the twelve-storey high skeleton with swords puncturing its skull, like a foil-covered baked potato pierced with sausage-wielding cocktail sticks at a Guy Fawkes party in the mid- to late-1980s.
I remember thinking “The witch and the tornado are one.”
I remember exhilaration.
I remember laughter.
I remember terror.
I remember wonder.
I remember, in retrospect, giving some thought to why so many of my favourite films place their own making at the foreground of their narratives – make a narrative of narrative – and thinking it might have something to do with a division in myself: that I want immersion at all costs, on the one hand; but conversely, I am happiest when that immersion does not come at the cost of audience awareness and autonomy, as though I were telling the film-makers, “Trick me, by all means, trick me with all of your strength, but don’t let me for an instant forget it’s a trick!”
I remember crying, just a little, when the lamps lit up.
 I remember thinking, too, that a storyline involving a monstrous family member who wants to mutilate the main character’s eyes seemed an odd choice for a family-friendly animated movie, but then I got distracted by Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle character falling on his back and being unable to get back up, and didn’t give the matter a second thought until now.