On Shaking the Habitual, The Knife scrawled bellicose, rhythmic, culture clashing, humanistic, Salt-N-Pepa-and-Fugazi-referencing, irradiated cave paintings. Theirs had become Beringian postmodern-kinetic haunted tribal-techno music, intertwining affecting anthropological tempos with frayed, crackling electronic edges. The line between primitive, polyrhythmic bluntness and arch-radical avant-gardism dissolves in epic sweeps of smoky dissonance and tight coils of sparks and metal. Jagged biomechanical missives meld the corporeal physiognomies of a heartbeat and the esoteric abstractions of a computer—“electronic is just one place in the body.” Like a pyre, the music—compressing and amplifying the full history and allure of arranged sonics—is a beacon with a flickering, indistinct perimeter—the brighter the fury of the flames, the deeper and darker the night beyond sight. The smoldering embers left in the cochlea linger—warm and menacing, elemental and metaphysical, industrial and habitable, scorching and intangible, violent and cleansing.
The concept of storytelling echoes throughout the 96-minute record—stories’re empowering tools, building blocks of history, and, instruments to dismantle. In solitude, these pieces are unnerving; but, when they’re performed, the dark, elliptical shards of patriarchal oppression and rigid socio-economic power struggles become theatrical, abstracted, and disarmingly exultant. Thoughts of nightmarish disfigurement metamorphose into vivid synesthetic revelries. Ominous, whispered myth broadcasts out in a radical, communal, performative retelling. The stage gives the dense and radical music buoyancy and freedom. The shape and tenor of the stories achieve a new trajectory, suitable for songs intent on deconstructing from the bottom up. The bards within the stories take on an alternate authority; the avenues of storytelling possibilities widen to accommodate a litany of marginalized perspectives. Kubo and the Two Strings is similarly narrative-obsessed. It’s not sui-radical or alienating, but it’s fixated on embedding and blossoming. It’s also, like Shaking the Habitual, a feast of physicality, bucolic grandeur, scurrying insects, disembodied, rebellious organs, and eye-singeing radioactive Day-Glo. The hot pink of Monkey’s face is just a few shades cooler than the album’s jacket.
Set in ancient Japan, the nesting doll of a narrative entangles a mythical past and a modern vantage. Kubo starts out with the master story folding itself over: Kubo’s voice over initiates the story, a device he will repeat, and his tragic-heroine mother slices through a monstrous, angry ocean. The beginning and the middle-section of his family’s Greco-Roman-ish melodrama overlaps at this hinge—escape and exile after the death of the father and the snatching of the baby’s left eye. More precisely, you could call this the climax of the mother’s story and the foundation for our young protagonist’s origin story: The mother suffers a blow to the head leaving her catatonic, save for brief moments of lucidity; and Kubo, newly-blinded, crying on the beach, reaches the place where his journey will be set into motion—a remote, rocky, seaside vista where he remains hidden and under strict protocols during his upbringing. This misaligned-but-inextricable narrative interlocution is repeated, in various, ever more abstracted iterations (Kubo even pulling the oldest trick in the hallucinogen-laced children’s fable book: transfiguring parents through sentient totemic objects), through to its Return of the Jedi-esque end.
His story, conveyed in a grandiose action scene at the outset, then filtered through the failing mind of his mother piece-by-piece, is then filtered again, through the mind of the boy, trying to make sense of incomplete information that is also filtered through convention and symbolism to protect him from the grotesquery of the reality. In the periods where the clouds briefly part in the mother’s mind, she breathlessly conveys—in drips and rushes, sometimes overlapping or doubling-back, and sometimes contradicting, prompting correction from Kubo—shards of the story that brought them to the anvil-shaped ocean overlook, veiled of course through hero’s journey beats and high-drama. And, he couches this in miniaturist spectacle for the townsfolk—venturing into the quaint nearby locale each day and dazzling with magic-origami theatrics and fleet and furious fretwork on his shamisen.
The sweep is epic even while the film goes little, and when it turns itself inside-out, collapsing itself into dense, angular origami. Within narratives within narratives within the narrative (within the narrative of the narrative’s creation), there are dream sequences and black magic trances, sentient miniatures and symbols inside symbols in the mix, pulling Kubo in uncertain and misleading directions. All this approximates and complicates the strange, personal, and imprecise manner in which memories are projected onto objects and events, and imprinted for the long haul. On the other side of the transfigurations, the characters in the second act—Monkey and Beetle—tell their stories, which are dissolved into the throughline narrative and the larger narratives beyond that. Even the looming malevolent, celestial force gets a monologue and a perspective and a story to be molded and fit and respun and displaced.
Intimate moments of decompression timestamp Kubo. Characters routinely sit and listen as raconteurs recount variations of the same tales, or branches of stories previously unknown or shrouded in mystery; it’s hypnotic. For all the wonder and precision that Laika achieves with its animation—manifesting an unbridled cultural alchemy, and unleashing unforeseen wonders from household materials, like painstaking, ruthlessly patient arts-and-crafts MacGyvers—the quiet moments, the breathing room between the set-pieces and retina-prodding compositions, give weight to the world, physically and thematically. Instead of whiz-bang pyrotechnics, Kubo has a delicate, off-note rhythm that’s an antidote to hyperactive, overcooked kids fare. It’s more of a kin with Ghibli than late-Pixar—crafting sturdy, interior characters and eschewing the sour taste of exceptionalism that often pervades and infects.
The spectacle of spectacle is the lede—“if you must blink, do it now.” Any and all pieces about Laika emphasize the painstaking, nigh-maddening craft and fastidiousness that goes into every frame. Between the touched-up scrupulous precision that produces each moment and the complex, deepening combustion that complicates the internal algorithm with each pass, Kubo manifests a density that vies in the mind—omniscience and entropy do battle in your entranced mind. It mutates and bends and implodes and repeats and repeats. Minutes become hours and weeks and vice versa. Tales of labor-intensive geneses overwhelm. All this in service of bringing tiny silicone wireframe figurines in a warehouse to epic scale, cultivating a tightly controlled mystery and mastery.
The marvel beyond the marvels is that Laika compulsively duplicates itself within itself, creating works about storytelling, with central characters that are themselves restless creatives who obsess over miniatures and doppelgängers. The likes of Coraline, ParaNorman, and Boxtrolls are filled with meta-text foibles that dismantle the mechanisms of spinning yards by tangling and mirroring and embedding—piling myth on top of fairy tale on top of mod-convention, and stirring and mixing and rearranging and reversing and alternating to generate uncanny, miniaturist, masochistic, gnarled masterpieces of children’s waking nightmares. A thick aura of Todorovian intrigue is conjured—“every work…tells across the fabric of its events, the story of its own creation, its own story.” Laika amplifies this inevitable turmoil through vast miniaturization. In a frenzied pastiche paradise, the encoded story of creation lurks ever closer to the surface. The process of this very sentence is encased within its fraught existence here. Here’s the story / What’s your opinion?
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.