KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – Dario Marianelli
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest animated film from the outstanding Laika studio, whose previous efforts include such films as Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. The film is directed by Travis Knight and is set in a village in feudal Japan, where a young boy named Kubo practices the ancient art of origami, which he is able to magically manipulate by playing his shamisen, a three-stringed musical instrument similar to a guitar or banjo. Kubo’s father is dead, and his mother, who is ill, warns him about the dangers posed by his grandfather, the Moon King, and his aunts, the Sisters; they stole one of his eyes when he was a baby, and they covet the other one. Circumstances force Kubo to embark on a dangerous quest to search for his father’s armor, which he believes will protect him; he is accompanied on his journey by a magical monkey, and a half-man half-beetle samurai warrior who has no memory of his previous life. As they journey across the land, facing various dangers as they search for the armor, they are pursued by the Sisters, who will stop and nothing to thwart Kubo’s plans. The film – which has been the recipient of a great deal of critical acclaim – features the voices of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Game of Thrones’s Art Parkinson as Kubo, and has an original score by the Oscar-winning Italian composer Dario Marianelli.
Laika have always commissioned excellent scores from unusual, interesting composers: Bruno Coulais scored Coraline, Jon Brion wrote the best score of his career for Paranorman, and of course Marianelli scored The Boxtrolls in 2014. Kubo and the Two Strings makes it four for four in terms of success in music, and for me is the best score in Laika’s short history in animated feature films. Dario Marianelli has always been a composer who works best on films which allow him to showcase broad, powerful emotions, and Kubo and the Two Strings gives him plenty of that sort of thing to work with. It also allows him to delve into the heritage of a strong, vibrant musical culture, which has also always been a strength of his – Agora delved into the rich history of Arabic music, Anna Karenina played on Russian classics, and now Kubo and the Two Strings has him deep in the musical world of Japan.
The cornerstone of the score is, as one would expect, the shamisen that forms such a major part of the film’s storyline. Its iconic sound is present in almost every cue in some form or another, often leading the melodic line, sometimes providing rhythmic counterpoint, and sometimes even just giving a little textural flavor to the music. It is around this instrument that Marianelli builds his score, giving it a large and expansive orchestral sound, augmented with more traditional Japanese instruments, several impressive themes, and an emotional range that contains more than its fair share of powerful and vivid action writing, counterbalanced by moments of genuine pathos and heart.
Thematically the score is built around two recurring ideas: a three-note motif representing Kubo himself and his subtle magical powers, and a more expansive Heroic theme for Kubo, but which is also attributed to moments of bravery from Beetle and Monkey during the action sequences. The themes do not maintain instrumental consistency throughout the score; Marianelli moves them around his orchestra freely, showcasing several different instrumental variations, and playing with both key and tone too, allowing them to express different emotions as required by the scene in question.
The score opens with “The Impossible Waves,” a series of undulating, eerie brass chords, rolling like the ocean, accompanied by haunting ethnic woodwind and choral textures, which gradually give way to the first performance of Kubo’s theme at 0:56 – warm, longing, but just a little sad. Kubo’s talent for magic, trickery and showmanship is highlighted in several cues, many of which feature virtuoso shamisen performances at their core. “Kubo Goes to Town” is light and delicate, with plucked string instruments, feathery woodwinds, and glassy percussion textures which are steeped in traditional Japanese folk music. Later, cues like “Story Time” and “Origami Birds” give musical voice to Kubo’s talents by surrounding the shamisen with lithe, effervescent flourishes from the entire orchestra , and even an occasional rock music edge – a driving string undercurrent which is expressive, full of showmanship, and just a little ostentatious. There is so much life and finesse in the fascinating rhythmic ideas, and in the playful little allusions to Kubo’s theme on a shakuhachi bamboo flute.
The score takes a darker turn with “Meet the Sisters,” where heavier clacking wooden percussion ideas and moaning, dissonant brass give the deadly twins a threatening aura. It is here that Marianelli introduces the score’s action style – a collision of bold and tempestuous string runs, aggressive ostinatos which pass around different sections of the orchestra, grand and dominant brass, and an occasional otherworldly choral element. The subsequent “The Giant Skeleton” is notable not only for its thrilling orchestrations and boisterous rhythmic ideas, but also for the introduction of the Heroic Kubo theme, which is first heard here at the 2:26 mark.
Several subsequent cues feature the Heroic theme with clever variations. In “The Leafy Galleon” the theme is graceful and magical, arranged for shamisen and metallic percussion, and offset by a playful version of Kubo’s personal theme for tinkling strings and breathy flutes. Later, in “Hanzo’s Fortress,” the three-note Kubo theme segues into a lyrical first variation of the Heroic theme for full and lush strings and contrapuntal brass, and then into a second variation with the counter-melody moved to the shakuhachi and accompaniment from gorgeous but sorrowful voices. It’s a wonderful testament to Marianelli’s skill that he is able to capture all these emotional moving parts and weave his music around them in a way that is sensitive to the fluctuating dramatic narrative, but never veers into the mickey-mouse territory that some people felt hampered his score for The Boxtrolls
“Above and Below” revisits the swashbuckling action. “Monkey’s Story” offers a brief respite from the battle with soft, evocative solos from both shamisen and harp, as well as a deeply emotional female choral performance towards the end. The thrilling “United-Divided” references the Sisters identity in the percussion, and builds up to the grand finale in “Showdown with Grandfather,” where ominous cello chords, rattling shakuhachi blasts, and eerie voices gradually build into an action sequence of great power and portent. There is a magnificent sequence half way through the cue where staccato trumpets are layered contrapuntally with trombones and horns, and there are majestic statements of both main themes, including a lush performance of the Heroic theme towards the end, replete with cymbal rings and tolling bells. The score ends on a reflective note in “Rebirth,” a beautiful reprise of Kubo’s theme which moves from piano to harp, and gradually swells to an emotional finale complete with choir.
Everything about Kubo and the Two Strings works; even the cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by Regina Spektor, which would initially appear to be a terrible anachronism, is given a beautiful spin through the inclusion of a shamisen in the instrumental palette (although the instrument-only version of the song which was heard in the film’s trailer is sadly not included on the album). There has been something of a misconception recently about Dario Marianelli, especially regarding his capacity to write good action music, but this should finally be put to rest by his work on Kubo. However, as good as the action music is – and it is excellent – I am personally much more impressed with the way Marianelli has been able to bring together so many potentially stymieing elements and make them work as a cohesive whole. The shamisen, the other aspects of Japanese folk music, the two central themes, and of course the emotional content of the film all needed to blend together perfectly to make Kubo and the Two Strings resonate with audiences and allow them to empathize with Laika’s stop-motion puppets. Fortunately, they do, and if the film remains a critical darling, this is a score which could very easily contend for end-of-year awards.
Buy the Kubo and the Two Strings soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Impossible Waves (2:37)
- Kubo Goes to Town (1:25)
- Story Time (2:10)
- Ancestors (2:07)
- Meet the Sisters! (2:22)
- Origami Birds (3:25)
- The Giant Skeleton (3:30)
- The Leafy Galleon (4:36)
- Above and Below (3:59)
- The Galleon Restored (1:06)
- Monkey’s Story (2:57)
- Hanzo’s Fortress (5:45)
- United-Divided (3:01)
- Showdown with Grandfather (7:04)
- Rebirth (1:33)
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps (written by George Harrison, performed by Regina Spektor) (5:23)
Running Time: 53 minutes 11 seconds
Warner Brothers 556454 (2016)
Music composed by Dario Marianelli. Conducted by XXX. Orchestrations by XXX. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Dominic Certo. Album produced by Dario Marianelli.