SPOILERS ABOUND FROM THIS POINT FORWARD
Two major themes in Kubo and the Two Strings are memory and storytelling. Not surprisingly, these themes are intertwined in the unfolding of the story, and that in turn is more than just coincidence or dramatic effect.
Putting aside the critic's hat for the moment, and pulling out a small but very readable academic tome entitled "The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making", by Scott Plous, we read:
Memories are not like copies of our past experiences on deposit in a memory bank. Instead, they are constructed at the time of withdrawal. The “materials” used in this split-second reconstruction are logical inferences that fill in missing detail, associated memories that blend in with the original memory, and other relevant information.
Try the following experiment in the comfort of your own home sometime. Think back to a memory of an experience you had, pleasant or unpleasant, and bring it to mind. There you go, you remember that, don't you? Now, quick: are you viewing it through your own eyes, or like you were a third person who was witnessing the event outside yourself? Many people -- most people -- recall most memories as a third person witness. Conclusion: memories are constructed like a story, not recalled like a video.
And hence the point: storytelling and memory are intertwined, particularly if you are recalling a memory you knew yourself. And this is important in Kubo because, frequently and at important junctures, memories are fragile. Very, very fragile.
Kubo's mom is slipping away before our eyes. She is fading from this existence even before Kubo flees, and her magic does not have the permanence of the legendary sword or armor when she becomes Monkey. It is in the nature of her world, and we may be reminded of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
and the title character's forgetting of all her experiences once she has donned the royal mantle. At one time Kubo's mother's anchor was Hanzo, but Kubo is not Hanzo, and she may not dwell (at least mentally) much longer in this world.
Hanzo, for his part, did not die, despite what Kubo's mom believes about his sacrifice. Instead, he was exiled, stripped of his memories, and turned into a bug -- the comparisons to Kafka's Metamorphosis
are correct here -- and he too has only a vague concept of what was.
Kubo's link (as well as his mother's) to the past is achieved through storytelling and his magical ability to command the paper to his will. The tragedy here is that his understanding of the legend of the Moon King completely misses the point -- if it hadn't, perhaps he would have been warned about the impending ambush at his father's castle -- and whereas his fairy tale Moon King was a mighty warrior, his real grandfather might as well be a village elder or court bureaucrat with a reserved but ever-present vicious streak a mile wide. His grandfather (like his two aunts) cannot comprehend the desire of anyone to live in this cesspool called Earth, and he simply wants Kubo to accept (by faith) the pleasures that the heavens offer -- at the cost of Kubo's other eye, of course. When Kubo rejects this, his grandfather is more than pleased to visit upon Kubo the pain, suffering, and death he so greatly "desires".
And it is at this climax that the story, unfortunately, starts to unravel. It is possible, now that Kubo has found the sword, armor, and helm, that he could withstand his grandfather's onslaught and bring down the heavens. For this reason, it is understandable why the grandfather will go to war with him. But Kubo's decision to pass up violence in favor of story-telling and memory gets muddled and relies on an entirely pat and unsatisfying Western (as opposed to Eastern) ending. It is as if the writers ran out of ideas at the most critical time -- a common disease of dramas these days, it seems. It moved Kubo from "masterpiece" to "merely good" in my book at that moment.
Let me suggest a more consistent alternative: when the grandfather says, to the effect, "This is the end of your story", Kubo should have taken up his instrument and simply said, "No, I am the story teller, and this is MY story", and proceeded to take the tale in a different direction. "Grandfather, I grant you the eye that you stole; consider this my gift of giving sight to the blind. Don't blink..." With that, he strikes the magical chords, and the eye (as it does in the film) grafts itself onto the Moon King's eye, and he becomes vanquished. The bits with the villagers at the end were superfluous and clumsy; it would have been more in keeping with the story had they
died, and they (and their loved ones) been been escorted back to the afterlife as part of the end of the tale. The "happy ending" that wasn't happy could have been much more powerful; it is also consistent with the prophecy: it is the one who finds the armor who can conquer the Moon King, not necessarily the one who wears it into battle.
Regrettably, the half-baked ending of Kubo performs a disservice to what is a beautifully and artfully crafted animated movie. The combination of stop-motion and CGI animation is wonderful. The music, while mostly forgettable, is still non-intrusive and does support the narrative. If you grit your teeth through the final five minutes of the story, the rest of the journey is actually enjoyable, with many nods to both historic and modern culture and values.
I enjoyed Kubo through two sittings, but both my wife and I agreed that the ending was mishandled, as if Salieri had written the final movement of a Mozart symphony. It is too bad, because such a contrast is immediately obvious -- an average story with an average ending will never rise above that. Like all his relatives, Kubo and the Two Strings starts off in the heavens but crashes to earth.