It was hard being a troubadour in Edo-era Japan. Remember the blind biwa player in Kwaidan? Life ought to be easier for Kubo. At least he still has one good eye (and he plays the shamisen). However, his mean old immortal grandfather and his two wicked aunts have their sights set on that remaining peeper (and his soul to go with it). When his faltering mother can longer protect him, Kubo must set of on an archetypal fantasy quest in Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings (trailer here), which continues screening this afternoon and tomorrow at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Kubo grew up believing his father was Hanzo, a heroic fallen samurai, but it is hard to say how much stock he should put in what his mother Sariatu says. She somehow saved him from the roiling seas during the prologue, but the head injury she sustained apparently caused progressive damage. Nevertheless, Kubo takes care of her as best he can with the proceeds of his storytelling performances. Unfortunately, it turns out everything Sariatu said was true, as Kubo finds out when he is finally caught outside after dark.
When her father the Moon King finally detects Kubo’s presence, Sariatu uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away and animate his snow monkey charm to serve as his protector. To face his grandfather, Kubo will have to recover an enchanted sword and the matching breastplate and helmet. Fortunately, he will have the help of “Little Hanzo,” an origami samurai apparently invested with the vestiges of Hanzo’s spirit, through Kubo’s own magic. Along the way, they will recruit the help of “Beetle,” one of Hanzo’s comrades-in-arms, who was magically transformed into an amnesiac insectoid warrior, but remains quite handy with a bow and arrow.
Kubo is easily the best film from the Laika animation studio yet, representing a quantum leap improvement over The Boxtrolls. Technically, their work has always been accomplished, but the story and characterization of Strings are considerably richer and weightier. Some will say the “twists” are too obvious, but they are not meant to be surprises, but rather to deepen the sense of tragic fate.
Even though Kubo plays the shamisen, it is impossible not to hear echoes of Kwaiden and scores of other Japanese myths and legends in Strings. Yet, the structure is as comfortable as a lived-in sweater for fans of Tolkienesque fantasy. The voice-over performances are all first-rate, with Charlize Theron really surprising with “Monkey’s” feistiness. It might be slightly problematic for some that Asian voice talent was only cast in supporting roles, including George Takei and Minae Noji (a General Hospital alumnus) vocally portraying villager Hosato and his namesake daughter Minae, but big names like Theron and Matthew McConaughey really help sell and book commercial animated properties (and one could argue anime dubs offer plenty of precedent).