Thanks to Micah Foreman for lending me his copy of Kubo and the Two Strings. I first heard about this film from Patrick Rothfuss back in May. Obviously after Coraline, I’ve been a big fan of Laika and I’m looking forward to their Wildwood adaptation, though I doubt it’ll come out quickly.
In any case, I don’t want to go too heady on this because it’s late and it’s the weekend and I probably need to watch it again, but here’s my twobit Kubo and the Two Strings Analysis.
You should assume spoilers. Y’know. Because the word “analysis” is in the title.
The story opens on a little one-eyed boy living in a cave by a small town with a bell. We find his mother has access to a magic tethered to her musical and narrative talents — talents engorged in Kubo himself. Mom forgot who exactly she was, though she remembers that it’s important for Kubo to come in before it gets dark. Invariably the boy stays out late and has to use his talents of music and magic to fight off his evil twin aunts, discover who he really is, and uncover the memories of everyone else.
Half of everyone forgets who they are in this story and that’s kind of the point. The monkey forgets. The beetle forgets. Mom forgets. Dad forgets. Grandpa forgets. And memory is treated as magic just like it used to be in the middle ages — something we conveniently forgot until the likes of Lewis and Rowling reminded us. And now, with Kubo and the Two Strings, memory as magic comes to the fore. I’m starting to dabble in Boethius now — key word “dabble” — thanks to incessant recommendations from my friends Professor Giltner and Professor Cirilla. So I’ll be quoting randomly from Boethius in this post:
“Whose souls, albeit in a cloudy memory, yet seek back their good, but, like drunk men, know not the road home.”
The main thrust of any Kubo and the Two Strings analysis will hinge on this issue of memory — of characters who remember in stops and starts and who can only find themselves once more through some great show of character (and a bit of magic to seal the deal). Once the music in the narrative matches the resonant frequency of their souls, they reach some measure of illumination, find the road home, and become their true selves.
“In other living creatures ignorance of self is nature; in man it is vice.”
The monkey forgets that she is really Kubo’s mother and the Moon King’s daughter, but it’s okay because she’s a monkey: it’s half expected. The beetle forgets that he is really the father and the Moon King’s son-in-law, but it’s okay because he’s a beetle: it’s half expected of him. The beasts, after all, are not rational animals like man. Their condition was forced upon them — it’s natural for them to languish at the memory of who they were.
But in the grandfather, who takes on the form of a great flying centipede shark, forgetting his role as a grandfather — greedily seeking to blind his mortal grandson in order to force him into his own mold — degrades his true being. Forgetting his role as a grandpa is in him a vice, something terrifying to behold.
It’s the music that both hurts and helps him…
Music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior.
Kubo’s music — the resonant frequency of his identity and memory — makes Grandpa more and more angry and so he attacks the boy.
“And so sovereign Providence has often produced a remarkable effect–evil men making other evil men good. For some, when they think they suffer injustice at the hands of the worst of men, burn with hatred for evil men, and being eager to be different from those they hate, have reformed and become virtuous. It is only the power of God to which evils may also be good, when by their proper use He elicits some good result.”
Certainly Kubo’s father had his own arrogance to deal with and Kubo’s mother transgressed in her own way by breaking the law of her people and so their union in Kubo was something of an offense to the Moon King. And this offense — this injustice done to him — caused the Moon King to spin himself out in attacking his grandson.
But it wasn’t for nothing…
“Among wise men there is no place at all left for hatred. For no one except the greatest of fools would hate good men. And there is no reason at all for hating the bad. For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind. And if this is so, since we think of people who are sick in body as deserving sympathy rather than hatred, much more so do they deserve pity rather than blame who suffer an evil more severe than any physical illness.”
The memories of the grandfather go the way of Kubo’s mother and father. You see, the most important thing for Kubo wasn’t his mother and father’s failings, but rather the memory of them kept in the memento of her strand of hair and his bowstring. Adding a third — his own hair, the resonant frequency of the generations directly confronted the ancestral sin of their grandfather (did you notice the ancestor worship in the film?) and causes even him to forget.
But once he forgets, the townspeople see his amnesia as a sickness: he has forgotten himself and this vice need not remain. The story we tell ourselves matters because we become whomever we tell ourselves we really are. The magic is in the music, sure. But the magic is also in the end of the story. As Kubo says at the start, if we blink we’ll miss it and if we miss it, the fate of the characters rests on our attention.
We can reshape destiny if we remember the best parts of ourselves and our family lines. Memory is magic because memory shapes future choices. So remembering well is the point of all good stories, like music which resonates with the best parts of us.
Pay close attention and seek some help and you might even rewrite the story you’re telling yourself: you might find the music which has lain in the center of your soul. And therefore you might become better, become whole.
With that, I’ll mention that this throughline is exactly why I wanted to write this tonight. Soon and very soon, I hope to finally reread Kingkiller with both an alchemical ear and an eye for plot because Rothfuss is doing just that: story as magic, story as healing, story as a dangerous thing. If nothing else, remember that the stories we tell ourselves matter.
And while you’re preparing to make your own Kubo and the Two Strings analysis in the comments, check out Professor Cirilla’s post
…because he’s way better at this than me and you might even find some overlap in the topics I brought up.
And once you’ve read Professor Cirilla’s work, I recommend these other analyses of Kubo:
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS @Ebert
Kubo and the Two Strings IS A SEQUEL? @Gaijin Goombah
And now for something completely different: