Why do we tell stories?
Just to pass the time? Is fantasy, or all fiction, just a way to pass the time? Are they mere distractions from the hardships of life, comfortable opiates used to make us forget, even if only for brief instants, that life is hard and unfair and certain to end?
I’ve always thought of stories as a kind of mortal immortality. Storytellers go, but stories last. We carve them out of ourselves and pass them along to others, and in that way we go on long past the duration of these meatsuits. When I think about the people in life that I’ve loved and lost, I can tell myself the stories of our time together, and in that way they are never truly gone.
The purpose of story is the backbone to Travis Knight’s animated masterpiece, Kubo and the Two Strings, perhaps the best film I have seen yet this year. Amidst the colorful creatures and locations, the big broad action and comedy beats, and the cosmic mythology, Kubo is a story about stories, and about why we tell them and pass them along.
Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a little one-eyed boy living in a tiny village in feudal Japan. Kubo’s days are spent caring for his mother (an accident of some kind has left her addled and unsteady) and performing for the local townspeople. With his magical shamisen, Kubo’s songs animate origami figures, which he uses to wow the locals with stories of his father, the legendary warrior Hanzo. Kubo never met the man, and instead everything he knows about his father is passed down to him via stories that his mother struggles to recall.
There’s one hard and fast rule that governs Kubo’s life: Never stay out past dark. If he does, Kubo’s wicked grandfather The Moon King will find him and claim his other eye. But, this being a fairy tale type deal, Kubo breaks the rule and is almost immediately beset by his phantasmic aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara). His mother sacrifices herself to save him, telling Kubo that he must unite the three lost pieces of Hanzo’s armor in order to be safe.
Joined by a fierce monkey warrior named Monkey (Charlize Theron, somehow one-upping the badassery of Furiosa) and a samurai cursed into the form of a beetle, named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo braves a world of giant skeletons, giant eyes, and his own not giant but still pretty threatening family.
The most common criticism of Kubo thus far has centered on the story, with some commenting that the film’s incredible visuals are in service to an overly familiar narrative. That strikes me as missing the forest for the trees. Kubo’s story isn’t familiar, it’s elemental. While not based on any prior source material, Kubo flows like the kind of fairy tale or fantasy story that we all know by heart. Fairy tales have a logic and a rhythm to them that are embedded in the mind of everyone, young and old, passed down for centuries until we all have the standard beats hardwired into our unconscious. Can you remember the first time you heard a version of Cinderella? Or Snow White? Red Riding Hood? No, these stories go beyond that and into the core ephemera of culture. Kubo is a new story, but it feels old, like a myth that has been told over and over again until it is as secondhand as the feeling of walking through your own front door.
I could fill this piece with rapturous praise of the film’s voice-acting (Theron and McConaughey are newcomers to voice-acting [Theron’s only done one other animated movie and some Robot Chicken episodes, McConaughey doesn’t even have that], and both deliver exemplary performances) or the visuals (every frame of this thing is a painting) to Laika Studio’s ongoing quest to push the artform of stop motion animation further than anyone else thought possible (they constructed the largest stop motion puppet in history for the giant skeleton sequence). Or I could rave about how Laika is one of only a few production houses to crack how to adapt video game language into cinema, or how Laika’s commitment to empathy results in their strongest character work yet. The list of virtues goes on and on and on.
(One bum note, and I feel like a slime for having to pause to make note of this, is the paucity of Asian performers in a film that is proudly and pointedly set in Japan. I was super-worried going in about hearing McConaughey’s drawl coming out of a samurai’s mouth, but it actually ends up working fine. It doesn’t sink the movie or anything, but it is disappointing that a movie set entirely in Japan only has a scattering of Asian actors, and mostly for bit parts.)
But what I really want to talk about is story. I’m obsessed with story. No, let me re-phrase. I’m obsessed with Story. One of the damn foundational elements of the human being is our capacity for story and storytelling. Confronted with an uncaring universe of random chaos, humans impose order through narrative. We take the nonsensical and find sense in it. We take the meaningless and find meaning. We impart parts of ourselves, the best and worst of ourselves, and craft fictions around these truths and pass them on down future generations.
Kubo and the Two Strings, in the best tradition of the likes of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, is about the way that story helps us through trauma and tragedy. Poor little Kubo has had a rough fucking go of things, even BEFORE the movie kicks off and monsters start trying to kill him. It is through stories that he builds connections with the people he has lost, a point which Knight brilliantly visualizes throughout.
Laika Studios has built its name by playing rougher with its child audience than most studios would ever allow (their first feature, Coraline, is just a straight-up horror film, and one of the best of the decade) and Kubo continues in that proud tradition by resolutely refusing to take the easy way out. There is an incredible sense of melancholy to the closing moments of the film, but it’s the best possible kind of melancholy, the kind that sent me walking out of the theater thinking about the people in my life, the family and friends that have meant the most to me. Some our stories are long since finished, while some are just beginning. Others still continue on, as they have for years. But all these stories live in my heart, shaping who I am in every moment of every day. And I can trust that me and mine will live in theirs’. All of us joined in telling the story of the world, forming and shaping it each and every day. And in that way, nothing and no one is ever gone, not really. Our story goes on.