By Addison Cooper, LCSW
In ancient Japan, young Kubo lives in a hilltop cave with his mother, who is depressed most of the day. While his mother sits in silence, Kubo earns a living by entertaining the villagers with origami and music-aided stories of Hanzo, a brave samurai warrior. In the evenings, Kubo returns home, and his mother – who is much more herself at night – entertains him with stories of Hanzo, who was Kubo’s father. Kubo’s mother cautions him to never be outside after dark, warning him that if he is out after dark, his grandfather and aunts will find him, take his eye, and take him away from his mother.
One night, Kubo participates in a ceremony intended to help him communicate with his deceased father. This ceremony keeps him out past dark, and sure enough, his aunts find him and try to capture him. His mother fights them off at great sacrifice, and uses magic to send Kubo flying to safety.
Kubo lands in a mysterious blizzard where a talking monkey explains his situation: Kubo will continue to be chased by his grandfather and his aunts; he must go on a quest to find his father’s armor in order to fight them off. He is not alone, but is accompanied by the monkey and a large, forgetful beetle-shaped man.
LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD THE REST OF THE WAY: but if you want to avoid spoilers, in a nutshell: a very engaging story of a kid making peace with his story of loss while also running from some terrifying members of his birth family.
The Adoption Connection
Kubo and the Two Strings will have relevance to many adoptive families, and especially to families who adopted from foster care, if the child has recollections of being abused. In this story, Kubo’s mother is the estranged daughter of the godlike Moon King. He rejected her when she fell in love with Hanzo, a mortal samurai.
Kubo believes that his grandfather and aunts killed his father. They also took one of Kubo’s eyes, and they intend to take the other one; the Moon King believes that if Kubo loses both of his eyes, he will not be able to empathize with humans, and that this will make him more like his cold, distant, immortal family. Kubo’s mother tells him that his aunts and grandfather must never find him, or else they would try to take him away. She’s right; when Kubo’s aunts do find him, they attack, and it’s only the apparent sacrifice of her life that lets Kubo’s mother save him. In a way, she sends him away from herself in order to protect him from her family.
After Kubo escapes his aunts’ first attack, he is aided by a monkey and a beetle; they help him fight against his aunts. Kubo learns that the beetle is his father, and the monkey embodies the spirit of his mother. Kubo is able to share a meal with them, although he did not realize that they were his parents at the time. Both of his parents die while fighting his witch-like aunts, but his aunts are also killed. Kubo must then fight his grandfather. Kubo manages to defeat his grandfather by drawing on the power of the memories of his deceased loved ones; his grandfather does not die, but becomes a confused, elderly mortal. Kubo and others convince him that he is a good, kind man.
As a young child, Kubo had never met his father, but learned of him through stories shared by his mother. He later expresses that memories are a strong force.
I can imagine this film being frightening to kids who have been removed from abusive situations; the theme of being chased by abusive relatives who want to take you away could be too believable for some viewers to enjoy. Other viewers, who grieve lost relationships or unknown parents, might find comfort in a scene where Kubo unknowingly is able to share a meal with his parents. It is also comforting thought that, even though he thinks his parents are gone, they are still caring for him; and even after they die, his memory of them is able to guide and strengthen him.
This is a very good movie, but it might be too scary for some kids with particular histories. For other, older kids, it could be an interesting invitation to think about how absent or deceased relatives are still positively relevant to them.
Kubo and the Two Strings has created a beautiful stop-motion animation world. A highlight is watching Kubo tell the stories of Hanzo, which he animates with Origami and accompanies with his skillful playing of the shamisen.
The film captures the power of story and memory, and could be comforting for kids who could be elped by developing positive memories of family members with whom they’ve lost contact.
Kubo eventually learns the whole story of his family – how his parents met, and why his maternal relatives are pursuing him. Although it is a frightening story, Kubo finds healing and peace through knowing his story. He is able to make sense of his life, function in the world, and even bring some level of healing and reconciliation to his grandfather.
Kubo asserts that memory is a powerful magic; if he holds his parents in his heart, no one can ever take them away.
Kubo works to develop an honest and livable understanding of his experiences, “It’s a happy story, but it could be happier.” He asks his parents to be with him, and as the film ends, their spirits are standing by him.
It is uncomfortable to see Kubo caring for his mother, who initially appears to be rendered catatonic by depression. This isn’t actually the case, but kids might not catch the nuances that suggest otherwise.
The film questions the definition of family; this could be helpful for some viewers but hard for others. The question posed is: if your relatives act towards you with hate, and intend to harm you, must you still call them family? It’s a hard question without an easy answer.
Kubo uses a lamp-lighting ceremony to try to speak to the spirit of his deceased father; his father does not show respond, and Kubo is enraged. Also, it is in attending this ceremony that he is discovered by his wicked aunts. At one point, it appears that everyone else’s relatives’ spirits have come, and only Kubo has been left alone. This could be hard for kids who have unresolved grief connected to feelings of abandonment.
Although Kubo’s relatives intend him harm, we are given a brief insight into their perspective. His aunts feel that they lost their sister, his mother. His grandfather wants Kubo to be like him, but believes that Kubo must lose part of his human nature to be part of the immortal family. Even though their actions are completely wrong, it is possible to even view them with some level of understanding and compassion. They are frightening, but they are people doing monstrous and evil things rather than purely evil monsters. It may be a slight nuance, but it could be helpful for kids who need to find glimpses of good even in birth family members who have been abusive towards them.
Although Kubo makes peace with it, he does lose his parents when they are killed by his aunts. He intends to kill his grandfather, but ultimately does not have to.
His aunts and grandfather want to take his eye away from him, and they kill his parents. These elements of the story likely make the film too scary for young kids (and possibly even preteens) with unresolved trauma regarding violence in their families of origin.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautifully animated, deeply emotional story. Kids who have experienced abuse at the hands of birth family members will certainly relate to the story but might find it too intense. Older viewers might find it a helpful tool to explore their mixed feelings towards their families of origin. The film can also be helpful for illustrating the power of memory and the power of stories. Although the film is rated PG, it does seem likely to be pretty scary for kids with certain histories, and I’m more comfortable recommending it for kids ages 11 and up. Parents should research or prescreen the film before sharing it with their kids. However, it is a beautiful film, and certainly worth considering.
Questions for Discussion
What makes someone family? Can anything make somebody “not family?” (It might be helpful to let your child express their thoughts here without leading them to a certain answer. For kids who have been abused, it might be helpful to suggest that in a way, they themselves get to choose who they define as family. Perhaps it could be helpful even to acknowledge that some people can be (legal or genetic) relatives without feeling like family, and some can feel like family even without being legally or genetically related.)
What are some of your most helpful memories?
If you could share a meal with any two or three people that you do not see often, or that you have never met, who would it be? What do you think it would be like?