Review on the "Kubo and the Two Strings" by Travis Knight

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“If you must blink, do it now.” The screen is dark, and the narration is ominous. Then a deep, threatening low brass instrument bursts, striking the audience into attention. It sets the tone for a low-spirited film with fantastical elements, foreshadowing the climax to come. Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings is a story about family and loss, quickly becoming established as one of the greatest technical masterworks in the animation industry. The story takes place in feudal Japan, where Kubo, our one-eyed protagonist, humbly lives with his mother in a secluded cave. She suffers a mysterious case of dementia that leaves her in a catatonic state as long as the sun is up, but she has consciousness for a few hours during night. During the day, Kubo charms the village with his shamisen, enchanting colorful paper into characters and places in his stories. After accidently unleashing a vengeful spirit from his past, he must go on a journey to unleash his legacy. Kubo and the Two Strings represents the fantasy film genre with its sweeping quest narrative, enchanting soundtrack, and magical characters that throw the audience into a hole of pain and struggle, with only a small glimmer of hope. The soundtrack certainly measures up to the visual’s expectations; it prodigiously represents a beautiful fantasy adventure in another world. Its elements of classic brassy outbursts, swift wind instruments, with subtle japanese tones define this clever story about a boy learning to cope with loss and fear. A shamisen, Kubo’s magical instrument, is joined by western strings and arrays of percussion in “Story Time”, when we see him performing for the village for the first time. This number in conjunction with the animation drips with fantasy and adventure, exciting the viewers, and for a moment distracting them from the sobering opening sequence. The opening sequence is melodramatic, threatening, deep toned and mystical. It would remind the audience of a climatic fight scene to end a story, but it is only the end to Kubo’s beginning. At the climax of the film, we are reminded of the opening sequence, the music similar in tone. It gives the viewer a sense of anxiety, anticipating Kubo to perish, which has already been forewarned.

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“Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear… no matter how unusual it may seem.” This gritty introduction to the film would remind even casual moviegoers of the film Coraline, produced by Laika. Laika Animation Studios is not a household name, but you may know some of their stop-motion feature films, like the previously mentioned Coraline, or other films like ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. They were also contracted for the film Corpse Bride. They’re known for their gothic stop-motion fantasy films that are romantic imitations of reality with magic or other supernatural elements at play. The scene where Kubo finds the chestplate to his armor especially reminds me of the fantastical absurdity of Laika. As he retrieved the armor, and it shrinks onto his body, we finally have a sense of relief. But then a mild glow starts to grow behind him. It swells, swells, and swells, until it morphs into a behemoth, yellow eye. Swiftly, we are met with Kubo’s panic, the glow reflecting against his wide eyes, as several other eyes start to surround him. This fanciful moment reminds me specifically of the beautiful incongruity of Coraline, when the Other Mother begins to deform into something grotesque and inhumane, rapidly derailing the scene into madness.

Kubo and the Two Strings is seen as a pastiche of quest fantasies, but what really sets the film apart from others is its setting. It takes place in feudal Japan, which is an interesting choice for a western animation studio. But any cinephile, especially fans of animation, will know that works by Hayao Miyazaki more than prove that Japan’s rich history is always an upside in entertainment. The costumes, though reflective of the time period, reflect the characters as well. The Sisters are modelled on ninja and samurai warriors from 1185 to 1794. They are rugged and masculine which gives them an adept, serious feel. They also adorn theatre masks from the 14th century, meant to give the audience a sense of mystery and detachment. Raiden is entirely fantastical, spiritual and astral. His outfit is slightly futuristic, the patterns in his costume and train portending his transformation into the Moon Beast. If you observe other Laika films, you can see most of the wardrobe is realistic and asymmetric, unlike the wardrobe in Kubo. The costume design in this movie has much more fluidity and flow, with much more creative freedom. The textures were rugged to silky, thick to thin, haphazard to neat, subtly submerging the audience in Kubo’s reality.

The purpose and personality of the characters most clearly establish this film as a fantasy film. After the devastating passing of his mother, Kubo’s quest is to find pieces of magical armor in order to defend his home from the evil Moon King. On his journey, he is accompanied by Monkey, his guardian, and Beetle, a samurai. These characters are magical in their own right; Monkey, who was essentially a backpack charm, was brought to life and Beetle, a bona fide samurai cursed with amnesia and turned into a bug/human hybrid. Monkey is a realist, trying to keep Kubo safe with fear, but also push him to his best potential. She is like his mentor, him her apprentice, something common to the fantasy genre. Beetle is a comical, charming character who gives levity to difficult scenes. Characters in the fantasy genre, especially the main character, are usually defined by their backstory and fears. Kubo is a classic fantasy film protagonist. Humble, adventurous, and witty. His backstory is tragic, and beside his strenuous quest, his fears hold him back. He also has mysterious powers specific to him, descending from a powerful lineage he doesn’t know about.

Finally, this movie is an almost perfect example of a fantasy movie, and applies to the stereotypical subgenres as well. It has large themes in family and friendship, like when Kubo must come to terms with his loneliness and befriend Monkey and Beetle. When they die, and Kubo fights the Moon King, the Moon King loses, and is struck with amnesia. The community that Kubo felt previously excluded from accepted the confused old man with open arms, helping him start his life anew. It is also an adventure, extremely apparent in it’s heroic quest. The scene where the characters walk through graffiti depicting a quest eerily similar to their own is extremely common in adventure stories, like in The Neverending Story. Kubo and the Two Strings stays within its genre extremely well, even if it’s not well known for it. The soundtrack is mystical and intense, and the narrative accompanies it to fulfillment. The adventurous story quest and themes of family are both apparent in the genre and this film. The characters are diverse, but at their core, reflective of other characters in the same genre. The setting is historical, but arcane in its history and placement in time. Like other fantasy films and shows, the setting is familiar, but the magic or other supernatural elements make it hard to place in our own reality. Kubo and the Two Strings is a heroic fantasy film that immerses showgoers into its world with a combination of ethereal animation and effulgent world-building.

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