Go See Kubo & the Two Strings: You Don’t Need to Read Any More Than That

Go See Kubo & the Two Strings: You Don’t Need to Read Any More Than That August 23, 2016


But if you want a little more.

The other day an old friend who is Zen teacher as well as a math professor said that on a scale of one to ten, Kubo and the Two Strings is a twelve. For a math professor to make that kind of comment raises an eyebrow. She added the film is “amazing.” And, she cautioned, “See it in 3D.” With that kind of endorsement, Jan and I felt this had to be our weekend film.

Oh. My.

According to Rotten Tomatoes “Kubo and the Two Strings matches its incredible animation with an absorbing — and bravely melancholy — story that has something to offer audiences of all ages.” Yep.

The Tomatoes website’s plot summary is helpful. The film “is an epic action-adventure set in a fantastical Japan from acclaimed animation studio LAIKA. Clever, kindhearted Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) ekes out a humble living, telling stories to the people of his seaside town including Hosato (George Takei), Akihiro (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and Kameyo (Academy Award nominee Brenda Vaccaro). But his relatively quiet existence is shattered when he accidentally summons a spirit from his past which storms down from the heavens to enforce an age-old vendetta.

“Now on the run, Kubo joins forces with Monkey (Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey), and sets out on a thrilling quest to save his family and solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known. With the help of his shamisen – a magical musical instrument – Kubo must battle gods and monsters, including the vengeful Moon King (Academy Award nominee Ralph Fiennes) and the evil twin Sisters (Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara), to unlock the secret of his legacy, reunite his family, and fulfill his heroic destiny.”

Some reviewers have thought the deeper themes running through the movie were derived from Shinto. And no doubt there are visual elements derived from that tradition and there is a sense in which it does influence the film. There is throughout a Japanese aesthetic that include Shinto, and much more. In fact April Elkjher writing for the Japanese American journal Nichi Bei, calls the film “an animated love letter to Japanese culture.” And that it is. I’ve rarely seen a culture portrayed with such grace and beauty.

This includes some subtle culture confusing moments such as when the deity of the moon follows Japanese custom and is male, presented with no comment or explanation. The movie assumes we can take this ride. And, it is a journey worth taking.

But, as to that spiritual grounding that appears to inform the film I have to go with Armond White at the National Review, of all sources, who calls Kubo a “vaguely Buddhist fairytale…” That’s not meant in any demeaning sense. He goes on to note, “Kubo is a delicate tale addressing today’s sense of moral bereavement.”

The Buddhist journal Lion’s Roar notes there are indeed Buddhist themes in the movie, and it’s conscious. The film’s director, Travis Knight was interviewed by Matt Prigge, film critic for Metro US. There he said, “My mother-in-law and her family are Buddhists.” And he acknowledged Buddhism is a “kind of spirituality… not something you typically see in film.” But here we get it. Not heavy handed. Most people shouldn’t even notice.

Travis noted at the heart of the film is the “idea about losing something that matters to you…” And, how this fundamental facet of our lives has consequences. “You don’t get through life unscathed.” And, so for the movie, it was being “able to explore those ideas through the prism of fantasy and animation (that) really allows parents and children to experience those things together, in a way they can understand.”

He acknowledged how, “Sometimes these ideas are difficult to articulate, but in a film, if done in a poetic way, those things can make sense and you can talk about them.” And, oh my, the film does that.

Elsewhere George Takei, who voices a small but important part in the film, goes right to the themes of death and what it means as presented in the movie. “For young people seeing this movie, we personify it as respect for our ancestors and it becomes a celebration as well, a ritual.” He then points us to the recurring reference in the movie to the Buddhist Obon festival. “In fact, when I was a kid I thought Obon was essentially a dancing festival and later on my parents explained to me that it was how we paid respect to our family history.”

These themes, however are part of a larger story. And I want to underscore it is not what I’d call a “Buddhist film.” We only get one passing image of a Buddhist priest. And, a couple of uncommented upon images of the Buddha. The spiritual touch is light, and yet at the same time pervasive. What it is, is a “spiritual film.” And a very good one. The whole film is about a quest that is only in part coming of age. It speaks to loss and to longing, and most of all, to finding. But in a way that is not fairy tale make it all better. Much more real. Much more, if you will, Buddhist.

At Rotten Tomatoes, the one hundred and twenty-five professionals aggregated a ninety-six percent positive, while ninety-one percent of the slightly more than thirteen thousand viewers who chose to comment liked the movie. I understand despite the rave reviews it hasn’t made the money other animated films from Laika have.

So, do everyone a favor.

Go see it.

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