Before I walked into the dark theater to lose myself in another LAIKA creation, I bought myself a cup of coffee despite the 7:15pm showtime. Ensuring that I was alert was my way of honoring the studio’s unbelievable craftsmanship. After being enchanted by the detailed worlds in Coraline and ParaNorman, I expected nothing less from Kubo. And of course, LAIKA has outdone themselves, again.
A lot has been said more elegantly than I ever could about the actual art and filmmaking of Kubo. Watching it all unfold flawlessly before your eyes, you would never (or totally can) believe that it takes a week on average to film just 4.3 seconds. Of course the final product, like any movie today, had help from computers and 3D printing, but the overall amount of crafting and puppeteering required can only be described as a patient labor of love. However, this is only the first layer of love that permeates Kubo. Indeed, I was expecting an adventure movie, but to me the intricacies of the story all relate back to love.
Love That Defies The Heavens
Not long before the film’s release date, lovers in China and Japan celebrated a holiday known as the Double Seventh Festival or Tanabata, respectively. To put it another way, these are equivalents to Valentine’s Day in the Western hemisphere. As a simple summary of the legend behind the holiday, a mythical being fell in love with a mortal man, and they were forbidden from seeing each other except on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
I couldn’t help recognizing this cultural reference while learning about Kubo’s story. It’s revealed in the film that Kubo’s mother had to escape with him because her father and sisters perceived her love with a mortal warrior as a betrayal of their family’s heavenly status. (Talk about tough in-laws, right?) Later on when Kubo confronts his grandfather as his antagonist, the latter cannot understand why he would not want to join him and his aunts in the heavens, free of the suffering characteristic of an earthly life. Kubo defends the mortal struggle and insists that it does not diminish the beautiful moments but in fact amplifies them. His love for life and all that it entails is his rebellion against his grandfather and the heavens.
Love That Bonds Mother and Child
Unlike the parental relationships depicted in many other animated films, Kubo and his mother display reciprocal care for each other, which added much tenderness to the story. The bulk of the film indeed shows the extent to which his mother protects him in both human and non-human forms of her being, but in the very beginning we see Kubo serving as his mother’s caretaker. As a result of the trauma she faced to keep Kubo from the clutches of her (terrifying) father and sisters, she is rendered catatonic for most of her day and so needs his care. For me, this was refreshing to see in a movie, as it provides enough reality to ground the viewer without weighing them down too much.
Like Lily Potter, whose love protected her son Harry, Kubo’s mother enchanted his clothing to help him escape when her human form could no longer protect him. Even so, she uses her magic to put herself into another physical form so that she can be with her son for just a bit longer on his journey. By the end of the story, Kubo has grown and become stronger, and his mother’s love remains with him in his memories.
Love That Forgives and Lives On
Although Kubo’s grandfather is painted as the enemy, ultimately there is no slaying of the final boss, no Kubo taking back the eye that was taken from him. Instead, Kubo’s generosity of love extends to the grandfather he had no connection with, and it’s implied that they will build a relationship from scratch. In this way, the story conveys the idea that perhaps love’s greatest power does not only come from its tendency to persevere, but also the capacity it gives us to forgive. Besides Kubo’s epic shamisen-playing abilities, this was the most aspirational part of the story for me.
Kubo delivers a heart-wrenching final monologue at a makeshift grave for his parents, amongst other villagers celebrating what I believe was a clear reference to Japan’s Obon festival honoring the deceased. He wishes more than anything that his parents could be with him to live out more of his story with him, but the memories he holds are what will have to carry him forward. To remember, then, is another way to love.