All Commentary
Friday, August 19, 2016

The Vendetta against Love: A Review of Kubo and Two Strings

Loathing and the longing for control destroys but love and openness creates and heals

Laika Studios continues to push the edge of creativity with their fourth feature film, Kubo and the Two Strings.

The film is an understated masterpiece of animation drawing on everything director Travis Knight learned from his work on Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, but raising the bar yet again with a new style built heavily around delicate origami. As someone who has dabbled in the art form, Laika’s ability to produce in-camera effects and tease out emotionally truthful animated performances through the stop-motion medium is nothing short of mind-blowing.

What’s more, Kubo is not a hollow film. As impressive as the technical film-making is, it is matched by storytelling filled with depth and complexity, clear characters, and the exploration of strong – sometimes very dark – adult themes like memory and loss.

Set in an old world resembling feudal Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy with a magical ability.

Every day, as he plays a Shamisen (a type of three-stringed, Japanese guitar) and tells elaborate stories to the local villagers, Kubo’s origami comes to life and acts out the scenes. The villagers love him, and he uses the money he earns to take care of his mother, who slips in and out of being able to remember her life or Kubo’s father – a samurai named Hanzo who died saving them from the monstrous Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

In a lucid moment, she warns Kubo never to take off his father’s robe, never to go anywhere without his monkey charm, and to never stay out past sundown or the Moon King and his witches will find him and try to take Kubo’s remaining eye. She tells him that the Moon King wishes to make Kubo like him — to force him to relinquish his originality and humanity and become blind to the beauty in the world.

Of course, in spite of Kubo’s promise, he does stay out too late one night. During the village Bon Festival, Kubo attends a Tōrō nagashi ceremony, where he tries to light a paper lantern hoping to connect with the spirit of the father he never really knew.

His father does not appear, but a pair of witches do.

Much like Laika’s previous films, Kubo may be seen as a “children’s movie,” but that should be understood in the same way as the Brothers’ Grimm. There are scary and painful moments that deal with the loss of parents and the constant battle between hope and emotionless cynicism which may be too difficult for some viewers. There is a moment in the film where children in the theater around me did cry.

However… At its core, this is a film about family, love and how joyful memories have the power to overcome the darkness of our ephemeral world. It contains a warning about destructive power of the vendetta as a motive force, and a hopeful message about the strength that comes from openness and connection to others. Consequently, there was a different moment, when the significance of the film’s title finally becomes clear, where I cried.


  • Sean W. Malone has spent over a decade building creative teams and producing content with the goal of effectively communicating the value and importance of human freedom to as many people as possible.