Stories of Grief and the Resilience of Youth: Kubo and the Two Strings

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If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. And please be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.  -Kubo-
In my opinion, there is a great need for stories that deal with the subjects of grief and loss without flinching, especially for kids. Often enough a movie presents these as themes that act almost as an afterthought. Instead they focus on cute characters and laughs (See The Secret Life of Pets) while losing the opportunity to start a conversation about how these things truly affect children. Kubo and the Two Strings is not that movie. From it’s opening lines it looks unflinchingly at its subjects while still managing to have the sense of humor, adventure, and grace it needs to become more than just a typical kids movie. The film opens with an amazing image. Kubo’s mother, a witch with a baby on her back, about to be over taken by a giant wave in the ocean, pulls out a shamisen (A small two stringed instrument) and with a flick of her wrist, a glow of her hand strums it, and splits the wave in two revealing a huge cliff. Cut to years later, and we find Kubo, missing an eye, with his mother living in a cave, living at the top of that cliff where he takes care of her.  He feeds her when she enters a dementia like state, and listens to her stories of his father, a great warrior, when she is rational and aware. Kubo earns money by using the magic he has inherited from his mother, bringing Origami figures to life, and entertaining the village nearby with exciting stories that the figures act out. The most important thing his mother tells him he must remember; never go out after dark or her sisters will find him and take him to his Grandfather, The Moon King, who will pluck out his other eye.

One day he finishes his work and gets swept up with an Obon Festival, where people make lanterns and float them down a river, after talking to the spirits of their loved ones. In one touching scene Kubo watches as other people talk to the spirits of their deceased family members while he sits waiting to hear the voice of his dead father.  He loses track of time and before you know it, night has come, and his aunties have come with it. For many kids the aunts will be the scariest thing in the movie, and believe me when I say there are some kid scary things here. My son, an almost 5 year old, was totally enamored and really enjoyed the whole thing, but I promise you there will be some that can’t handle parts of it, it’s pretty creepy. The sisters resemble a combination of Morticia Adams and a Geisha. They wear porcelain masks that hide their true faces and float just above the ground instead of walking. They chase Kubo and are all intercepted by his mother who uses her last bit of magic to give him wings and fly him away as she does battle with her evil sisters. The last things she instructs him to do is find his father’s magic armor.

When Kubo next opens his eyes he is on a snowy mountain with a talking monkey, named monkey, (Voiced by Charlize Theron) who used to be a wooden charm that Kubo carried with him.  Now she has been made guardian of him by his mother in her last moments. She tells him they must move to stay alive and not long after that they camp in a dead frozen whale where a very serious Monkey gives him the lowdown on what they must do to find the magic armor.  After resting they awake to find one of Kubo’s paper figures, Hanzo (Representing his father in his stories), has come to life on his own to be their guide.  I loved this character.  It was pure magic.  No voice, no sound at all, just a simple little figure who seems to be the only one in the movie totally sure of anything.  No sooner do they begin their travels than they find that they are being followed by a giant samurai beetle who, it seems, was friends, and student, with the original real life Hanzo.  His name is Bettle.  He joins them in their quest out of loyalty to his former master and they set off to find the three pieces of his father’s armor.

The quest in itself is always a stand in for something larger and in this case that is no exception.  Their travels take them into a cave to battle a giant skeleton with a head full of swords.  Under a deep and mysterious ocean to be hypnotized by giant floating eyeballs, and then, eventually back to the village, where his journey started to face his Grandfather.  The best of these journey’s teach us that we are not the same person we were when we left and that growth is possible even in under the worst of circumstances.  In Kubo, the end works so well because it shows us the best and worst of a person.  Kubo discovers that Monkey is his mother, and the Beetle, is his father.  Having them, even in these forms means he was gifted one meal with them, together.  One journey.  One adventure with his parents.  When he finally confronts his Grandfather and wins it is not unexpected, what is unexpected is that the Moon King looses his memory.  Defeated he stands alone, knowing nothing and no one, having forgotten his whole story.  When he asks for help it is not Kubo who steps up, but the villagers, each one telling him a lie, but each lie more beautiful than the last.  They fill his head with stories of the great man that he is, but never was, and how kind and wonderful is is known to be.  So he is left only with the wonderful stories that others created for him, leaving Kubo with the family he needs.  The last image of the movie is Kubo, standing by the river where the Oban Festival took place.  Now he is flanked on either  side by the spirits of his mother and father.  He knows their stories and has come to terms with their absence in his life.  He did not look away but stared right into his own fear to confront the greatest loss a child can contemplate, but he lives, because like any child, he is resilient, and with the right guides, he never looses hope.

Good for some kids 5 and up but for this one you should watch it first and decide for yourself

Parents: ****

Kids: **** (Remember, some scary elements here)

Subjects: Death, Grief, loosing a parent

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great review! I can’t wait to see this movie with Mac and Leo (6 and nearly 4). John (my husband) saw it a few weeks ago and told me how incredible it was (we knew it would be) and how layered and complex it was.

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