LAIKA, Opinions, Studios

‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Casting Criticism: What Do You Think?

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WRITER’S NOTE: I’m aware that the subject of this article might be a sensitive topic to some readers. I fully understand that, but I am also of the opinion that our readers can handle mature subjects whenever they come up. All I ask is that you behave yourselves when discussing this divisive subject with others in the comment thread. 

Kubo and the Two Strings is LAIKA’s best film in recent memory. Despite troubles at the box office, Kubo established both a revolutionary step forward for stop-motion and the promise of bigger, blockbuster-style stories from the studio (whilst keeping its art-house spirit in tact).

But I’m not here to talk about the movie itself, its box-office numbers, its critical reception, or anything else. Rather, I’m going to talk about something that’s a tad more sensitive a topic, but still just as important.

While not as prominent as most other controversies I could name, Kubo and the Two Strings has received flack in some circles for having a talented, but mostly white, voice cast playing characters that are either Japanese or can be read as Japanese.

Controversy is nothing new for LAIKA, mind you. The Boxtrolls received criticism for the portrayal of its villain, who some viewed as a stereotypical depiction of transgender individuals. On the flip side, the reveal of ParaNorman‘s Mitch Downe as being gay (the first openly gay character in feature animation) was the attention of both praise and backlash from multiple parties (fun fact: Chris Butler, ParaNorman‘s writer and co-director and co-writer of Kubo and the Two Strings, is openly gay).

All I know is that live-action acting and voice acting are two different things. When you are voice acting, you aren’t in front of a camera; you’re in front of a microphone, and you are only using your voice to bring a character to life. While some films have taken steps to match actors with the race/ethnicities of their characters (Big Hero 6, Home, and this year’s Moana), voice-acting in general can still be something of a gray area in terms of this argument, since you technically can’t ‘see’ the actors on screen. You can only ‘hear’ them as the characters they’re playing.

With all that said, I once again use this format (the same one I used for my Sausage Party articles) to discuss this topic, as this type of conversation couldn’t really be held anywhere else on the website.

In my WYSK article on Kubo, I did a poll on what you guys thought about the criticism. Now I ask you here (as a discussion starter for the comment section): should race matter when casting for certain animated films, or should overall talent be a stronger factor in deciding who gets to voice a character?

Final Note: You are free to discuss spoilers for Kubo and the Two Strings. If you haven’t seen the movie, proceed with caution!

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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About Brandon Smith

Brandon is your average nerd with a love for nerdy things (games, comics, anime/manga, etc.). He also loves reading and writing and plans to be an author someday. For now, he writes with passion and curiosity about the world of animation. He lives with his family in North Carolina and is currently attending college.
  • M

    If I am being perfectly honest, the casting choice initially didn’t bother me A LOT. I mean don’t get me wrong it still borhered me, but not as much as something like Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell would. I mean because in the end of the day what’s being represented on screen is still an Asian character, and what matters even more is what a child who sees this movie is seeing is an all Asian cast on screen.

    BUT with that being said, where it becomes a problem is we still have to consider the fact that Asian American actors are seriously lacking in opportunities. I mean they can’t even seem to land roles specifically MEANT FOR THEIR OWN RACE apparently. We can make the argument all day that when it’s just a voice it could be anyone, but this argument seems to come up a LOT when it comes to WHITE voice actors. It’s like come on white people aren’t the only talented voice actors out there, not to mention it’s even MORE sketchy that they could seem to find the Asian actors for small side roles and this is how Laika seems to defend themselves. (IT’S NOT ALL WHITE! SEE GEOGRE TAKEI HAS 2MINS OF DIALOGUE!!!!) Like, fine the best you could cast was white people, but don’t act like Asian Americans should be greatful because you just barely managed to wedge them into a story set in JAPAN.

    I know it’s easy for people to think this problem means I HATE the movie or what the voice actors brought to the table but it’s not. To be honest, I thought they did a good job, it’s just it’s not their place and I can’t help but think they could have gotten someone else, to do just as good a job. The talent is out there, Asian Americans just need the opportunity.

  • This was a very interesting article and I say if the person behind the mic portrayed the character of oppisite color respetively and appropriately then I think it’s ok
    But I agree it is a tough topic to discuss and especially upsetting that POC can’t get enough work, so I do hope we might just get better at properly addressing this issue in the future

  • Rachel Wagner

    I think the voice acting should have been Japanese but I understand why they did what they did

    • brandon

      Japanese and Japanese-American, you mean?

      • Rachel Wagner

        Yes

  • I always care about how GOOD the actor can act before thinking about their race.

    KFP has mostly white people as the main characters but nobody is complaining about Jack Black playing a CHINESE Panda set in China. Or on TV where in Avatar: TLA also had the main cast generally played by white people two (with two exceptions if you count Zuko and Iroh).

    Would I be upset if a white actor replaced a character from an adaptation that had a different ethnicity? A little, but I would only care if the actor could not pull off a good performance that made them chosen in the first place. That’s why I couldn’t stand films like Last Airbender or Dragonball: Evolution because none of the actors were able to portray their characters accurately to their source material, not based on the color of their skin.

    I would put Kubo in the same category with KFP with stellar performances with an asian backdrop as the setting for the film. If it had been done in a different setting like a European country or America I don’t think there would be much backlash and it would still tell the same story.

    • Phi VoBa

      I don’t know about you but I heard a lot of complaints about TLA, and not just because of the main actors. All the actors were typecast e.g. waterbenders were white, earthbenders Asian, etc.

      I personally agree that actor capability should come first and foremost, but the issue is representation. White actors, European/American setting, that stuff isn’t upsetting because that’s already the vast majority of representation in entertainment. The problem here is that you have a prime opportunity to cast Asian actors–a population thoroughly underrepresented throughout the entertainment industry–and instead the cast is white.

    • HD

      I generally agree, but I don’t think Theron or McConaughey did such a stellar job. They were monotone and leaden. Professional voice actors of any race would have been better.

  • Army

    I’m Asian-American and I don’t mind the casting choices. As long as Asian culture is masterfully showcased in the media, I’m happy. Should I be more angry? Probably.

    That being said, a voice is the soul of the character on screen. It is probably in the best interest of moviemakers to cast voice actors representative of their characters. Kubo would have definitely benefited with a cast of Japanese heritage. The line delivery would have better reflected the Japanese worldview, in turn, adding depth to the movie, making it more real and believable. The use of African-American voice actors makes Princess and the Frog a more culturally ambitious and satisfying movie than, say, Aladdin. Unfortunately, moviemakers today are more likely to prioritize a voice actor’s star power over their ability to add cultural relevance to a character (i.e. Kung Fu Panda’s casting.)

    In the end, no matter how many Japanese elements were thrown into the production, Kubo is a movie made for white-American families. The Moon King is the villain because he wants Kubo to abandon human suffering and join him in heaven free from human attachment. However, if the movie were to truly reflect Eastern values, the Moon King would be a protagonist. Detachment as a means to achieve freedom from suffering is one of the main principles of Buddhism. Many culturally-diverse Hollywood movies end up reinforcing Western values, sometimes to the point that it disrespects the culture it is meant to be honoring (i.e. Aladdin.) This movie does a fine job portraying Japanese culture but kids should be taught to look elsewhere for authentic representations of foreign countries.

    Finally, thank you Brandon for this article. Race and media is a touchy subject and the fact that you openly encourage discussion is really inspiring, even brave.

    • brandon

      I don’t consider what I did ‘brave’ in any respect. Anybody in my position, given enough confidence, could have done the same thing.

      I knew that this subject wasn’t as widespread an issue as other matters in the animation industry, but I felt it was a discussion worth having (given the right context). I also felt that I was able to trust my readers enough to let them tackle a more meaty subject on the website (since they’ve done so a few times before).

      The last two Sausage Party articles were risks that payed off very well. This one was another risk that appears to be paying off as well. Again, nothing to do with bravery. Just a matter of having faith in your readership.

    • Joey P

      I thought the Moon King as a dig at religion in general – by trying to become perfect and cutting himself off from the world, he cut himself off from the very things that made him human. The message I got from the film is that an eternity in Heaven isn’t worth it if it means giving up your humanity here on Earth.

      I don’t think the Moon King was a matter of “reinforcing Western values” so much as it was the writers telling the story they wanted to tell. Honestly, I think a lot of Christian families would be upset with the film if they really stopped to think about what it was saying.

  • Jeremiah Bok

    White male here, obviously I’m qualified to talk about this. Whatever it’s worth though, it’s animation. They’re not even Japanese exactly, they’re a Western representation of Japanese in a Western film, crafted to look like their interpretation of Japanese. Plus, the half of them that’s onscreen IS a (again, Western equivalent) of a Japanese character, just the voice is not. Further, all but one of the main characters isn’t even human, they’re a monkey and a … thing.

    Plus, I don’t understand why pick on this film. It’s so usual to cast whites in minority roles, why is this instance in particular worse than others? They’re a struggling company, NONE of their films have done well since their first, hoping to boost their movie which they so plainly labored arduous hours on. Famous actors are their shot at giving their movie a chance.

    This is not a defense of white washing in general, this is an examination of a case that just really doesn’t need criticism. With all that goes on in hollywood the internet picking on this seems ridiculous.

    • brandon

      This one isn’t getting the widespread news coverage like other movies. But it’s only recently started to pick up.

      However, the overall conversation about whitewashing had become so widespread that some of it has tricked down into the arena of voice-acting.

      The gist of the argument by those criticizing the casting is that other animated movies (see examples above) have gone out of their way to cast actors that match a certain race or ethnicity, but KUBO hasn’t.

    • Tory

      it’s more about representation and bigger opportunities for minority actors. Disney has in the past and even present casted pretty much the correct race for their respective character. But I get what you’re saying. LAIKA needs the big name actors to also draw a crowd yet, for some including myself who is Japanese-American to see actors of minority race not given the opportunity to be the main lead, constantly being type casted into stereotypical roles, white washed (Last Airbender) or even a white lead amongst a cast of minorities it becomes frustrating.

  • Marielle

    I think the world is slowly moving away from whitewashing and I think it’s a good thing. I’m surprised and disappointed that Laika didn’t choose to be more progressive with the casting on Kubo. I think it makes movies more interesting when they have diverse characters and when the actors look like the characters. Big Hero 6 was great for that, Moana is looking good too, and I definitely expect Coco to have a Latino cast.

  • Dante Panora

    At the very least, Kubo should have been voiced by an Asian kid. The economical excuse that celebrity voice actors are necessary for a animated film’s box office prospects and that most American celebrities are non-asian doesn’t make it better. But you could make an argument their hands were kind of tied there, given Laika’s box office history. But I seriously don’t think child actors are as big of a draw as adult stars, and one less white person in the main cast would have helped.

  • Tory

    As a Asian American the casting doesn’t really bother me. Sure it would’ve been nice if it was more diverse in its lead actors but at the end of the day Kubo turned out to be a rather positive representation of the Japanese culture. That is at least a slight step forward.

    On a side note perhaps its just me but in terms of voice acting…to echo my mother some of the voices were a bit jarring…Especially for Kameyo the elderly woman. We’re so used to hearing someone like my grandma who was just as lively but had a more mellow and slightly accented voice that it just seemed odd.

  • Matthew Latham

    I guess I could understand more if it was live action. No, Matthew McConaughey wouldn’t need to play Beetle if it were live action. In voice acting, it’s all about the voice and how it fits the character. However, Disney has done a few films where they used ethnic people for the voice acting (such as Ming Na-Wen for Mulan or Irene Bedard for Pocahontas, or even Kelly MacDonald for Brave), and it worked great, so it shouldn’t be off the table. I think it depends on the film, and the director’s vision. If The Emperor’s New Groove was done in it’s original form, I could see them using Latin American men and women for the roles, but it is a comedy, so I’m fine with them using comedians.On top of that, most animated companies (usually) don’t whitewash their characters, even when using white voice actors. Animation is such a medium where a woman can play a boy (or even a man) and vice versa. It’s all about the voice.

  • racy1285

    If there is a positive to come from the low box office numbers for Kubo. Is that its time movie studios realize thst no one cares if famous actors do the voices for the main characters or not. Just hire people who are good in the role please. The Animation field has been using this crutch since Robin Williams voiced Genie.

    As for the casting itself. I care more about the performances than the race of the people performing the voices. When it comes to animated films or animated tv series. I think Matthew Macconhay is one of the finest onscreen actors we have working today. But his midwestern accent completely took me out of the film. Charlize Theron i was okay with since her accent isnt regionalized. And im asian btw.

  • Sebastian

    (Now I haven’t seen Kubo yet but still this is a very interesting subject to discuss)

    I am more than open for a vast range of actors in the voice acting career as long as they have talent and brings something positive and meaningful to the characters they’re portraying. And doesn’t focus on the color of their skin. As long as someone is doing a great job to portray a character that people can relate to then I say go for it. What Big Hero 6 did worked out cause most of the voice actors focused to bring life to their characters instead of their ethnicity unless they were asked questions in interviews and other social communications. Ming-Na Wen did a great job as Mulan and is loved by many different ethnicities for her character that she portrayed. Just look at Aladdin’s genie portrayed by Robbin Williams he’s loved for his acting and life he brought to the genie not for his ethnicity. I think Lupita Nyong’o did a very impressive job as Raksha in Jungle Book cause she brought emotions and personality to her character. Kristen Bell brought life to Anna and made her a quirky and fun character.

    What Disney is doing with Moana, if the creators of the movie feel what they are doing is right then I believe that they are doing the right thing. I just hope they don’t let Tumblr & Twitter get in their way with their hateful comments.

    But if it this will work out equally for everyone then I believe that something also needs to change with the sad and harsh demand that comes from SOCIAL MEDIA. See if i a voice actor does a great job and encourages people who might not have same ethnicthy as the character but the people look up to the character and relates to it. Then (SOCIAL MEDIA) comes in to action and discriminate you for wanting to be someone that you don’t look like because the color of your skin. Just imagine how awful that must feel, being told you can’t cosplay or relate to someone because you come from a different ethnicity. You’re still a human you know. So if (for example) I did not relate to Mr Incredible and saw myself more in Aladdin I would be called out for whitewashing a character because my skin is too light for that character. Sorry to bring this up but it’s really sad and depressing and something that I feel most people are way to afraid to even bring up. But it’s just as a big problem as the lack for a vast of range for actors with different ethnicity.

    To end my little opinion all I’m saying is. I would love to see a vast range of actors with different ethnicities that have talent and brings something to their character, but also end this hatred that’s spreading around telling you what you can and can’t be. I don’t want people to tell me that I can’t cosplay as Hiro Hamada because I’m not japanse. If a character is relatable and brings something that’s positive to the world then there is no reason to be mean and decide what someone should and should not look up to. SEE MY POINT.

  • Hasdi Bravo

    Well, you certainly won’t get any support on this issue from fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender / Legend of Korra who protested the “whitewashing” in the movie adaptation. Otherwise, it would be hypocritical to not protest the overwhelming white voice cast with those TV shows. Whitewashing only matters for live-action, not animation, it would seem.

  • Alexandria Lynn

    My response? If you don’t like the casting choices, go watch the Japanese dub!

    • Tory

      I don’t think it’s going to be released in Japan.

  • I can’t care less what the race of the actor / actress is. As long as he or she does a good job in the acting booth, it’s fine by me. I would like proper representation in live-action films, but with animation; the quality of the voice should matter more than the race of the person.

    • MJ Edwards

      Couldn’t agree more!

  • MJ Edwards

    Casting should just come down to how perfect the actor is for the role. The kid who voices Kubo is Irish, Theron was born in South Africa, there’s US, British and Japanese voice actors. Who cares? I thought everyone was perfect for their role.

    • Michael Young

      Some sense. Thank you!

  • Carib_lady

    Why do I get the strange feeling that the ones that have absolutely no problem at all with the voice actors being white……are white. Its something I see far too often though in this case I could be very wrong. Who knows.

    I am not american, neither am I asian, neither do I live in America. Kubo was a fantastic film, I cried, the message was pure, the stop motion was incredible, set design..animation…characters..this movie really made me happy. That being said, even though I was jumping with joy over this movie, in the back of mind was the thought that the movie was japanese and the cast was, once again, white. So why? When it comes to animation, if you really pay attention to it, it is never about how famous a voice actor is. Really, that rarely helps. If you’re a good voice actor then people will remember you, if you sucked then people wouldn’t bother with you. It is about how good the voice actor is.

    That being said: this talk about the company wanting publicity with big name actors is upsetting. You had charlize theron and matthew mcconaughey (huge stars) and people in my country still don’t know this movie is in theatres or know anything about the movie on the whole. But when they do watch it…no one cares about how famous the actor is. Was it done well? Yes..well somewhat to be honest. So, why not just cast a more diverse group of actors? It’s tiring, and instead of relying on the fame status, they should try to bring out new actors, divorced actors. I think animation is a great platform for that!

    And please when debating the point of race in entertainment stop with the having to fish out the non white actors in animation etc.. Its actually very disrespectful. “oh look big hero six had two half asians..you seeeee theyre being diverse!” Stop. now. That fact that you had to do that…really…

    Anyway have a good day.

  • HD

    Looking at IMDB, I count 8 Asian-American voice actors, 7 of them of Japanese descent. Admittedly, all of them hold minor parts, which is not ideal given the number of actors available. Still, this is way more Asian-Americans than one will find in the usual voice-actor teams hired to dub Asian films/anime. I am more bothered that the director and writers are also not Japanese nor Asian/ Asian-American. Essentially, the entire creative team are not from the culture which they are trying to depict and then they hired more Caucasian people to act out the main parts. Together, that is kind of weak. That being said, I do think they strive to depict, with taste, some aspects of Japanese culture such as O-bon festivals, ancestor worship, shamisen music and beetles, (but the magical origami is kind of overdone, imho). Infusing those with magic makes for a good story, but any white writer doing so has to expect that they will be accused of promoting Orientalism, the ” magical Asian.” To be fair, Japanese writers and voice actors depict Europeans and American characters in sensational/magical Western settings all the time. Think Fullmetal Alchemist & Attack on Titan and half of Miyazaki’s films. So are we even? No. Japan is a very homogenous culture without a ton of Caucasian citizens to employ as writers and voice actors in stories set in Europe/America.” We can’t say the same in America. More Asian-American directors, writers and actors is possible for stories set in Asian settings with Asian characters. We should be striving more for that. I just think Kubo is a step in the right direction, but not far enough.