Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ge-Ge-Ge no Kubo

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is another great stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio that made Coraline, among others. It holds your attention from the first words: "If you must blink, do it now."

The voice-over is spoken as a small boat careens across giant Hokusai-sized waves in a stormy sea, finally coming to ground on a small island. It carries a woman and her baby. Years later, they live in a cave at the top of the island's central mountain. The woman silent and troubled, the baby now a boy, Kubo, who goes down to the village every day to earn a living as a storyteller. He begins his tale with "If you must blink, do it now" and a chord on his three-stringed shamisen. His story, about magical weapons, is accompanied by a stack of paper folding itself into origami shapes and whirling around his head. But when the bell rings at sundown, he must hurry up the mountain, because his mother told him never to be out after dark.

One night, he does stay out late, trying to contact the ghost of his father, and his aunts show up: two scary witches. There is an epic battle and when it is over, Kubo is alone on a beach. His little wooden monkey charm is now a large, grumpy monkey, who tells him that his village is gone, his mother is dead, and they need to hide. He is also aided by an origami samurai who has come to life, and a giant talking samurai beetle who can't remember his past, but is sure that he is a great warrior.

One of the best things about this movie, other than the visuals, is the Japanicity of it all. There's more than a bit of the modern silly/sarcastic style dialog, but also classic strangeness. A beetle samurai may seem strange, but Japanese children traditionally make pets of stag beetles, whose horns resemble a samurai helmet.

In fact, the whole story seems to be based on a Japanese TV show popular in the 80s when we lived there: Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitaro ("ge-ge-ge" represents terrified stuttering, so "Scary Kitaro"). Kubo wears an eyepatch because his grandfather stole his eye. Kitaro wears an eyepatch because his grandfather is his eye - a little eyeball with arms and legs who bathes in a teacup.

There is plenty of silliness in this movie, but overall, it's more serious than Kitaro. It's fascinating and well-written as well as beautiful. Enjoy.

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