The Emotional Impact of Kubo
Martin McEachern
October 7, 2016

The Emotional Impact of Kubo

Laika continues to push the boundaries of stop motion, and animation in general, with a moving epic, Kubo and the Two Strings. Here, the film’s director, Travis Knight, discusses the project from the story perspective.

I found the theme of Kubo fascinating. To me, it’s about the redemptive power of stories to correct deficiencies in a person's real life, particularly the absence of a father, mother, or loved one. I find it ironic that Kubo spends the whole movie “searching” for his father and, later on, even his mother, too, only to learn he had them all along in spirit through their stories. Even the villain is redeemed by the power of story. What themes guided you as you directed Kubo and the Two Strings

In the early days of a project’s development, when you’re trying to crack the story, all the attention goes to figuring out the characters and the world, to establishing the foundation and defining the thematic core. We spend the better part of two years exploring what bigger issues the story can support, and, at the same time, what deeply personal stories we can weave into the narrative to give the film meaning and resonance.  Effectively, you look for the sculpture inside the stone.

In the process, we become like magpies, scavenging from our own lives. The film becomes a patchwork of our life experiences. Our collective dreams and nightmares roughly sewn together. Our childhood loves and obsessions tempered with the time-worn perspective of kids who’ve grown up and now have kids of their own. And as you’re working all of this out, the film evolves, and you begin to discover parallels between your characters and your own life. That was certainly true with Kubo.

As is often the case, the protagonist becomes something of a proxy for the director. The deeper we got into it, the more of myself I saw in Kubo. He’s an artist. He’s a storyteller. He’s a musician. He’s an animator, really, when you think about it. And, at some point, I had a revelation. ‘Oh my God, he’s me!’ And in fact, Kubo’s journey mirrors my own.

When I was a kid, my existence revolved around my family. My mother was the center of my universe, the font of all human knowledge, and my closest friend. But it wasn’t this weird, dysfunctional, codependent mother-boy thing like Buster and Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development. It was a beautiful relationship.  While she wasn’t literally a goddess, like Kubo’s mom, she was to me. And while my father wasn’t actually the greatest samurai the world had ever known, he might as well have been. He was a towering figure to me, made all the more mythic and mysterious by his frequent absence.

Like Kubo, my mom was the nexus of everything. That’s the emotional core of this movie. The story about a boy and his mother. The story about me… and my mother. My mom was the defining connection of my young life. And this movie explores that time in our lives when those things begin to shift, and then irrevocably change. When we learn that profound, melancholic truth that to love is to hurt. That love and pain go hand in hand. That’s a hard truth to learn at any point in your life, particularly when you’re a kid. But it’s a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. Love opens us up and makes us vulnerable, but it also heals us, gives us tremendous strength, and gives our lives meaning. There is some cruel irony there, in that bitter polarity.

But that’s the stuff of powerful storytelling. It’s a core theme that the film examines. Crossing the Rubicon from childhood to adulthood. And the things we gain and the things leave behind along the way. We don’t go through life unscathed. We all shoulder the bruises and battle scars of our youth, lugging them around for all to see or stowing them away in the dark cobwebbed corners within ourselves. Every scar is a memory, an indelible physical reminder of our past. But here’s the funny thing…. While scars can remind us of trauma, a scar is not merely a symbol of hurt. A scar is proof of healing. After the pain of being rent to shreds, a scar is the thing that makes us whole again. Every mark and blemish is a part of our story. A part of who we are.

Those are lessons I learned and ones Kubo learns as well. And stories can help us cope with those experiences. They remind us that we’re not alone. That we all touch the world’s surface. When I was a kid, one of the things that gave me great joy and reminded me that I was not alone, that abated feelings of grief and loneliness, was connecting to the world of stories. I believe that art generally, and stories in particular, can elicit empathy. Stories can show us the world through eyes that are not our own. They allow us to wander through faraway lands, to experience someone else’s story as if it were ours. They can open us up to new ideas, to new ways of thinking, to recognize our connectivity, and the shared humanity in which we all participate. A good story can change you.

That’s what stories and films meant for me when I was a kid. They still have that power. And those are the kinds of stories that I want for us to tell, the kinds of films we aspire to make here at Laika.

I know the films of David Lean and Kurosawa were highly influential, with both filmmakers telling intimate stories against epic backdrops, usually with strangers forming makeshift families and embarking on a mission. The sharp silhouettes of the characters against the stark environments reminded me of Lawrence pacing in the desert, searching for his “miracle,” while the driving snow, thrashing wind and rain, and emphasis on the weather conjured the feel of a Kurosawa film. The teardrop sliding down Kubo’s face echoed the scene in The Little Drummer Boy when the boy loses his donkey. Were there any films in particular that served as reference points? 

There were a great many artists who influenced us on Kubo and the Two Strings, both in and outside of film.  Growing up, I was an enormous, obsessive fan of big fantasy epics. I was a voracious reader, devouring CS Lewis, L. Frank Baum, Greek and Norse mythology, and, above all, Tolkien. In fact, my mother was reading Lord of the Rings when she was pregnant with me, and when she was recovering in the hospital after I was born. So in a very real way, Tolkien’s been a part of my life since the day I took my first breath. And that love of fantasy was one of the first great gifts my mother bestowed upon me.

It’s probably no surprise that I was a slobbering film geek, as well. I adored the epic works of Ray Harryhausen, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Hayao Miyazaki, and George Lucas. Star Wars is the first film I remember seeing in the movie theater, and it left a lifelong impression on me. Look closely and you’ll see its impact on this movie. In fact, if you squint at Kubo’s Grandfather, you just might see a wee bit of Grand Moff Tarkin himself, Peter Cushing. Both he and Bela Lugosi inspired grandfather’s design.  

Kurosawa is a wonderful example of the transcendent power of art. He’s a model for how artists learn from, are inspired by, and influence one another. How art breaks down and crosses over cultural barriers. How it connects us. Binds us together. How art can transcend a specific time and place and culture and speak to us in a way that we might not even fully understand. Kurosawa was heavily influenced by the Bard, by William Shakespeare, a guy who lived on the other side of the planet 400 years prior. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is essentially a retelling of Macbeth. Ran is King Lear. And Yojimbo was inspired by a Dashiell Hammet novel, of all things. I love that an American pulp novel was the spark for a cinematic masterpiece from Japan. But that gets to what art does, or can do: it unshackles the human mind and spirit. And in the same way, Kurosawa’s films spoke to us, decades later and a world away, in Portland, Oregon, the rain-soaked, patchouli-oiled armpit of the Pacific Northwest.

Hayao Miyazaki was an inspiration in a different way. Obviously he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and I adore Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro. Masterpieces all. But one of the things I find most compelling is his approach to his subjects. Miyazaki finds something that he has a fascination with and he internalizes it, synthesizes it, and weaves it into his art. Half a dozen of Miyazaki’s films are set in or inspired by Europe. But he’s not attempting to capture it accurately, with a slavish devotion to reality. He’s not creating a moving photograph or a documentary. His work is an interpretation, like an impressionist painting of the place, capturing the feeling and experience of it. The kind of prism that Miyazaki applies to Europe is what I wanted to apply to Japan, expressing my feelings and experience on a place and culture that have been so vital to me for so long.

I hope this film does that.