The primary theme of Kubo and the Two Strings is that of stories and storytellers. The film introduces us to the film’s mythology and important characters (like Kubo’s father, Hanzo, and his grandfather, the Moon King) via stories. Kubo is a storyteller at the beginning of the story, sharing his mother’s stories about his father with his village. Kubo’s never-completed story early in the film gives us the structure of his quest, with objects of power and monsters as signposts. Later on, we come to hear the ending of Hanzo’s story, and experience how Kubo’s story connects to it. This kind of foreshadowing is reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream” Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), though less elegant here, it resonates just as beautifully.
Both Kubo’s and our understanding of the story evolve over the course of the film, but the biggest pivot comes after his trial on the lake. Kubo learns that his father was looking for items such as the Sword Unbreakable, but that changed when Kubo’s mother came down from Heaven. Hanzo says to her, “You are my quest.” Rather than seeing this as reductive, reducing Kubo’s mother to an object to be found, it comes across as characterizing Hanzo’s priorities. Hanzo was not a warrior lusting for more and more power, but a man wanting to start a family. The stories within Kubo and the Two Strings (love the title reference once I figured it out) inform and enhance the main story, and allowing Kubo to reconcile loss and forgiveness as the ending of his story.
Kubo is one of many works of narrative art which feature stories and storytelling at their core. It is one of my favorite modes of narrative. Ranging from novels like The Hobbit and The Name of the Wind, and spanning songs like Tenacious D’s “Tribute.” Here are four of my favorite films that also are about storytelling.
Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom uses stories to a similar effect, while commenting on the con man genre. Con men, of course are nothing if not adroit, adaptable storytellers (this is also wonderfully employed in The Sting as well). Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is constantly crafting storylines, to the point where it becomes a crutch for both him and his brother (Adrien Brody). Endings are a hardship for storytellers, as well as getting caught up in your own stories. But as Stephen says in the film, the best cons (and stories) result in everyone getting what they want.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is unique among films I’ve seen in that the camera is an unreliable narrator. The entire film is a conversation between a man and a woman, and the audience does not know if they are a couple who has been in a relationship for a long time, or strangers who are pretending to be in a relationship. It’s kind of the inverse of Richard Linklater’s Before series in that those films seek to get to a truth about romance via earnest characters expressly talking about their feelings, where as this film seeks that truth by obscuring earnestness through a veil of mystery.
Constantly engaging, Certified Copy causes the viewer to question which version of reality is playing out before them. Some viewers might be driven insane by this premise, but knowing the actual nature of their relationship doesn’t matter. Waxing philosophical is the point, and the device is used to enhance the sense of tension and drama. This continues to push us to reflect on the value of narrative in our own lives. Kiarostami recognizes that we are all living in our own narratives, and how we view ourselves and the world shapes our feelings and the decisions we make far more than facts. If High Fidelity tries to tell us (men) that we shouldn’t view ourselves as the hero of our own story, this film pushes to the forefront how we attempt to reconcile the world as someone else understands it.
Marc Foster’s Stranger Than Fiction (a better David O. Russell film than any actual David O. Russell film) brings the existentialism-via-storytelling idea from subtext to text, featuring Harold Crick, an IRS employee (Will Ferrell) whose life suddenly becomes narrated by an omniscient third person. He eventually discovers that not only does an acclaimed contemporary fiction author have some hold over the events in his life, but she is also plotting (literally, ha!) his death.
The film is a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between author and creation, as it seems that the author never truly empathized with Crick until she met him. Many authors have emotional connections to their work, and are only able to commit to the ending required by their themes and creative minds because they know their work is fiction.
But more importantly, the film asks us not to drift through life, but to attempt to maximize our happiness. If we are Crick, unable to appreciate the things we want enough to actually go for them, we become coddled by our routines. We would hardly want to read a book where the main character simply gets up, brushes his teeth, goes to work, comes home and watches TV each day, so why are we content to live like that? Purpose doesn’t always equate with action, but the film calls us to be the master of our own destiny and not to blame our position on higher powers. Each time I watch this movie I come away with something different, and it remains as deep and creative as the first time I saw it.
We Anderson’s films have always featured storytellers, from Rushmore‘s Max, to The Life Aquatic being a literal fish tale, and forward to The Grand Budapest Hotel, the crowning achievement in Wes Anderson’s filmography from this perspective. In the film, Anderson posits history as a series of stories, experienced, told, and passed down to the next generation. One can read a series of names, dates, and facts of events, to attempt to understand history. But Anderson argues the best way to truly understand and appreciate the past is to hear the stories of those events from the point of view of those who experienced these events firsthand.
A Russian nesting doll of stories-within-stories, Grand Budapest features the larger-than-life character of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Flamboyant and heavily perfumed, it would be easy to dismiss him, and his story likewise. However, it is more valuable to understand him as representative of a society that was dying in the 20th century, the brutalism of the era sweeping away the last vestiges of the old grandeur.
But by passing his story down, no matter how implausible it may seem to our ears, we keep that spirit alive. We understand a man who was trying to keep the flames of civilization alive in the face of terror and oppression. We see this man, seemingly obsessed with decadence and frivolity, as a hero. Someone worth emulating, even if he was “merely” a hotel concierge.
I believe stories are the primary way that human beings make sense of the world. It’s pretty important, and these are just a handful of films that touch on that topic. I easily could have extended this to include other favorites of mine, like the aforementioned High Fidelity (hear Cinedelphia writer Dan Scully talk about it on the latest I Like to Movie Movie podcast), Edgar Wright’s filmography, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Holy Motors, Cabin in the Woods, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and others.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.