Layers of Love in Kubo & The Two Strings

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.

kubo poster

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.

Spoilers ahead!

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.

qixi bridge
Source: Google Doodle for Qixi (7/7)

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

kubo mother

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.

creepy sister

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.

A Happy Meal

July 28, 2016 | for my father

Fifteen minutes. Then finally, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Fourteen minutes. The end of the workday was taking its time.

Still slick with oil from its former owner’s fingers, the toy rested on its side across the table. The painted-on smile was perfectly shaped. He couldn’t wait to surprise his daughter with the find, if he did end up getting to keep it. She would be overjoyed. Each Happy Meal she had opened in the past few weeks had ended in a pout and his heart deflating a little. He could’ve gone to the cashiers to just ask for the toy she wanted, but his embarrassment held him back. He couldn’t say the name of the princess right, and “purple dress, purple” got him nowhere the last time.

But they might come back for it. They left their table not long ago, bellies full and mouths still chattering away. At least, if it was his daughter who had lost her toy, he definitely would.

Ten minutes. His favorite song out of the long and always unchanged soft rock soundtrack to the restaurant started playing. He let out a full yawn, sound and all, now that the place was cleared of all but the staff.

Maybe he could just take it now and pack it away with his things. If the family came back for it, they would understand. They would think that another kid took it, or that it had gotten bussed away with the rest of their uneaten food.

He reached for the plastic doll and righted it up onto its feet, then took out a napkin from his waiter’s apron pouch to wipe off the oil. Much better, and ready for his daughter to play with.

He rubbed his sore shoulders and neck and rolled up his sleeve to cover an oil stain his wife was sure to tsk at. Being open on a holiday meant more customers, but it also meant more heavy trays of food to run back and forth. Technically people could still walk in and order food to-go, but he was pretty sure he was done for the day. He would simply refuse. He only had energy left for the drive home.

He pictured his daughter’s face peeking through the window of the back door. She would be so happy with the toy. The thought that her joy might come at the expense of another child’s crossed his mind, but it didn’t stay.

The door chime stopped his daydreaming. His head jerked back up, and he craned his neck to see whether it was one of the people from the toy’s table. It wasn’t one of the flood of faces from today, and the person left when they were told it was too late to order even to-go. He let out a breath that he didn’t realize he was holding.

“Where did you get this, daddy?” She grabbed it out of his open hand with the eager force of a delighted child. Immediately she started twirling it in the air, choreographing dances and spinning stories in her head that he could only wonder what they were about.

He smiled wide and said, “It was meant for you, so I found it.”

That was all she needed to know.