Get your comic on with freebies statewide

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a movie based on a comic book series, is now out in theaters on this, the first weekend of May. And you know what happens when movies based on comics get released around this time of year: It’s time to promote the heck out of comics. Woo hoo!

On Saturday, various comic shops and libraries will be giving away a wide range of comic books as part of Free Comic Book Day. Some will even be hosting special events. It’s a tradition that’s run annually since 2002, and while some of the stores locally have changed over the years, the concept remains the same: give away comic books; expose readers to a wide range of series; get people into stores to peruse their stock.

This year’s manga-related offerings include excerpts from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, Dragon Ball Super and Boruto from Viz, and excerpts from Attack on Titan from Kodansha Comics. Here’s this year’s list of what’s available; keep in mind that not all titles will be available at all locations. And try to buy something, will ya? While the books are free for customers, they aren’t for the retailers ordering them, so a bit of paid patronage certainly goes a long way in showing your appreciation for what they do.

Anyway! To the giveaways and events!

Comic book store events

Dragon's Lair flyerDragon’s Lair in Mililani (95-1840 Meheula Parkway, space E-10) will feature five, count ’em, five artists doing free sketches: Dwayne Acoba, Andrew Gutierrez, Kaci Horimoto, Reid Kishimoto and Jon Murakami. All current comics will be 25 percent off, with trade paperbacks and hardcovers going for 15 percent off. They open at 10 a.m.

Other Realms FCBD flyerOther Realms in Iwilei (1130 Nimitz Highway, suite C-140) will feature Free Isabelo, Roy Chang, Dowyne “DJ” Keawekane and Napua Ahina doing free sketches and paid commissions. First 50 people through the door will get a free button pin featuring the Tick and his trusty sidekick Arthur. There’s also going to be keiki face-painting (featuring SkinWars season 3 contestant Kyera Dalesandro), hourly door prizes, appearances by Legion of Shadows Hawaii cosplayers … and, of course, comic specials, with double points for Member Rewards card holders. They open at 10 a.m.

As far as I can tell, Choice Comics in Pearl City (98-1268 Kaahumanu St., suite 104) has the most liberal giveaway terms: a 10-comic limit per customer. They open at 10:30 a.m.

At Westside Comics and Games out in Kapolei (590 Farrington Highway, unit 538), you can get a maximum of three books … or you can sub out books for limited-edition Funko Pop and Heroclix figures. They open at 10 a.m.

Other stores on Oahu hosting FCBD giveaways include Collector Maniacs (3571 Waialae Ave., suite 102A) and Gecko Books & Comics (1151 12th Ave.), both in Kaimuki.

Two of the biggest players in comics on the neighbor islands are bringing their A games as well. Maui Comics & Collectibles in Kahului (333 Dairy Road, suite 102), celebrating its second anniversary, will feature James Silvani, author of Draw-a-Saurus and a comic artist whose series include Darkwing Duck, The Muppets, Ducktales, How to Train Your Dragon and Animaniacs, and Todd BernardyKukui Project artist, doing free sketches and signings. Also part of the festivities: the Second Annual Bruce Ellsworth Memorial Charity Auction. You can get some free samples at Mr. Pineapple next door, too! The festivities get underway at 10 a.m.

Finally, over in Hilo, Enjoy Comics (45 Pohaku St., unit 201) will have free grab bags with comics and other goodies for the kids, as well as giveaways throughout the day, starting at 10 a.m.

Library giveaways

20170503_162206Fifteen libraries on Oahu and nine on the neighbor islands will be participating this year; just show them your library card and you can get a comic (or maybe even two at some libraries!) for free. They’ll also have bookmarks (drawn by Michael Cannon this year), and most of the libraries will feature appearances from cosplayers from the Pacific Outpost of the 501st Imperial Legion, Rebel Legion Hawaii and the Costumers Guild of Hawaii.

Your starting lineup on Oahu: (deep breath in)

And on the neighbor islands: HiloKailua-Kona and Thelma Parker Memorial Public & School Library on the Big Island; Kahului, KīheiLahaina and Makawao on Maui; and Princeville on Kauai. Lanai Public & School Library will be represented at the Saturday Market from 8 to 10 a.m. at Dole Park.

Special events

nemu*nemu cartoonist Audra Furuichi will be signing and sketching at McCully-Moiliili Library from 10 a.m. to noon…ish. She’ll also have copies of nemu*nemu books available for the taking. Don’t feel like driving all the way out there? Her books will also be part of the FCBD assortments at — deep breath in again — Aiea, Aina Haina, Kailua, Kalihi-Palama, Kapolei, Liliha, Manoa, Mililani, Salt Lake-Moanalua, Waikiki-Kapahulu, Waimanalo, Waipahu and Wahiawa libraries on Oahu, and Hilo and Kahului on the neighbor islands. There’s a limited supply, so get them while you can. Distribution methods also may vary; Aiea’s young adult librarian/Face of Hawaii Ingress ™ Diane Masaki tells me she’ll be raffling off sets throughout the day.

Mililani Library will be hosting a free screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story starting at 2 p.m. We are the Force, and the Force is in us.

James Silvani will be signing and sketching from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Kihei Library on Maui. Looks like he’ll be stopping here before moving on to Maui Comics & Collectibles in the afternoon.

Local artist, storyteller and educator Keith U. McCrary will be hosting a cartooning workshop starting at 10 a.m. at Makawao Library on Maui. The program is geared toward ages 6 and up; children must be accompanied by a parent or adult caregiver.

Kailua-Kona Library will be hosting a cosplay contest in their Young Adult section, open to students from the 4th through 12th grades. Cosplay from any source is welcome! Registration runs from 10 to 10:30 a.m., with the competition (featuring audience participation!) running from 10:30 to 11 a.m. Two winners will each get a $25 Regal Cinemas gift card, perfect for seeing selections from the upcoming GKids Ghibli Film Fest.

“nemu*nemu” creator charts con-less path

Kawaii Kon released the first edition of its schedule for this year’s show on Friday, along with a spiffy new app (in both iOS and Android flavors!). Whenever big, juicy chunks of information like this drop in front of me, my friendly neighborhood anime/manga/Con-athon blogger instincts immediately kick in and I try to soak up every last newsworthy tidbit contained within.

And boy, was there something newsworthy in there. More specifically, there was something newsworthy in what wasn’t in there — a longstanding presence at Kawaii Kon, one that’s been around since 2007.

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After 10 straight years, there’s no sign of a nemu*nemu booth in the dealers room.

For artist Audra Furuichi, to not be a part of Kawaii Kon 2017 meant either that there was a mistake somewhere in the grand scheme of scheduling things, or she was shifting her resources elsewhere.

20150509_104733_editSadly for fans of Audra’s work, the latter is true. Unbeknownst to many of us at the time, the nemu*nemu appearances at the Hawaii Collectors Expo last month and the Mid-Pacific Institute Hoolaulea on Friday were the last we’ll be seeing for the immediate future. In addition to Kawaii Kon, that rules out appearances at other Oahu Con-athon events  — Comic Con Honolulu, Amazing Hawaii Comic Con and Anime Ohana — as well.

“No hard feelings to any of the shows — it’s just progressively gotten physically harder to do shows,” Audra told me via Facebook chat on Sunday. “Kinda lacking the endurance I used to have. I also don’t have new merchandise at the moment, so it was a good time to bow out.”

She also cited an evolving audience as a factor. The nemu*nemu online comic has been on hiatus since last July as she’s worked on other projects, and not as many people know about the plush pup duo as they did in the comic’s early years.

“Thought about doing the (Artist Alley), but the long hours and EXTREME COMPETITION OMGWTFBBQ … are big deterrents for me,” she said.

This doesn’t mean the end of all things nemu*nemu, though. Audra’s exploring swinging by Kawaii Kon for a day to drop off something for the art show. The nemu*nemu: Blue Hawaii comic strip is still chugging along in the Star-Advertiser. And she’s been posting some pretty non nemu*nemu artwork at audrafuruichi.com.

audra patreonAnd then there’s Audra’s Patreon account, where she’s been sharing sneak peeks at Blue Hawaii strips, digital desktops and other artistic works since January 2015. It’s a way for fans to show their continuing support for her work; it can be difficult to focus on creating art and tending to the business side of things, after all. As of this writing, 61 patrons are contributing $522 a month. (Full journalistic disclosure: I’m one of Audra’s $25/month contributors.)

There’s now an added incentive for people to jump on board: If contributions reach $550 a month, she’ll start regularly drawing a one-shot nemu*nemu comic again, once a month. It’s a perfect incentive for the comic’s 11th anniversary coming up April 1, and all it’ll take is one person contributing $28 a month, or 28 people contributing $1 a month, or some happy medium in between.

Catching up and moving forward

It’s been a weird past few weeks — the joy of spending Maui Comic Con driving around the Valley Isle with some good friends, the what-is-happening-to-our-country-ness of the general election, the devolution of my social media feeds from “must-read, and hey, here are a few news tidbits that are worth sharing in the blog, too” to GEEZ LOUISE ANOTHER POLITICAL OPINION POST I GET ENOUGH OF THIS READING THE WIRE SERVICE FEEDS AT WORK KILL IT WITH FIRE.

There have been a number of things to talk about in the this blog, too. I just haven’t had the time/energy to get around to writing them up. Weird thing is, I’ve seen similar sentiments echoed by some Facebook friends over the past few days or so. Real Life has just been sucking our creative juices dry, and that’s just … unfortunate.

But, well, time marches on and events keep happening. And sometimes you just have to grit your teeth, bear down and get stuff done, no matter how small a step it may be. So to get the ball rolling once again, here are some quick news tidbits. I know there’s been quite a bit going on with Con-athon 2017 developments; I’m working on another post that’ll address those (hopefully) somewhat sorta soonish.

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Eighty-two pictures from this event, and this was the only decent shot I could get of Deb. I feel like I failed somehow. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.

Tidbit no. 1: Remember that manga talk Deb Aoki gave at the Honolulu Museum of Art back on Oct.28? Here’s the complete video of that discussion, courtesy of Stephen Salel at the museum. If you ever wanted to know more about Deb’s career arc, this is definitely the place to do it.

Tidbit no. 2: Spirited Away is returning to theaters nationwide on Sunday and Monday to mark its 15th anniversary, and it’s bringing a special treat for die-hard Studio Ghibli fans: the first-ever North American screenings of Ghiblies Episode 2, a 25-minute comedic short about what goes on at an animation studio that looks a lot like Studio Ghibli itself. Check it out locally at noon Sunday (dubbed) or 7 p.m. Monday (subtitled) at the Regal Dole Cannery theaters. Tickets are available on Fandango for $13.09 general, $10.47 children 11 and under.

Tidbit no. 3: It’s the final (official) jam of the year for Comic Jam Hawaii, the group of collaborative cartoon artists, and they’re road-trippin’: They’re headed over to the Windward side and Kailua Public Library, 239 Kuulei Road, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Visit www.facebook.com/groups/ComicJamHawaii (Facebook login required).

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Tidbit no. 4: MiniQ, that outpost of anime goodie happiness in the middle of Aiea, is opening a second branch Friday, Dec. 9, at 95-1057 Ainamakua Drive in Mililani Mauka. There’s going to be food and giveaways at the grand opening, too! Seeing as how (a) this makes MiniQ many miles closer to Otaku Ohana Central out here in Mililani Town, (b) it’s right next to the Sugar Coated Hawaii bakery and (c) it’s just a short walk away from Starbucks, Taps ‘n’ Apps, Wing Stop and Dragon’s Lair, my wallet is already weeping.

And last but certainly not least: Stan Sakai, who’s been chronicling the adventures of the rabbit ronin Usagi Yojimbo all these years, is coming back to Honolulu for a signing session from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at Other Realms (1130 N. Nimitz Highway, in the back of the Nimitz Center) In honor of Stan’s appearance, the store is selling a special 11×17 Usagi print, limited to 200 copies, for $30 each. Here’s what it looks like.

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If you’re drooling right now, first of all, here’s a napkin, that’s kinda gross. And second of all, you can order one for yourself by calling 596-8236, stopping by the store or filling out the online form at www.other-realms.com/stan-sakai-2016.html You can even pick it up on the day of the signing or have it shipped.

Manga through our eyes: The Art Museum talks

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The Honolulu Museum of Art’s Stephen Salel, left, leads a panel discussion with artists Audra Furuichi, Jamie Lynn Lano and Brady Evans; Kawaii Kon senior administrator Roy Bann; and some dorky blogger boy who probably should’ve moved his chair closer so he could see better. Photo by Diane Masaki.

On Oct. 7, your friendly neighborhood otaku blogger joined artists Brady Evans, Audra Furuichi and Jamie Lynn Lano, as well as Kawaii Kon senior administrator Roy “Buma” Bann, for “Manga in Japan, Hawai‘i, and Throughout the World,” a series of short lectures and a roundtable discussion at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Hosted by Stephen Salel, the museum’s Japanese art curator, the event was held in conjunction with the ongoing exhibit “Visions of Gothic Angels: Japanese Manga by Takaya Miou,” on display through Jan. 15.

A handful of people showed up. Some weren’t even friends or spouses of the speakers! And whoever was there learned a fair amount about manga and our perspectives on the industry. (As far as I could tell, no one fell asleep during the presentations, which was also a big plus.) Thanks to everyone who turned out!

But maybe 4 p.m. on a Friday didn’t really fit into your schedule. It’s OK; we have you covered. I’m pleased to announce that about 90 percent of the day’s presentations have now been posted on YouTube. Sadly, Stephen told me this morning that the other 10 percent — that closing discussion, a picture of which is shown above — isn’t available due to some serious audio problems.

My presentation predominantly features my slides, which is probably a good thing, considering I was kinda squinting and tearing up during a good chunk of it. (It was probably a combination of nerves and some wayward dust particles.) The videos are conveniently broken up by speaker.

Enjoy!

Part 1: Introduction by Stephen Salel
Part 2: “The Origin of Manga” by Stephen Salel
Part 3: “What is Manga?” by Audra Furuichi
Part 4: “Working as a Manga Artist in Japan” by Jamie Lynn Lano
Part 5: “Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Manga Industry in the U.S.” by me!
Part 6: “Organizing Manga and Anime Conventions in Hawaii” by Roy Bann
Part 7: “Crossing Cultures: The Art of Manga in Hawaii” by Brady Evans

A new age, a new page

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West Hawaii coastline as seen from the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, home to HawaiiCon 2016. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.

Welcome to the all-new, 100-percent-less-newspaper-affiliated Otaku Ohana! As always, I’m your friendly neighborhood otaku blogger, Jason Y.; over there playing Tsum Tsum (both regular and Marvel varieties!) and likely racking up three or four times the scores and coins I’m capable of garnering is longtime Tag-Team Partner in Fandom Wilma Win. The usual cast of characters and running gags are sticking around as well. (Aiea Library still does have plenty of parking, by the way.)

Please pardon our dust as we get settled and figure out the new toys we get to play with now that we have full control over our design and content. For starters, I think this part of the post is where I’m supposed to stick multiple garish “website under construction” animated GIFs.

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(We are still under late-’90s web design protocol, right? No? Dang.)

In any case, we’re trying to look at and implement cool new features whenever we can find them and figure out what they do. You’ll notice one of those new features in the sidebar listed to the right (if you’re reading this on a computer, anyway) under “What’s Goin’ On?”: The Ota-cool Incoming Calendar is now an actual standing calendar. There are a number of events already populating it, from the imminent upcoming screenings of Shin Godzilla through Anime Ohana next October, and I’ll be updating and adding descriptions to the calendar as the information comes in to Otaku Ohana Central. (I’ll still be highlighting a few upcoming events here and there in blog posts, too.) You can find out a little bit about this blog in that section, too.

We’ve got a nice, spiffy new header image in the works, too. Hopefully we’ll be able to reveal that in the next week or so.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to fill this new space with the quality content you’ve come to expect from us over the years. Shouldn’t be a problem, of course. But new adventures always come with some degree of uncertainty, right?

Summit of the manga mega-minds

This edition of Otaku Ohana is brought to you by two pens, an apple and a pineapple.

Because if I have to write this post about all the otaku activities going on at the Honolulu Museum of Art this month while I’m thinking about how there’s an pen, and there’s an apple, and UNH, now there’s an APPLE PEN, then I’m sure as heck going to have you, dear reader, stuck with that thought, too.

(It could’ve been worse. The Otaku Ohana Anonymous Director of Forced Social Interaction left me with the earworm of Pentatonix’s “Perfume Medley” during all of HawaiiCon a few weeks ago. You try walking anywhere having “Spending all, spending, spending all my time / Loving you, loving you foreeeever” lodged in your, lodged in your brain foreeeever.)

Even the exhibit entrance sign looks pretty. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.
Even the exhibit entrance sign looks pretty. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.

But I digress. There’s a lot going on at the art museum, and much of it is tied in with a major manga exhibit: “Visions of Gothic Angels: Japanese Manga by Takaya Miou.” The exhibit, ongoing through Jan. 15, is curated by Stephen Salel, the man who also assembled “Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art,” the 2014-15 exhibit that brought manga artists Erica Sakurazawa and Moyoco Anno to Honolulu. From the exhibit description:

Takaya’s artwork explores themes of femininity and female identity through fantastic imagery originating from a wide variety of artistic traditions: Italian Renaissance portraits of Christian martyrs, the intricate Art Nouveau style of British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), the surreal puppets of German sculptor Hans Bellmer (1902–1975), and the whimsical street fashion of Harajuku district in Tokyo.

In addition to an overview of the artist’s 25-year career, Visions of Gothic Angels: Japanese Manga by Takaya Miou focuses upon two anthologies, The Madness of Heaven (Tengoku kyō, 2001) and Map of Sacred Pain (Seishō-zu, 2001). Illustrations and short stories from these publications will be presented in a variety of formats: original drawings, printed books (tankobon), large-scale wall graphics, and digital works that visitors can read from cover to cover on iPads installed in the gallery.

Here are a few shots I took at the opening night reception in August that give you an impression of how it all looks.

Here's the entrance to the exhibit. On the near wall, you can see some of Takaya's art; the far wall contains several of her manga pages. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.
Here’s the entrance to the exhibit. On the near wall, you can see some of Takaya’s art; the far wall contains several of her manga pages. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.
An entire wall is devoted to displaying doujinshi Takaya has published over the years. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.
An entire wall is devoted to displaying doujinshi Takaya has published over the years. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.
"After a Poem by Tsukamoto Kunio" (1998) is one of Takaya's works on display. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.
“After a Poem by Tsukamoto Kunio” (1998) is one of Takaya’s works on display. Photo by Jason S. Yadao.

While Takaya won’t be appearing at the museum during the exhibit’s run — I understand she’s quite reclusive — there are those aforementioned events that the museum’s hosting. I was too busy to mention anything about last Saturday’s screening of Miss Hokusai, but here are some pictures an attendee, who wished to be identified as “fuzZz 😸,” passed along to me.

Artists hard at work at a reception held before the screening of "Miss Hokusai" Oct. 1. From left are Jon Murakami (with FIGHTING SPIRIT HEADBAND~!), Michael Cannon, Kaci Horimoto and Tara Tamayori.
Artists hard at work at a reception held before the screening of “Miss Hokusai” Oct. 1. From left are Jon Murakami (with FIGHTING SPIRIT HEADBAND~!), Michael Cannon, Kaci Horimoto and Tara Tamayori.
A fan drawn by Kaci Horimoto. It sold at silent auction for $50. (A certain blogger dork may have bid on it via proxy and won it.)
A fan drawn by Kaci Horimoto. It sold at silent auction for $50. (A certain blogger dork may have bid on it via proxy and won it.)
One of the fans drawn by Michael Cannon.
One of the fans drawn by Michael Cannon.

From 4 to 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Doris Duke Theatre, there’s going to be a roundtable discussion, “Manga in Japan, Hawai‘i, and Throughout the World,” featuring artists Brady Evans, Audra Furuichi and Jamie Lynn Lano; Kawaii Kon senior administrator Roy “Buma” Bann, and some friendly neighborhood anime/manga/comic blogger dork who may be revealing some big news about the future of Otaku Ohana during his portion of the discussion. (It’s pretty exciting!) Come get a quick primer on the industry, learn about where we draw our inspirations from, and hear why 60% of the panel adores homespun slice-of-life comedies.

Another lecture at 4 p.m. Oct. 28 will feature Bento Box artist, former manga.about.com curator and all-around U.S. manga community sempai Deb Aoki. In her talk, “Making a Living in Manga: Bento Box and Beyond,” she’ll discuss her artistic career, how she got interested in manga and the struggles of contemporary manga creators. Both her talk and our panel discussion are free. so swing by, enrich your manga fandom a bit and avoid a good chunk of what’s bound to be horrible afternoon rush-hour traffic.

Last but certainly not least, there’s the ongoing Japanese Cinema spotlight, which I’ve talked about in this space before (along with several other movies that are coming up in the next few weeks!). As a reminder, here are the remaining anime on the schedule, featuring a tribute to late director Satoshi Kon:

>> Tekkonkinkreet, 1 and 7:30 p.m. today

>> Millennium Actress, 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, and 1 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27

>> Paprika, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, and 1 and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25

>> Tokyo Godfathers, 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, and 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26

Tickets are $10 general admission, $8 museum members.

The art museum and theater are located at 900 S. Beretania St.; admission to the museum is $10, with free admission every first Wednesday and third Sunday of every month. For more information, visit honolulumuseum.org.

15 minutes of fame: A chat with “Kubo” director Travis Knight

Beetle, Kubo, and Monkey emerge from the forest and take in the beauty of the landscape in "Kubo and the Two Strings." Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features.
Beetle, Kubo, and Monkey emerge from the forest and take in the beauty of the landscape in “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features.

It was on my first day back at work after my recent Comic-Con Honolulu vacation that I got the offer from our features editor, Christie Wilson: Would I be interested in doing an interview with Travis Knight, director of Kubo and the Two Strings?

Was I ever.

I mean, it’s not every day that your friendly neighborhood anime/manga/cartooning blogger gets handed an opportunity to pick the brain of someone tied in with a major national theatrical release. And not just any someone; this was Travis Knight, CEO of Laika, the stop-motion/computer animation studio behind Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, and the son of Nike founder Phil Knight. That’s a resume that makes someone a virtual lock on my “people I will talk to no matter what, as long as the offer remains on the table” list.

That “no matter what” clause did come into play a few times. There were a few missed connections, and the publication venue shifted from print to online.  But it finally came to pass that last Thursday — the morning after I attended the Hawaii premiere of Kubo — I got to spend 15 minutes on the phone with Knight himself. And … wow. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be talking about manga and Japanese culture with an animation studio CEO and director of what would turn out to be the No. 4 movie in the nation at the weekend box office, younger me probably would have freaked the freak out. 

Kubo’s certainly a great movie over which to start a conversation. The titular character is a boy who spends his days as a storyteller in a Japanese fishing village, crafting fantastic tales and enlivening origami pieces with his trusty shamisen, and his nights atop a peak, caring for his ailing mom who slips in and out of a trance that seems to be tied in to the rising and setting moon. When Kubo accidentally unleashes a vengeful spirit upon the village, it’s up to the boy, a monkey charm brought to life and a quixotic insect samurai to take it out … and perhaps solve the mystery of what happened to his fallen father along the way. It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year to date, full of Laika’s trademark eye-popping animated charm (be sure to stick around for the end credits for a cool behind-the-scenes shot!) and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should correct that as soon as possible.

The film marks Knight’s debut as director, the natural next stop in a 20-year career in animation that’s seen him serve as a production assistant, scheduler, coordinator and producer, taking ideas from conception and development all the way through completion; work as a stop-motion and computer animator; and run a major animation studio. During that time, there was always a part of him that wanted to direct a feature — “I think it’s sort of a cliche that every animator wants to direct something, and so I guess I am a cliche,” he said.

It was just a matter of timing.

“Those early days at Laika, we were trying to get the place up and running, so a lot of the energy early on was just making sure that the place could function,” Knight said. “So I’ve been involved heavily on every single film that we’ve done. But once I felt like a) the company was in decent shape, and b) I’d have enough experience that I could bring to bear to direct one of these things properly, and c) that I had enough of an emotional connection with it, that I could honor the story in the best way and bring a unique point of view and perspective to it, all of those things had to align before I was ready to take something on. And on this project, it did.”

"Kubo and the Two Strings" director Travis Knight works with Kubo on the "Kubo's Village" set. Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” director Travis Knight works with Kubo on the “Kubo’s Village” set. Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features.

The project featured the convergence of several factors. Directing drew upon every experience Knight had in the industry to date — “It required an animator’s eye for detail and attention, the ability to focus on the granularity of something,” he said. “But at the same time, to not lose sight of the bigger picture.” (Even with that, it was the hardest thing he had done in his career, he said.) The story of Kubo’s epic journey is a callback to the kinds of fantasy epics Knight enjoyed during his childhood. Sometimes his mom told him those stories, like Kubo’s mom shares with her son in the movie. They were tales woven by legends of the genre — L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll. J.R.R. Tolkien was a particular favorite, perhaps owing to the fact that Knight’s mom was reading Lord of the Rings while pregnant with him and during postpartum recovery.

And then there was the Japan factor. When Knight was 8, his dad let him tag along with him on one of his business trips there. For a kid who’d grown up in Portland, Ore., going to Japan was a life-changing experience.

“From the moment I set foot in Japan, it really was like I’d been transported to another world,” Knight said. “It was so incredibly different, but also just beautiful and breathtaking and almost otherworldly. It was so completely unlike anything I had ever experienced growing up in Portland, everything from the food to the style of dress to the music and the architecture and the art and the movies and the TV shows and the comic books. Everything about it was so totally different from anything I had ever seen before, and I was enthralled by it.

“It really was a revelation for me, and I came back home with a backpack full of manga and art and little artifacts from my journey in Japan, and it really was the beginning of a lifetime love affair that I’ve had with this great and beautiful culture.”

Kubo’s story brings magic to life as Little Hanzo, an enchanted origami piece, takes center stage. Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features
Kubo’s story brings magic to life as Little Hanzo, an enchanted origami piece, takes center stage. Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features

Knight cited the samurai-and-son epic Lone Wolf and Cub and the missions taken on by the titular stoic assassin of Golgo 13 as two series that made an impression on him, the former having a huge influence on Kubo’s development. Having grown up on a steady diet of American and British comics, the artistic and storytelling style of manga appealed to him, even if it was all in Japanese and widespread American familiarity with manga’s right-to-left, back-to-front format was still more than a decade away at that point.

“I think that’s the mark of how extraordinary these storytellers were that it transcended language,” he said. “It was something that could speak to you, even if you couldn’t speak the actual language.”

The work of two of Japan’s most revered filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, also helped shape Kubo. Knight sees Japan as the birthplace of the modern cinematic epic, with Kurosawa — a “pictorial Shakespeare,” as labeled by Steven Spielberg and affirmed by Knight — being the director who led the way.

“He was certainly an aesthetic muse for the film, just in terms of how he made films — composition, cutting, lighting, movement, staging,” Knight said. “You could basically take any frame of a Kurosawa film and put it on a wall, I mean, it’s that gorgeous. They look like paintings. I don’t think there’s a filmmaker alive that hasn’t been directly or indirectly influenced by Kurosawa. I mean, you could just look at all of the things … Yojimbo was a huge influence. I mean, I saw Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and loved it before I even knew that Yojimbo existed. But then of course you find out later that it’s a remake of a Kurosawa film, as so many Western films are.”

There are a number of nods to the director’s work throughout Kubo. Kubo’s dad is modeled after frequent Kurosawa muse Toshiro Mifune, and Kubo’s broken home is a callback to the ruined fortress in Rashomon. Several themes that ran through Kurosawa’s films are also explored here — “the exploration of humanism, of existentialism, the role of the ideal, what it means to be a family, what it means to stand up to family sometimes to make the world a better place,” as Knight put it.

As for Miyazaki?

“I think that most modern animators … worship at the altar of Miyazaki,” Knight said. “I mean, I love his films, they’re just exquisite. Everything from My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I mean, they’re all just lovely films that are so different from each other.”

Knight applied two elements common in Miyazaki’s films to Kubo. The first features characters that act in shades of gray rather than black and white. Anyone who’s seen the movie might be nodding in agreement here over the character arcs, particularly when it comes to Kubo’s scene in the graveyard and the moment when the Moon King reveals his motivations.

“I love how Miyazaki approaches films and protagonists and antagonists where there are shades of gray all throughout his filmmaking,” Knight said. “Even the villains are not pure evil; oftentimes they’re misunderstood or they have a different perspective or they have shades of light within them. And then the heroes are not completely noble; they have problems of their own. I just love that approach, that there’s empathy toward people who may be misunderstood.”

Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson from "Game of Thrones") takes in the scenery below as he sets off on a journey to his village. Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features.
Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson from “Game of Thrones”) takes in the scenery below as he sets off on a journey to his village. Courtesy Laika Studios/Focus Features.

Those characters dwell in a Japan that certainly feels like Japan, even if it’s not a direct reflection of any one time in particular. Knight compared it to Miyazaki’s fascination for Europe and how it’s depicted in his movies, rendering the continent more as an impressionist painting rather than a photograph or a documentary.

“Our version of Japan, it’s a period fantasy, it’s not a photograph,” Knight said. “Even though we do incredible, extensive research into regional and historical history, it is a period fantasy. But we want to make sure that our fairy tale has one foot in the real world.

“And so, very much like Miyazaki is, the prism he applies to Europe, that’s what I wanted to do to Japan, is to effectively make an impressionist painting of Japan so that we can capture the feeling, the experience that I had when I was a kid exposed to Japan for the first time, this wondrous, beautiful, magical, breathtaking place. I wanted to try to infuse the film with that kind of spirit, and hopefully it does that.”

So as we head into the movie’s second weekend in theaters, why see Kubo (which I’d highly recommend you do) or see it again (which I’d highly recommend you do as well)? It’s hard for me to summarize it without leaving something out, so here’s his complete response:

“On one level I think it operates as just a big, sprawling epic fantasy. It’s a lot of fun, there’s action, there’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s heart. I think what I love about the movie more than the beauty of the images is what’s underneath it. I mean, it is cinematic pageantry, there’s a lot of glorious things to the whole, it does dazzle the eye. But I love the strong beating heart that it has underneath it all. That really gets to the core issue and the core themes that we explore in the movie. Fundamentally it’s a film about loss, it’s about grief. It’s about things that are typically shied away from in films geared toward family, how we confront and deal with significant loss and death and what grief can do to us.

“But at the same time it’s also a film about healing. I mean, we explore this, we have this motif of scars in this movie, where every single central character in the film is physically scarred in one way and emotionally scarred as well. And you know for Kubo, he’s ashamed of his scar. He combs his hair not because he’s trying to be a cool goth kid, he covers his eye not because he wants to have an awesome hairstyle, but because he’s ashamed of what his hair is covering. And he believes like so many of us believe, that a scar is a symbol of injury. But as we go through the film, we also get to this other notion,  come through the other side, that while a scar is a symbol of hurt, it’s also a symbol of healing, after we’ve been ripped to shreds, the scar is something that makes us whole. So by the end of the film, he’s no longer ashamed. He’s an open wound who’s been made whole by this whole experience.

“So fundamentally it’s an exploration of loss, but also of healing. It’s a meditation on compassion and forgiveness and empathy, which I think in this fractured world that we live in, we could all use a bit more of.”

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And that was where our conversation ended … or at least it would have been, had the studio’s PR rep not mentioned that I had time for one last question. So I asked him: “You have the opportunity to sit down with Kurosawa and Miyazaki and talk to them about whatever you want. What do you talk about?”

Knight paused for a moment.

“Oh my goodness,” he said. “I don’t even know if I can answer that! I mean, where to begin? They tell you never meet your heroes, never meet your idols, that you’ll be disappointed.”

He went on to say that he’d been fortunate enough to have the opposite experience in working on Coraline with two people he admired: author Neil Gaiman — “a master and a genius who just oozes genius out of his pores” — and director Henry Selick, who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

“But that was a working relationship,” Knight said. “If I met them as a fanboy for the first time, I would probably be stricken and not be able to say a word. I don’t know … I really don’t know how to answer that question. I wish I had a clever, quippy response, but it’s … when you’ve admired someone’s work for so long and you’ve been drinking it your entire life, the notion of being in the same room and talking with those guys, I don’t even know where I’d begin.”

And that was my conversation with Travis Knight. Looking back on the experience a week later, I’d have to say I felt like he would in meeting his filmmaking idols — total fanboyish glee threatening to turn me into a blubbering pile of squee-ing goo. Throughout this writing cycle, I felt a sense of “OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD … OK, let’s get to work … OK, interview’s done OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD.” I hope this post captured the essence of what was really an enlightening chat with him.

Oh yeah, and go see Kubo and the Two Strings. Sometime. Definitely.