Monday, March 13, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings review

(Spoilers contained below.)

I recently watched Kubo and the Two Strings. It's a beautifully rendered stop-motion animated feature film. It looks, sounds, and even "feels" exquisitely crafted. The voice acting is superb as well. Regina Spektor's rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was a pitch perfect way to close out the film. Overall I loved the movie.

It's an enjoyable story with darker themes involving parental sacrifice for children, loss of memory, death and dying. At least they're darker themes in our generally happy and upbeat Disneyfied culture, even though they wouldn't necessarily be considered dark in other cultures. Perhaps some might consider it ironic such themes not only appear in a children's animated feature but are central to the story.

I won't bother rehearsing the plot's details because presumably anyone reading this has either already seen the movie or can easily look up this information on Wikipedia. I'll merely note the basic outline. The story takes the form of a fantastic quest in medieval Japan. A one-eyed boy named Kubo has lost his parents. Kubo's father and later mother were slain by the Moon King (who is also Kubo's grandfather) whose henchwomen are his mother's two evil sisters. The Moon King and the two sisters also blinded Kubo in one eye when Kubo was a baby, and they are now chasing Kubo in order to blind him in the other eye. Kubo is on a quest for three magical items which will help him protect himself from them: the Sword Unbreakable, the Breastplate Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable. At the same time, like many quest stories, there's Kubo's inner quest to find himself which includes why his grandfather and sisters want him completely blinded. Kubo is accompanied by a talking snow monkey, a beetle-man warrior, and a mini origami samurai that has come to life. Finally, Kubo possesses magical powers, which he employs when he plays his shamisen.

I don't know if my interpretation is anywhere near correct, but here's my take on what the movie means:

Whether the entire story was all an allegory represented in Kubo's mind or whether it was truly a "real" fantastic story is besides the point, because either way the story is mainly about coming to grips with dementia and death.

The story starts off with Kubo's mother in a catatonic-like trance and gradually losing her memories. Every once in a while there's a flicker of her real soul, her true self. It comes and goes. Kubo patiently cares for his mother through her gradual decline.

The mother isn't the only one who is losing her memories. Beetle has likewise forgotten who he is and what his purpose in life is. He's an amnesiatic ronin. Only toward the end of the film does Beetle recall that he's in fact Kubo's father. As such, we see that, just as Beetle was protecting Kubo, Kubo was protecting Beetle, in particular protecting the memory of his father through his magical stories which would take a life of their own. Kubo as well as Kubo's mother seek to keep alive the memory of his father, even after his father is gone.

Kubo and the Two Strings is largely a family affair. Not only is the story primarily about Kubo and his parents, but it's about Kubo's grandather the Moon King and Kubo's relatives - i.e. his mother's two sisters. The grandfather is the patriarch of the family, representing the entire family. The grandfather and two sisters are presented as evil, cold, hard, uncaring, frightening. Perhaps that's why the grandfather is the Moon King, since the moon is meant to be a cold and hard place. The sisters are fashioned after black crows which in turn are thought to be harbingers of impending death. Their ghostly pale white face masks come straight from the Japanese puppet theater known as bunraku.

However, the grandfather and sisters tell Kubo they actually love him and want to help him. The grandfather is blind, and tells Kubo he wants to make Kubo blind just like him, not out of malice, but in order to help Kubo. I believe the idea is that the more "blind" to our loved one's aging, dementia, and dying we are, the more we brace and harden ourselves, the more we will be protected from suffering when we lose them. In other words, we must steel ourselves against suffering and death by keeping an emotional distance from our loved one(s), by keeping them at arm's length.

Sadly, our loved ones who know they're in physical and mental decline might agree with this assessment. They might agree we ought to steel ourselves as well. That's because they don't want to be a burden to their children who are their caregivers. That's why Kubo's quest for items which are unbreakable, impenetrable, and invulnerable reflect his mother's desire that the best way Kubo can "protect" himself is to be psychologically and emotionally unbreakable, impenetrable, and invulnerable.

In the end, Kubo discards these three items to fight against the Moon King, his grandfather, because Kubo realizes he doesn't wish to be unbreakable, impenetrable, and invulnerable. He doesn't wish to be what his grandfather is like toward his mother and father.

Kubo begins the movie with one eye because he could be swayed either way: either to be caring or uncaring toward his parents, either to be unbreakable, impenetrable, and invulnerable like his grandfather, or to be vulnerable, sacrificial, and devoted to loving his parents in their dying and eventual death. Kubo chooses to be broken, to be penetrable, to be vulnerable. He chooses to open himself up to the prospect of his parents' death and demise. He chooses love in its fullness. As C.S. Lewis once said:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

So Kubo abandons his sword, breastplate, and helmet in favor of playing his broken three-stringed shamisen. He replaces two of the broken strings with his mother's hair and his father's bow. In short, the two strings represent Kubo's parents while the third string is Kubo himself. The music Kubo plays works its magic, and defeats Kubo's grandfather the Moon King.

Kubo's grandfather's defeat entails the loss of his memories. The grandfather has forgotten who he is. He no longer remembers. One might say the grandfather has developed dementia.

It's at this point that the villagers of Kubo's village intervene. They remind the grandfather that he is a good, kindly old man, who has helped the village in countless ways, and who loved and still loves Kubo. It takes an entire community to help those with dementia and to help the dying die well.

The latter is especially important in our culture, for we live in a culture where death is at best ignored, where death is a taboo subject. Talk of death and dying immediately makes people uncomfortable. It's an awkward subject for most to discuss. Perhaps the nearest we come to "comfortably" if heatedly discussing death is when we talk about the "right" of the dying to end their own lives at any time they choose. As such, even death is talked about in the abstract, or more as an active or positive "right" of the living, rather than as the destined end to a journey each of us faces.

In sum, Kubo and the Two Strings is about family and community, about honoring one's parents and elders, about sacrificing oneself for the sake of others, about better and more deeply caring for the vulnerable by becoming vulnerable like them, about opening ourselves up and weeping with those who weep, about helping our loved ones in the sunset of their life, about keeping their memories lit as they sail down the river of death, and when they do eventually die and soar like birds into the heavens, it's about honoring them by sharing their lives in song and story so their memory will not disappear from generation to generation.

BTW, I think broadly speaking these themes are themes which Christians can identify with. That said, there may be some concerns for some Christians in watching this movie. Obviously every person should come to their own decision, but my thoughts are as follows:

  • I would not necessarily recommend it for young kids. I think it'd be too dark and scary for them.
  • As for the fantastical and magical elements, I don't see how these are necessarily any worse than, say, the fantastical and magical elements in the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
  • Perhaps some people fear there may be issues with some Eastern religious thought seeping in, but I think the Eastern religious thought is mitigated in that it's Eastern religious thought as seen through Western eyes, for it's Westerners who conceived, developed, and birthed the film. Also Eastern religious thought is an umbrella term which includes good, bad, and ugly elements.
  • Secular thought is pervasive as well, but that's probably true of most movies, animated or otherwise.
  • Prayers to one's deceased ancestors could easily be misconstrued if not found objectionable.
  • One big issue is the movie seems to assume every good person who dies will go to "heaven," or some "good place," but that's not what the Bible teaches.
  • Not everyone necessarily deserves to be remembered (e.g. the wicked).

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