While My Shamisen Gently Weeps

Film: Kubo and the Two Strings
Year: 2016
Director: Travis Knight

Sometimes, in the wake of seeing a very special movie, I am so enveloped by the endless dimensions of its imagination, so humbled by the colossal freedom of its execution, that I forget some other films that came before it. They are washed from my thoughts as if by tidal wave. So if I say, in the wake of seeing Kubo and the Two Strings, that this is the finest stop-motion movie I’ve seen, you should maybe pop a kernel of salt before believing me. I have a history of being liberal with statements like that. But I could say instead (and defensibly) that, in the wake of seeing Kubo and the Two Strings, I cannot remember a stop-motion movie that more astounded me. It is a movie that succeeds at what so many films, especially animated ones, try and fail to do: to bring to unbound life the magic of a children’s book.

Kubo is not, by the way, based on a children’s book. The story is an original, but is conjured with all the Neptune-or-bust creativity, hell-and-back adventure, and take-it-home-with-you tenderness that we absorbed from our favorite kiddie lit.

Its hero is a one-eyed young busker in ancient Japan who lives in a seaside cave with his diurnally catatonic mother. He spends his days entrancing the nearby villagers with an ongoing saga (complete with enchanted origami accompaniment) of a brave samurai named Honzo and his nemesis, the Moon King. He retreats home every day before dark, when his mother emerges from her mysterious stupor, to learn more from her about the vanquished Honzo, who was his father, and the heartless Moon King, who is his maternal grandfather and the would-be burglar of Kubo’s remaining eye. The townspeople are apparently uninformed of the boy’s personal stake in his epic yarn; great storytelling, Kubo feels, transcends even its own players.

The movie is maybe a bit laden with exposition thus far, but never for a single nanojiffy does it cease to be borne aloft by its sublime animation. The sight of Kubo’s origami sheets soaring to life, folding spontaneously into their innumerable forms, springing to motion with such furiously meticulous grace; of a ship made of taut autumn leaves sailing on dark, silent waves; of the vacant, swallowing eye of an unspeakable sea goliath—I have seen few so immanently beautiful in any movie. And even as the plot settles into a more straightforward hero’s journey, it holds us rapt by striking with perfect clarity every note it aspires to hit, from piddletastic scares to balmy humor (a big mazel tov to McConaughey) to vital wisdom.

Kubo is a result of the sort of confluence of imaginations that reminds us anything is possible. If you’re the kind of person who believes in magic, you should see this movie. If you’re the kind who doesn’t, then you probably need to.

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