21st Century Brontë #25 by Brontë Bettencourt
Last Saturday, I went to see Kubo and the Two Strings.
The movie begins on a small boat at night, during a storm in the middle of an ocean. A lone, distraught woman is about to be swallowed by a massive tidal wave when she parts the water, by striking a single note from a shamisen. Just witnessing a single individual overcome the vast, tumultuous nature of the sea set the grand scale that this film was operating on.
Set in ancient Japan, the film follows Kubo, a young boy with the ability to manipulate paper by playing music from a shamisen. By day, he entertains the nearby village by animating origami to tell stories. At night, Kubo must remain indoors or else The Moon King will find him and steal his remaining eye.
We wouldn’t have an awesome story if Kubo did not break this rule. With the help of Monkey and Beetle (a monkey, and an ex-warrior with a beetle-like exterior, respectively), Kubo must uncover his father’s magic-imbued armor if he hopes to defeat The Moon King.
What I loved most about this movie was how both the mature tones and wondrous moments did not obscure one another. There is a scene where Kubo and his companions must cross the Long Lake in order to obtain the next piece of his father’s armor. Kubo has run out of paper, and Monkey and Beetle don’t pay him any mind as they argue between themselves. The camera focuses on the argument as fallen tree leaves begin to drift past them, increasing in quantity with every line. The music gradually swells as the duo finally turn to see that Kubo built an entire ship from autumn leaves.
The amount of creativity and grandeur from Kubo’s imagination left me giddy in the theater. Magic and uniqueness are simply accepted by the world’s inhabitance. When Kubo enters the village in order to tell stories with music and origami, I automatically prepared for the second-hand embarrassment that accompanies this cliché. Would the standard schoolyard bullies make an appearance? Would the townspeople pick on him for his magic, or his missing eye? Would Kubo have to prove his worth to those who misunderstand his otherness?
But all of the villagers knew and accepted Kubo. They were invested in his stories, begging Kubo to finish the story he had been telling for hours. I feel like this acceptance allowed me to watch the feats and twists without the anxiety of Kubo failing at his task. With all of the characters on the same page, I could follow along without injecting reason into the magic, allowing me to engage in childlike awe.
But Kubo and the Two Strings is more than just an adventure story. A direct contrast to the magic were the Sisters, villainesses who search for Kubo on the Moon King’s behalf. The Sisters also use magic but without the colors and sound that accompany Kubo’s gift. They hover in silence, utilizing noxious smoke and blades. The Sisters destroy the village during its festival, an abrupt reminder that this is not an escapist’s children’s movie.
The Sisters also wore masks, preventing the audience from relating to them. Besides the shift in their voices, their stilted movements and masks distinguished them from mortals. Clearly their masks are not used to hide their identities, since we’re told who they are in the first scene they appear in. Instead the masks convey a coldness and distance, the distinction between them as immortals and the humans they look down on.
Early on in the movie the audience learns that Kubo’s mother used to be like The Sisters. She forsakes that part of her family in order to keep Kubo safe. We never see her wear a mask, allowing us to connect with her through her expressions and warmth. Although magic is abundant in this world, the characters are still susceptible to death.
After Kubo is assaulted by The Sisters in the dead of night (and if you do not want spoilers, please skip this paragraph), his mother sacrifices herself in order for him to escape. The audience learns that she is Monkey, her magic enabling her to possess Kubo’s monkey charm. Although the mother’s magic prolonged her death, she eventually passes away. She is not brought back at the end of the movie. Her resurrection would’ve cheapened the movie and its message of accepting death as not the end, but the beginning of another story.
I didn’t have any words when the credits rolled. My friends gushed about how amazing the movie was, but I couldn’t capture what I witnessed into meaningful words. I felt like my words would have cheapened the experience . The longer I remained quiet, the longer I stayed with the story. I didn’t bring the story up until a few minutes after Alex and I started driving.
Alex also remained silent, too enraptured with emotion to put his thoughts into words.
One of the first lines of Kubo and the Two Strings is to “pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem.” Despite how unusual this story was at times, my friends and I were captivated. The film could present the shocking depth of a monkey and a beetle-man because we were invested in these characters. If a story is told to the truest of the storyteller’s ability, the audience will follow along.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34, Episode 221) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.