One-eyed, 11 year old Kubo in ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ sounds like an unlikely hero in almost every respect, yet this mythic, animated fable, set in Japan in the era of the Samurai, corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s 17 step narrative template called The Hero’s Journey. The movie’s screenplay writers, Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, know the Asian storytelling tropes, and intertwine them with a classic Hero’s Journey tale. Let me fold a little origami Samurai warrior, and allow his sword to point out an explanation to you.
This saga begins, as do many Hollywood blockbusters, with: The Call to Adventure. Kubo and his mother endure a storm-tossed sea voyage, then live in a cave where Kubo cares for his discernibly clinically depressed mom. The Refusal of the Call is made via the hero heeding his mom’s warning not to stay out after dark. His grandfather has already taken one of Kubo’s eyes and will use the cover of night to harvest Kubo’s other eye. Supernatural Aid comes from an unexpected place – Kubo’s mom in a lucid episode – reminds Kubo to keep a monkey talisman with him at all times. Fortunately he does, because while participating in a Shinto festival, Kubo stays out after dark and encounters his mother’s evil sisters, and the clash that ensues, propels him into Crossing the Threshold. This, according to Campbell is when the hero leaves the known limits of his world and ventures into an unknown and dangerous realm, exemplified by settings that range from freezing blizzard-filled landscapes to bleak deserts dotted with broken Ozymandias-esque statues. The next step is called Belly of the Whale and it is here that anyone who knows anything about Campbell’s narrative template, can enjoy a chuckle at the sight gag of the hero who literally spends a night sheltering inside the belly of a whale. This concludes the section of Campbell’s monomyth, that he called ‘Departure’. Next comes the central segment known as ‘Initiation’.
The first stage of this mid-section is The Road of Trials. Here Kubo sets out on a quest to retrieve the three artefacts his late father Hanzo used when he chose to sacrifice his life to protect his family from the Moon King: the Sword Unbreakable, the Armour Impenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable. The Meeting with the Goddess is when the hero encounters someone who loves him unconditionally, like a mother would. Kubo finds this love presented to him in a surprising package. The Woman as Temptress stage is a metaphor for when Kubo is mesmerised into almost abandoning his quest. Fortunately, he is saved by Beetle, a half-man, half stag-beetle, (voiced by Mathew McConaughey) and this incident represents the Atonement with the Father. Apotheosis, the next stage according to Campbell may be a physical death or a period of rest and peace – and it would be a terrible spoiler to reveal which of these two occurs in the film! In the final stage, known as The Ultimate Boon, the Moon God (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) meets Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) and makes him an alluringly phrased offer.
The third and final phase is called “Return”. Refusal of the Return is interesting in this film because in Campbell’s outline, the refusal is because the hero selfishly does not want to share what he has acquired. In this movie, Kubo has different motives. The Magic Flight is when Kubo attains the final goal of his quest and Rescue from Without is when Kubo’s villager friends step in to rescue him. The Crossing of the Return Threshold is when Kubo uses the wisdom he has gained, to guide the inhabitants of his village to behave compassionately. Master of Two Worlds is the penultimate stage, and in it Kubo blends his place in the real world, with an acknowledgement of the spirit world, inhabited by those he holds dear. The film concludes joyously with Kubo depicted as being in the stage known as Freedom to Live. So there you have it, a ‘paint-by-numbers’ classic Hero’s Journey.
This beautifully crafted stop-motion, CGI-enhanced, film is masterfully directed by Travis Knight and is from the Laika Studio (famous for the more rough and ready stop motion film, Coraline). Magic and origami, the power of storytelling, and the power of love and memory, combine to make ‘Kubo and the two strings’ a film that masquerades as school holiday fare for the littlies, but actually is pitched at the adults who accompany young ‘uns to the movies. Coping with grief, mutilation, and the fragility of life without the saccharine coating that normally accompanies PG films, is an additional recommendation for this film. In my opinion, there’s enough action and adventure to capture and entrance children, but I think there’s a much wider audience for this movie than the ‘family’ label that often gets put onto animated films. Fans of Manga comics and those who admire Kurosawa’s work will love it, as will those who like Sakaguchi’s role-player video games. The big challenge for this movie will be whether the potential adult audience can be inveigled into accepting that a great saga, with great themes, can be delivered through a genre that normally appeals to five year olds.