I got to watch Kubo and the Two Strings a week or so ago (didn’t review it sooner due to some unexpected medical issues–all better now, far as I can tell), and really enjoyed it–and was super bummed that there were only three of us watching (and in a fairly large theater). OK, it was a matinee, but still, it’s odd how poorly the movie has been doing despite the very positive reviews. I won’t say there weren’t bits that felt off at times, and the ending could be taken as too stereotypical a “love conquers all” message, but really, that’s no worse than every other movie of this sort (and it was really more of a redemptive ending rather than a Care-Bear-Stare ending), and Kubo manages to get some really great twists in there–definitely some character revelations that I was not prepared for (though I caught on a bit in the build-up), and the “conquer through love!” ending (spoiler alert I guess, but really it’s a lot more complex than that…) involved enough tragedy mixed with closure that I really can’t fault it–in fact, reminds me a bit of Astrid Lindgren’s Brothers Lionheart, taken as an fantasy aimed at prolonging the work of mourning sufficiently to find that needed closure. Hm, this is all pretty obscure I guess, since I don’t want to give any especially concrete spoilers (and since I expect there aren’t many who’ve read Brothers Lionheart).
Check out the trailer here. Mild spoilers below.
The cultural setting is Japanese, though I don’t believe actual Japanese locations are used. I don’t know whether the mythological material referenced really corresponds to actual Japanese mythology/folklore since I just have not studied that (would like to check it out though), but it is central to the story, and seems well done. We learn early on that Kubo has to beware of the moon–as we go on, we realize that if he is out at night the moon, who is (dun dun) his grandfather will steal his other eye (Kubo is missing an eye, btw, his patch hidden behind his hair). Kubo’s mother and her sisters had been working with their father, but she fell in love with Kubo’s father, whom she was sent to kill, and so betrayed her family. Soon after Kubo is born the moon and his daughters attack and Kubo’s mother takes him and flees. Years later Kubo has a reputation for playing his shamisen while telling stories and bringing origami figures to life (this is his particular magical power, inherited from his mother). He stays out too long one night, attempting to perform a ritual to commemorate his father (in this world, the dead respond–his dad doesn’t…). This lets his creepy warrior aunts fly in to find him, and his mother gives her life (well, it’s complicated…) to protect him, and he runs off–now with a monkey companion (originally a protective talisman given to him by his mother) and a bug soldier they find on their way. The quest he embarks on now is to find the armor and weapons his father had been seeking before–it was because these had so much potential to make him powerful that the moon decided to have him killed in the first place. And there is so much more going on there, but oh, I don’t want to spoil it too bad…
The further I got into the movie the more I became convinced I was watching something from Norse mythology or the sagas. No joke, everything connects to Scandinavian studies in the end–and you can trust me, because I’m a Scandinavianist, see? Anyway, the moon with his warlike and supernatural daughters is very reminiscent of Odin with his valkyries (and now I think of it, Kubo’s one-eyedness, and the idea that losing the other would bring him to a higher plane–spoiler again, that’s why the moon wants his eyes, so his grandson can join him–is rather Odinic in itself). Love affairs between human warriors and valkyries seem to have been a popular subject, as we have many showing up in the mythology and the sagas. The motif of a valkyrie falling for the man she was sent to kill (or to give defeat in battle, so same thing) and so rebelling against the Allfather is also prominent. Hm, is Kubo just a retelling of the Völsung material? Nah… but then again, I would not be surprised to find out the creators were influenced to some degree by Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, which include a retelling of this very story. Is Kubo a piece of a pseudo-Japanese Ring Cycle, just with a milder, gentler Götterdämmerung ? I would buy that, actually…
Another element the movie shares with certain Norse stories is the quest to recover arms belonging to one’s father. Well, I can’t think at the moment of a quest involving multiple pieces of armor acquired in stages, but certainly with the Völsung material Sigurd’s reforging of his father’s sword is quite prominent, and in one of the legendary sagas we have the warrior maiden Hervör visiting her father’s revenant in order to acquire his mighty sword. A key difference though–while Kubo is seeking some mystical special armor and weapon otherwise unassociated with his father apart from his father’s own incomplete quest, the Norse material is more focused on powerful heirlooms (well, though they may have a supernatural origin as well, I suppose)–and of course, given the unpredictable quality of steel used at the time, it is not surprising that we would find old weapons typically coded as good, or even special weapons–it’s not a matter just of the latest and greatest, you see, but of whether or not the metal has been proven. Old swords are necessarily good swords, and so all the more important as heirlooms (and I owe this point to John Lindow).
OK, Old Norse parallels aside (after all, these aren’t exactly surprising parallels to find between narrative traditions), I have one last point about the movie–specifically the credits. Where are the Asian people in the credits?? OK, there are a few, but I was rather surprised not to see more Japanese Americans involved. There were some Japanese American associations that had given their stamp of approval, sure, and I would not at all want to say that white folks (like myself) shouldn’t work with POC characters, but representation in the industry matters as much as representation on the screen. This isn’t something I’ve looked into much, so I won’t push it any more here, but I note that it was pointed out before the movie came out as well.
That said, the movie is definitely worth seeing, so get out there before it goes away! Sadly, probably won’t be in theaters long. 😦