‘Kubo’ delivers an animated love letter to Japanese culture

HERO’S QUEST — The journey begins as Little Hanzo, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), and Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) trek through The Tundra to find his late father Hanzo’s magical armor. Hanzo’s likeness is in homage to Toshiro Mifune (“Seven Samurai”). image courtesy of LAIKA Studios/Focus Features

HERO’S QUEST — The journey begins as Little Hanzo, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), and Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) trek through The Tundra to find his late father Hanzo’s magical armor. Hanzo’s likeness is in homage to Toshiro Mifune (“Seven Samurai”). image courtesy of LAIKA Studios/Focus Features

“If you must blink, do it now,” instructs Kubo, a magical boy storyteller in the stop-motion adventure “Kubo and the Two Strings” to his rapt audience. In stop-motion animations, in the blink of an eye, 24 frames of film are shot. The time and dedication to take those shots for one second of film is what makes the art of stop-motion painstaking and extraordinary.
In the last decade, Laika studio based in Portland, Ore. has breathed new life into this art-form with films such as “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls.” The latest gem set in a gorgeously mythical Japanese universe, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is a funny, heart-warming hero’s quest shot in stereoscopic 3D.

“Our process is really unlike anywhere else in the world,” shared the film’s director and Laika CEO and President Travis Knight in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Besides the army of animators are work spaces for set building, painting, costuming, props, puppet making, and so forth. Their unique hybridization process also includes visual effects, all in the service of producing breathtaking animations. Each film produces unique challenges that they must overcome and this drives the innovation process.

“I think that is one of the things that give them their spark. We are not interested in making little pop culture confections. We want to make stories that are meaningful, we want to tell them in a beautiful way, and we want to take the medium of animation and push it to places that its never been before. And that gets everybody excited.”

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a coming-of-age, action-adventure, sumptuous love letter to the culture of Japan, and a celebration of art and technology in stop-motion animation.

Set in a fantastical Edo time period, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy who cares for his traumatized mother and survives by telling stories to the village folk using his shamisen (stringed instrument) and animated origami.

Among the villagers are Hosato (George Takei), Hashi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro).

Kubo’s life is turned upside down when spirits from his past come for his other eye. Seeking his late father’s magical suite of armor, he teams up with surrogate parents, a stern Monkey (Charlize Theron) and forgetful and funny samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to vanquish the mythical Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) who defeated his father Hanzo and stole Kubo’s eye when he was a baby.

The visuals are exquisite and according to Knight, inspired by folk tales and mythologies from Japan and all over the world. Knight has always been a fan of epic fantasies and of authors such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum as well as Norse and Greek mythology. Exciting the boyhood imagination was also legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts”).

When Knight was just eight years old, he joined his father on a business trip to Japan and was enthralled by art, food and culture. “The childhood introduction to Japan was a really life-long love affair with this great beautiful culture. I think this film is a convergence of both of those things. This love of epic fantasy and this love for transcendent art from Japan and it fuses all these things together.”

TAKING FLIGHT – Kubo’s magical playing of the shamisen sweeps him up by origami wings. Kubo stood 9 inches tall, and 30 Kubo puppets had to be made for the movie. image courtesy of LAIKA Studios/Focus Features

TAKING FLIGHT – Kubo’s magical playing of the shamisen sweeps him up by origami wings. Kubo stood 9 inches tall, and 30 Kubo puppets had to be made for the movie. image courtesy of LAIKA Studios/Focus Features

Big and small nods to Japanese art and culture include classical designs such as origami, ink wash paintings, Noh theater, late Edo period handmade dolls, and ukiyoe such as woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai.

One of the key influences for the look of the movie is Japanese woodblock printing with its strong linear lines and simple color palette, in particular is 20th century graphic artist Kiyoshi Saito. He often worked with the grain pattern of the wood itself and this texture shows up in the film’s design throughout.

Besides notable directors such as David Lean and Steven Spielberg, Knight cited great Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki as inspirations. Knight recounted in a statement that “Miyazaki finds something that he has a fascination with, such as Europe, and he internalizes it, synthesizes it, and weaves it into his art. The kind of prism that Miyazaki applies to Europe is what I wanted to apply to Japan, offering my view on a place and culture that have been vital to me for so long.”

This action-adventure delves deep into themes of family, loss and growing up quickly with heart and humor. According to Knight, paradoxically, the more personal the story the more universal it becomes. He drew inspiration from his own life, in particular his close relationship with his mother. “This film is about that time in life when those relationships begin to shift and then ultimately, irrevocably begin to change. What happens in the process and how we can reconcile that … Fundamentally, the film is about loss and healing, about compassion and forgiveness, and about how loving someone deeply opens us up and exposes us, but also heals us and gives us strength, and gives our lives meaning.”

Working with the “Star Trek” actor was a dream come true for Knight. Takei voices a more minor but key role as Hosato, a guiding present father figure, something Kubo desperately wishes he had. Kubo witnesses Hosato interacting with his daughter during Obon, a festival commemorating one’s ancestors, and lovingly passing on traditions and honoring family members who have passed. Said Knight, “when I was thinking about an artist who could embody that, with this incredible, beautiful, resonant voice…also (Takei) is an inspiration, and from my perspective, a sterling example of what it means to be a decent human being.”

“Death is that big transition when we become one with the universe,” Takei said in a statement. “For young people seeing this movie, we personify it as respect for our ancestors and it becomes a celebration as well, a ritual … In fact, when I was a kid I thought Obon was essentially a dancing festival and later on my parents explained to me that it was how we paid respect to our family history.”

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is an animated family film that will endure not just for its luscious innovative artistry, but also for its classic rich storytelling that will pluck the heart strings.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” opens in theaters Friday, Aug. 19. Rated PG (for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril). Run time: 101 minutes.)

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