The monster in Kubo and the Two Strings is a toxic family. It feels like a very personal story wrapped in a beautiful allegory, a tool to deal with some harsh realities of family dynamics.
Kubo grows up sheltered and slightly stifled by his seriously depressed mother. He finds a creative outlet in origami, an art that turns out to be his greatest weapon. He finds a friend and mother/grandmother figure in a local woman, but is forbidden by his increasingly withdrawn mother to stay out after dark.
At first it seems like she’s being overprotective, but the minute Kubo betrays his mother’s warning we learn that she wasn’t suffering from delusions, and what she was trying to protect Kubo was wasn’t the dark, but the rest of his family.
Kubo has already lost one of his eyes to this family, and finds that they really do intend to take his other eye and engulf him in their world. His twin aunts are woodenly vicious and jealous of Kubo’s mother for escaping, and his grandfather rules over the family like an ethereal god, cool and cruel. At the end confrontation, the grandfather angrily rants about his desire for Kubo to join the family so he can be “perfect” like them.
It’s a chillingly accurate presentation of this type of family dynamic, from the rhetoric to the towering godlike presentations. It’s like Kubo’s experiencing the domineering family his mother escaped from from her perspective, seeing them as the mythical figures she came to know them as. She had been punished for daring to see humanity in, and have compassion for, anyone outside the “safe” family unit.
Humans are tribal by nature. We can be fiercely loyal to those we see as part of the group we identify with, and incredibly hateful and violent towards anyone we deem an outsider. In modern life we see this manifest in race, religion, politics, regions, dialects and accents, social class, school cliques, jobs, sports teams, tastes in entertainment . . . There are any number of mostly arbitrary lines we can draw to separate ourselves. For some, this enemy Other, is anyone outside the family.
This type of tribal behavior and thinking is mostly healthy, its part of how we find meaning in the world, and form ideas about our own identity. It’s how we operate. The problem comes when we see those lines in fierce blacks and whites, and draw harsh lines that deny a perception of humanity to anyone on the other side of one of these lines.
It’s scary to really understand how insignificant we are compared to the whole of existence, and setting these clear, hard lines can assuage that feeling of smallness. Putting yourself, even in a small way, above another group of people is an easy way to boost the ego and find relief in a moment. We constantly have to reinforce that illusion of superiority, however, to stay comfortable in its sense of security. Anyone in a group who questions must be silenced immediately. This isn’t an environment for critical thinking.
Ultimately, Kubo defeats the monster of his family’s oppressive issues with love, compassion, and forgiveness. His grandfather’s godlike presence dissolved into a frail humanity. He’s not an immortal who controls the night, he’s a misguided aging man. He’s losing his memory, his stories, including some of the toxic stories that defined and shaped his family and caused them all a great deal of misery. Kubo represents an effort to break this cycle of fear and abuse by offering up his own stories: ones of compassion and hope.
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