Kubo and the Two Strings Revisited

(To celebrate the release of Missing Link, we’re revisiting the stop-motion animated films of Laika this week and discussing why they’re so special. Today: Kubo and the Two Strings is a moving parable of love and remembrance.)

Memory is a fragile, fickle, formative thing. It’s manipulable and elastic, but it’s also the base of our identities, the metric by which we measure our personal growth and change, the mechanism by which we form opinions and make judgments about the world. This is why we tell ourselves stories, to give our memories a continuity of purpose and meaning, and if there’s one thing that stop-motion animation studio LAIKA understands about those self-told stories, it’s that they are our primary connection to those who came before us.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a story about holding on to family through our memories, and how love is born from memories, even when we don’t have conscious access to them or simply have stories to go by.

This theme is reinforced very early in the film through the stories Kubo tells about his absent father Hanzo. As represented by an animate origami samurai, Kubo’s version of his father is a heroic figure, a slayer of monsters and master of sword and bow. He’s something of a masculine ideal, but the little paper man is a faceless facsimile, completely hollow within and devoid of humanity for Kubo to love. Kubo asks his mother what Hanzo was really like, not who he was from a historical and mythic standpoint, and her inability to adequately answer him leaves him feeling detached from his father’s memory.

It’s ultimately this desire to know his father that lures Kubo out to the lantern-lighting ceremony with the rest of the village, despite the threat that being out after dark poses by exposing himself to the gaze of his grandfather, the Moon King. Kubo prays to the lantern, but its inability to bring him solace with the soul of his father frustrates him and leaves him empty. After all, how can he pay tribute to a father that he only idealizes, rather than actually knew?

A Mother’s Love and a Mother Unknown

After Kubo’s mother saves him from the attack on their village by her sisters, Kubo awakes to find himself with a new companion, the talking monkey. As we eventually come to realize, Monkey is actually the last remnants of Kubo’s mother, magically animated with a charm but ultimately fading as her power wanes. But even if she looks different, it should raise a red flag that Kubo doesn’t even suspect Monkey’s true identity. Personality and temperament define us more than our physical manifestations, so familiar mannerisms should be the benchmark by which one recognizes a member of their own family.

But Kubo’s mother prior to her simian transformation is shown to be limited by her physical form, slipping into catatonia by day and only intermittently cognizant by night. Kubo loves his mother, but he also doesn’t really know her as a person. Their nights together are spent telling stories of Kubo’s father, which Kubo in turn passes on to the village below as their means of sustenance, but that friendly exchange of story and niceties is devoid of personal understanding. Kubo’s mother doesn’t even have a proper name until she embodies Monkey, because her role in Kubo’s life is as someone to be loved and looked after, not as a person that Kubo can relate to and learn and grow from.

Meet the Parents

However, as Kubo journeys with Monkey, and that journey adds the clumsy, well-meaning Beetle to their group, a deeper, more familial bond starts to develop between the three travelers. Monkey is a stern, stubborn, forceful presence, but she is clearly motivated by a concern for Kubo’s well-being and is only harsh to hammer hard lessons into his head. It’s a side of Kubo’s mother that we never see previous to her transformation, but it’s also a fuller understanding of her character motivated by a restoration of her cognitive abilities. Monkey’s maternalism starts out feeling like surrogate motherhood but is revealed to be the guidance of motherhood Kubo lacked all his life.

Beetle, meanwhile, exhibits educational paternalism toward Kubo, teaching him how to fish with a bow and arrow, for instance, but also contrasts his competence with weaponry with a penchant for bad jokes and a general cluelessness about what he’s accomplishing at any given moment. The eventual revelation that Beetle is actually Hanzo as a metamorphosed amnesiac is predictable, but the importance of knowing who Beetle is for the purposes of his significance to Kubo’s life overshadows any necessity for surprise. The origami Hanzo may be the idealized version of Hanzo from legend, but he and his Beetle Clan are such objects of mythology that Beetle doesn’t even recognize those stories or artifacts as his own, believe himself tangential to Hanzo’s stories rather than the central focus of them. Stories of Hanzo’s heroism make him seem faultless and archetypal, so the recognition that Beetle is heroic in spite of his bumbling nature is enlightening to not only Kubo’s own goofball nature, but also to why Kubo does not need to embrace the sort of violent heroism the legends of his father romanticize. Beetle demonstrates a more rounded, ironically more human version of the man Kubo only ever got to know secondhand through the veil of stories.

Holding Onto Memory in the Face of Eternity

Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King, is an immortal being, seemingly omniscient but also cold and detached. He is physically blind, yet also metaphorically blind to the kind of love and attachment Hanzo opened his daughter’s eyes to. The Moon King wants Kubo’s eyes so as to make Kubo like him, devoid of humanity because he can no longer see that which he has the capacity to love. However, Kubo has something that means more than the Moon King’s godlike power. He has his memories.

Kubo starts the film without any real memories of his parents as people beyond their functional roles in his life and in legend, but his quest provides him more than a sword and armor. It gives him perspective on the humanity of his parents. Monkey’s sternness and Beetle’s romanticism are combative and contradictory, but the back-and-forth that characterizes their relationship is what draws them closer together, a force that created a bond strong enough for her to renounce her godhood and embrace him in love to create Kubo. Monkey and Beetle didn’t even need to recognize one another as husband and wife for this dynamic to shine through, and the realization that they were Kubo’s parents is what provides Kubo with the strength to stand against the cold lovelessness of immortality.

The Moon King is not defeated with violence. He is defeated with love, a concept so foreign to him that he lost his own daughter over it. He does not die, but becomes mortal, with sight restored to one eye and fed memories of a life of kindness and selflessness by the villagers. The objective truth of these memories does not matter nearly so much as the story they allow the mortal Moon King to tell himself, to discover love for his grandson and this community through a narrative that leaves behind his supernatural villainy. And the only reason that this can happen is because Kubo embraced the power of love through his own memories of his now-gone parents.

I understand this take on loss and memory because I lost my own father when I was eighteen. In many respects, I never knew him as a complete human being, seeing him only on the weekends and through a teenage angst-driven perspective that we were very different people. As every year goes by, I lose a little bit more of him to the deteriorating ravages of failing memory, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that there was more to our relationship than how we didn’t get along very well. But I still tell myself stories, like how he used to carry me around on his shoulders until I was much too big for it, or how he would take me to the movies almost every weekend because it was something simple that we could both share, or how he would try to understand my love of video games and anime despite the concepts being so foreign to him that he could never quite grasp them. I try to remember my father as a person, and that’s how I hold eternity at bay. I keep his memory alive through stories. My father was human being with faults I don’t hesitate to acknowledge. But he was also my father, so while I could turn a blind eye like the Moon King, leave the past in the past, and let the toxicity of our differences subsume my memories of him, it’s more worthwhile to tell myself the stories that bring me closer to him, even if they become less specific and true in the details. That’s what love is, and it’s what allows me to grow past the pain of that initial loss.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a story about how memories are the greatest magic there is. As children, we mythologize our parents, turn them into our saviors from childhood trauma and bugbears of adolescent angst, and, unfortunately, sometimes they become the objects of our care or absent through circumstances beyond our control. But what I take away from Kubo in those final moments where the titular hero stands with the ghosts of his parents is that they are human representations of his parents. Kubo’s mother is no longer a monkey and in control of her consciousness, while Hanzo is no longer transformed into a beetle, representing a synthesis of the figure of legend and the kind man Kubo grew to know. He’s going to remember them for who they were and likely help his grandfather discover his own humanity through the power of stories and memory. Those threads of memory harmonize with Kubo’s core, and he is a stronger, more complete person because of it.

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