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KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Inspirations
Like its newest hero, Kubo, LAIKA has been on a journey. In 10 years, LAIKA's status in the world of moviemaking has grown from fledgling animation studio to one of the world's most admired producers of animated features. In 2016, the Oregon-based studio was honored with an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement.

LAIKA's traditions of bold storytelling, technical innovation, unforgettable characters, gorgeous visuals, and bringing the art form of stop-motion animation into the 21st Century all coalesce in the company's most ambitious work to date, Kubo and the Two Strings.

The elements vital to this original story are love of Japanese culture and tradition, a boy becoming a hero, a quest packed with humor and action, and the self-discovery that we all seek.

Kubo and the Two Strings director/producer Travis Knight, an Annie Award-winning animator and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who has produced, and been Lead Animator on, LAIKA's Oscar-nominated ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, points out that "stop-motion has been around since the dawn of cinema. Fundamentally, it's the same process that Willis O'Brien used in King Kong in 1933, but we've created technology and techniques that have completely transformed the medium. Our combination of art, craft, science, and technology makes for powerful visual storytelling."

Yet LAIKA eschews a "house style" of animation, preferring instead to utilize those techniques, styles, and aesthetics that serve a particular story most appropriately - often blended together. What is consistent at the Oregon-based studio is its mandate to tell stories that are bold, distinctive, and enduring. Knight says, "We want to make movies that matter, and to do so in a way that truly pushes the medium of animation forward.

"We are heirs of a great tradition of storytelling. Whether sitting around a campfire, in an amphitheater in ancient Greece, or at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's England, experiencing stories in a communal setting is a powerful and timeless ritual. Now movie theaters are where we go for stories about who we are. It's an incredible privilege to assume that legacy. We take it seriously. We want to give the audience something new, a meaningful experience, something they can remember and carry with them in their lives."

Since storytelling forms the nucleus of the creative DNA at LAIKA, Kubo and the Two Strings could not help but appeal to Knight, who, as President & CEO of the company, decides which tales will be told.

"I had been looking for something big and expansive and epic in nature that would also speak to deep truths about life and childhood," Knight recalls. "Growing up, I was an enormous, obsessive fan of fantasy epics. I was a voracious reader, devouring Tolkien, Greek and Norse mythology, L. Frank Baum, and the seminal manga series Lone Wolf and Cub. It's probably no surprise that I was a film geek as well, and I adored the epic works of Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Ridley Scott, David Lean, and George Lucas. In fact, Star Wars is the first film that I remember seeing in the theater.

"LAIKA had yet to tackle a big fantasy. Probably for good reason. It's really hard. Most stop-motion films look like they're shot on a table top, because they are. But an heroic fantasy demands scope and scale. To make a small-scale movie shot on a gussied-up slab of wood in a warehouse look and feel like a large-scale epic lensed on an endless majestic vista is a nigh impossible task. It's ridiculous. Nobody would do that. Which is exactly why I was excited to do it."

So it was that Knight responded positively to a pitch from Shannon Tindle, who created the characters and the original story. "For me, Kubo and the Two Strings is very much about family," says Tindle. "It was inspired by my wife's relationship with her ailing mother. I wanted to tell their story through the prism of a fantastical Japanese-inspired folk tale. Drawing from such a personal place allowed the story to be an epic fantasy, but with a deep emotional core."

Marc Haimes developed the story with Tindle, and then wrote the screenplay with Chris Butler, who previously wrote and directed ParaNorman for LAIKA. Haimes comments, "One of the central themes in Kubo and the Two Strings is the redemptive power of storytelling. In her moments of clarity, Kubo's mother recounts stories of their lives together before his father's tragic end. But she is steadily declining, and Kubo becomes the storyteller to the villagers not only to earn a living to support them but also to keep the tales alive."

Arianne Sutner, who heads production at LAIKA and also produced ParaNorman, reveals that "it is not explained where Kubo's magic comes from. Kubo is, from when we meet him, blessed with the amazing ability to bring his family's story to life using origami and his magical shamisen."

Over the five years it took to bring the project to the screen, Kubo and the Two Strings grew as a love letter to Japanese culture from the entire team of artists, technologists, engineers, and craftspeople. The look of the movie is inspired by classic Japanese art and, in particular, Japanese woodblock printing. The latter's sawtooth patterns, the strong linear striations, intense but simple color palette, and rough-hewn texture were inspired by the work of woodblock masters including Katsushika Hokusai and, in particular, Kiyoshi Saito.

Tindle created all the character designs, noting that "the characters reflect a simple yet powerful silhouette quite different than anything we had seen in a stop-motion film before - and my appreciation of Japan and its art and culture."

Knight's own reverence for Japanese art and culture dates back over 30 years ago. "I took my first trip to Japan with my father when I was around eight years old. Growing up in America's Pacific Northwest, in many ways Japan felt like home, but in other, striking ways it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was beautiful, breathtaking, almost otherworldly. The architecture, the art, the style of dress, the music, the food, the movies and television shows and comic books…It was a revelation. I was utterly in its thrall."

Knight amassed a collection of manga comics to take back home, "riveted by the gorgeous illustrations and clarity of visual storytelling even though I didn't understand the language. My childhood introduction was the beginning of a life-long love affair with a great culture. I couldn't wait to go back, and I have returned many times since."

He muses, "It's no coincidence that my first film as a director combines all these things I've loved deeply since I was a child: epic fantasy, animation, samurai stories, and the beautiful, transcendent art of Japan, While other kids my age were running the soccer pitch or playing with their Matchbox cars, I was dreaming of Japan and imagining armies of stop-motion samurai. The great filmmaker Zhang Yimou once said that every boy either wants a train set or to make a martial arts movie. I never had a train set.

"In making this movie, Kurosawa towered over all other filmic influences. Spielberg has called Kurosawa a 'pictorial Shakespeare' and I believe that to be true. Every frame in a Kurosawa film is like a painting. His composition, cutting, movement, lighting, and shapes were an aesthetic muse on Kubo. But it's not just how he made movies, it's what he made movies about - existentialism, humanism and the heroic ideal, such as in No Regrets for Our Youth [1946] - that spoke to me."

Long revered at the LAIKA studios, legendary animation filmmaker "Hayao Miyazaki inspired me on this movie in a very different way," Knight recounts. "Miyazaki finds something that he has a fascination with, such as Europe, and he internalizes it, synthesizes it, and weaves it into his art. He's not documenting, or replicating reality. It becomes his interpretation as represented in his art, an almost impressionistic take that then becomes a leitmotif in a large work.

"The kind of prism that Miyazaki applies to Europe is what I wanted to apply to Japan, offering my view on a place and culture that have been vital to me for so long."

Knight conveyed his enthusiasms to the LAIKA artisans, who looked to a wide array of creative sources for further inspiration. Head of costuming Deborah Cook studied the famous folding techniques of modern Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake; lighting cameraman Dean Holmes watched a series of Japan-set documentaries; and the puppet team researched the construction of samurai armor at the Portland Art Museum.

The extraordinary environments that were conceived, designed, and staged for Kubo and the Two Strings are also inspired by an English filmmaker, David Lean. The master director's movies took audiences to Earthly worlds of wonder for characters' quests, and Knight wanted LAIKA to do the same for its epic movie.

Production designer Nelson Lowry, who crafted otherworldly activity for LAIKA's ParaNorman, found "working on a film that is steeped in another culture to be very exciting. We really wanted to do the Japanese aesthetic justice. The woodblock printing of the Edo period became one key point of reference."

While neither a documentary-style account nor a replica of Japanese culture, the world of Kubo and the Two Strings reflects each crew member's own specific absorption, interpretation, and finally installation of that culture into a story set in a version of Japan. Early on, LAIKA invited accomplished Japanese artists of different mediums to enhance the daily creative process.

From 90-year-old choreographer Sahomi Tachibana, who would ultimately lead dancers to create the Obon Festival dance sequences in the movie, to consultant/interpreter Taro Goto, who was peppered with questions large and small from the crew whether on-set early on or by phone to Tokyo, LAIKA was constantly evaluating its aesthetic choices and cultural references for authenticity within an interpretive frame.

Art director Alice Bird recalls how Goto's input informed a scene wherein villager Kameyo, an old woman, communes with Kubo as he tells stories. The character was originally planned to be depicted sitting on the ground during the performance, but "Taro told us that a woman, no matter her station in society, would never sit on the ground like that. It's just not something that you would see; it would be truly shocking. So we changed that; those small but telling details are incredibly important when you're trying to capture an authentic culture and a way of life.

"Working on Kubo and the Two Strings became inspirational for everyone. We wanted to go that extra mile to be true to Japanese culture and its philosophies."

The Obon Festival takes on significance in the movie as Kubo seeks healing from loss. Honoring deceased ancestors, the Japanese custom of Obon is rooted in Buddhist traditions and has become an annual holiday in Japan during which the spirits of ancestors are believed to return to this world in order to visit their relatives. Traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors' spirits; Obon dances (bon odori) are performed; graves are visited; and food offerings are made at homes, altars, and temples. The way Obon is followed varies from region to region. In some areas, floating lanterns are put into rivers, lakes, and seas at the close of Obon in order to guide the spirits back into their world. Spanning three days, Obon is observed in mid-August in many regions of Japan, and observed in mid-July in other regions.

A cultural icon, actor George Takei voices the role of Hosato, the village elder who guides his own child through Obon. "In the film, I introduce my daughter to it so as to pay our respects to our characters' ancestors. We become one with the great oneness of the universe."

Sutner reveals, "Hosato represents a guiding father figure in our story, and he stands as an strong example to Kubo of how a loving father would treat his child and uphold traditions and beliefs within the family. The idea of honoring family members, even after they are gone, is a central theme of the story - and one that each of us relate to in a very personal way."

"Death is that big transition when we become one with the universe," reflects Takei. "For young people seeing this movie, we personify it as respect for our ancestors and it becomes a celebration as well, a ritual. Dancing is an integral part of the Obon observance. In fact, when I was a kid I thought Obon was essentially a dancing festival and later on my parents explained to me that it was how we paid respect to our family history."

For Takei, Kubo's caring for a mother in a fragile emotional state resonated powerfully. He remembers, "My mother's health turned poorer, and she eventually moved in with me and my husband. She brought her Buddhist altar with her, and it remained there until she passed.

Remembrance and humanization of our ancestors is so important, as we are all constantly going through transitions in life."

Haimes feels that "the story delved into some complex themes about the transformative magic of myth, and how stories can function as spiritual tools. The tales Kubo tells bring unity, connectivity, and truth.

"So his own tangible physical adventures absolutely needed to reflect that. As a result, our thrilling action scenes and spectacular set pieces have a kind of double meaning to them. Every 'beat' of action had to reflect our young hero's deeper journey towards understanding."

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