Kubo and the Two Strings is a rarity in the landscape of American animated film, for more than one reason, but notably because — apart from Hayao Miyazaki’s films that have been released in the United States — few other animated works set in Japan have made it to the big screen here.
With scenes evocative of an Akira Kurosawa picture, Kubo tells the tale of a boy who can magically bring a stack of origami squares to life with his shamisen (a three-stringed lute). He passes his days by caring for his sick mother and telling stories for chump change in the town square of his humble village, which was inspired by various real towns from Heian-period Japan. The young boy is soon forced into a journey involving the magical armor of his late father, a legendary samurai warrior modeled after acclaimed actor Toshiro Mifune.
It’s a big stride in terms of Japanese representation in American film, even if the movie is set in a fantastical version of Japan dreamed up by Laika, the Portland-based studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman. Yet despite the effort to tell an original story in an industry saturated with reboots and franchises, Kubo and the Two Strings — for all of its attention to cultural details — features a lily-white lead voice cast.
The plucky young maestro Kubo is voiced by Irish actor Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones). Kubo’s companions include a no-nonsense monkey and goofy beetle brought to life by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, respectively. Rooney Mara provided the sinister voice to a pair of terrifying masked twins, and Ralph Fiennes took on the role of the ominous archvillain, the Moon King. The only prominent Japanese actors performing in the film are George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, both of whom play villagers. The dearth of Asian voice talent prompted a public outcry on Twitter, and the protests escalated after the the controversial casting choices in Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell furthered the debate over Hollywood whitewashing.
“Every decision we make, there is a well-considered logic to it,” Travis Knight, CEO of Laika Animation, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview, responding to people’s objections to the main cast of Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight, who made his directorial debut with this film, explained that although the studio looks “all over the place” for voiceover artists, and while he does take an actor’s race into account when casting, it is not his primary consideration for Laika’s projects.
“Ultimately, what matters most for us is the ability for an actor to convey the nuance and the emotional truth of the role ... using the only tool that they have at their disposal, which is their voice,” he said. He noted that live-action films require an actor to look the part of their character, but his animated pictures call for them to be skilled at communicating their character’s persona. “There are very few actors in the world that can do that. There are a lot of great actors that can't do that.”
That is why previous Laika films have hired voiceover artists who look “absolutely nothing like the characters they play,” Knight added, referring to the casting of Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known for playing nerds, as the bully in ParaNorman. The studio also cast Ben Kingsley, a prolific actor with a career spanning over 40 years, as a bombastic pest exterminator in The Boxtrolls.
Major animated motion pictures used to employ relatively unknown voiceover artists 20 years ago, but that is no longer the case today, according to Ilana Martin, a celebrity vocal coach. She acknowledged that animated movies now require a high caliber of voice acting — and celebrity: These days, “quality” is equal to fame, or rather, familiarity.
“Due to the fact that [animated] characters feel more lifelike than they used to feel, the voices have to sound more familiar and nuanced than they used to sound,” she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. Unlike Mickey Mouse’s high-pitched mouse squeak, for example, characters now “have to feel like they’re part of your family,” which is one reason celebrities have taken over the world of cartoon voice acting. “The family that we know sonically [are] … people like Chris Rock, Scarlett Johansson.”
Since filmmakers — consciously or not — tend to hire “familiar” talent for animated projects, the trend means lesser-known, less-experienced actors are at a disadvantage. Thus, just as it is with live-action films, Asian-American actors have a more difficult time landing roles in animated projects.
According to Linda Lamontagne, the casting director behind shows like BoJack Horseman and Family Guy and films like The Nut Job and Angry Birds, “If Asians had more opportunity, they could probably be better at their craft and more desirable if they worked more. ... Delivery, voice, comedic timing — that’s usually what wins in the shows that I work on,” she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
Those are the reasons cited for why white actors often portray characters of color on shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Simpsons, and The Cleveland Show. Lamontagne, who is half Taiwanese, noted that she’s made a concerted effort to cast more actors of color, especially Asian-Americans. For characters of color, Lamontagne first auditions “minority” actors, and for undefined characters, she practices colorblind casting. Most recently, she cast Ken Jeong in BoJack Horseman and Ali Wong in Angry Birds. But she runs into a frequent problem. “It’s the person who has done a lot more who can deliver … Usually the more famous person has worked a lot more,” she said, further explaining the Catch-22. It also doesn’t help that big talent agencies represent few Asian-Americans, she said.
Additionally, the issue of voice casting Asian-Americans — and people of color in general — is exacerbated when filmmakers need to appeal to distributors. “A lot of the times the distributors want [big] names so they can put seats in the theaters to promote and market the movie,” Lamontagne said.
Furthermore, Knight revealed that Laika struggled to find a distribution company to finance the studio’s first film, Coraline, due to the nature of its heroine: “Nobody was interested in our film, and the reason that we heard over and over again was [that] you cannot have a female protagonist in an animated film unless she’s a princess.” Although Knight acknowledged that the film industry “has not been a particularly welcome medium for divergent points of view” historically, he said that he has tried to be inclusive in all of Laika’s creations.
“I fully believe that representation and inclusion matters … and that’s why on all of our films, we’ve featured diverse casts, and that actually is true for Kubo as well,” he said. “We have actors from all over the world with all manner of life experiences, including a number of terrific actors of Japanese ancestry" — a challenging feat in a business that prefers “the same story” and “the same characters being portrayed over and over again.”
“We made a commitment to making diverse stories with diverse characters brought to life by diverse artists,” Knight said. “I can appreciate that someone isn't happy with any specific decision that we make, but … we honestly were trying to do what we thought was the best interest in this movie, to bring this film to life in the best way.”