I’m sitting here listening to a rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by Regina Spektor. The sweeping rhythm of the guitar, animated by the slow plucks of a traditional Japanese shamisen (“three strings”) lute enters. The prodding drum beats give the song backbone while the song’s infamous downward-moving sequence brings a sense of sadness and lament against the brighter, higher elements in the song.
Spektor’s voice croons over the track and I’m bawling.
Kubo and the Two Strings follows the story of a young one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who uses his magic through music and origami to uncover the pieces needed to lead him back to his parents — and truth. It’s a tale of discovery, coming-of-age, family, a mother’s love, community and societal burdens. Whatever it is for you, it had me bawling by the end. I didn’t expect it to hit me that hard.
In the opening sequence of the film, we hear a voice say, “If you must blink, do so now.”
We see a woman in a small boat making her way over treacherous seas as the voice continues, “Pay careful attention to everything you see, and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem.”
Just within those first few minutes, we are taken into a world of mystery, danger and pain. That pain is made real to us in the next sequence as we are brought to Kubo who prepares a morning meal for his mother and burns his hand over boiling water.
“It’s a simple moment, but what it lets you know is that this is a world where people get hurt,” writer and director Travis Knight tells SlashFilm. “If our characters get hurt, the stakes are real. And if they die, they die, and that’s it. Just like real life.”
Knight, the CEO and President of small Portland-based studio Laika, brings the characters to life in Kubo. With visually stunning 3D stop-motion puppetry and CG-infused graphics, Laika proves themselves a powerhouse studio who can up the ranks against Disney and Pixar.
But unlike Disney and Pixar’s oft brighter, cheerier themes, Kubo seems to tell a darker tale — a world full of hurt, pain and struggle, with a glimmer of hope that oft mimics real life.
Kubo and his mother (Charlize Theron) live in a small village set in Japan. He looks after her and her fleeting memory as she experiences dreams and memories of their late father, a well-known samurai who died saving Kubo. Throughout the days, Kubo goes out into the village to tell stories with his magical guitar by controlling paper origami. Throughout, he mentions his inability to finish his stories (perhaps it is his magic and own coming-of-age that will allow his story to unravel on its own).
One night, Kubo stays out too late and is found by his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) who, with the help of his mother’s two evil aunts (Rooney Mara), is out to take Kubo’s other eye. His mother uses her last bit of strength to save Kubo and he is transported into another world where his wooden charm Monkey (also Charlize Theron) comes to life. He journeys across the land and employs the help of an earnest Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former soldier under the late samurai, and the triplet searches for the samurai’s magical sword, armor and helmet in order to protect Kubo against the Moon King.
The metaphors interweaved throughout the film are absolutely beautiful and painful. But there is also a glimmer of hope and humor.
The simple moments of Kubo realizing his strength and becoming cocky by making a flock of origami birds poke Monkey in the butt are simple but telling; the hunt after Kubo’s eye so as to make him blind from humanity and become like his grandfather as cold, heartless and “perfect” is a theme that hits so close to home; and the story of his parents who were able to see in each other’s souls to allow a bond so powerful to form reinforces the strength we know that can come from a pure, honest love.
It is these little messages all told within the fast-paced, sweeping world of action, adventure and quest-hunting that make Kubo more than just a samurai’s quest. It’s a world that mimics our own pain and comfort. It’s a world that recognizes our pain and comfort in this world as real and tangible and sometimes funny. And with the incredible artistry and story set within Japan’s vibrant, alluring and ancient world, it’s amazing what Laika has done to make a puppet-filled world seem larger-than-life.
“I suppose our overall point of view on films is trying to find that artful balance of lightness and dark of intensity and lots of humor and heart,” Knight tells SlashFilm. “I really believe that spending some time in the shadows makes the light even brighter and more beautiful.”
As Kubo saves himself with the power of his magical guitar, it is the simple movement that a song can make that can really capture our hearts.
As George Harrison first wrote the Beatles’ classic hit “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps” after reading the first two lines “gently weeps” of I Ching, a philosophical Chinese text that states nothing is coincidental and everything has a purpose, he based the song around that theory.
“I look at you all
See the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps”
A quiet and prodding piano sequence trails downward as a mood of uplift and tension is soothed. In the style of the original, Spektor brings her own rasp and breathiness to a song that tells a tale that forewarns the world of holding back and refusing love — much like the love Kubo is trying to save.
“I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love
I don’t know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you”
Kubo and the Two Strings is not only a movie that impressed, but moves and inspires you with the honesty of the human spirit as told through visually stunning art and earnest storytelling. It’s a movie you’ll want to see in theaters to overwhelm your senses, experience emotions of all kinds, or shield your verging tears in the dark (as did I).
Safe to say, this film brought one of the world’s greatest songs ever made to life. (And please, have a listen below and share your thoughts with me. Is this rendition not great?)
Kubo and the Two Strings released in theaters nationwide August 19.