Why is the Kubo and the Two Strings Cast So White?

by Phil Yu | Originally posted at Angry Asian Man

LAIKA, the acclaimed stop-motion animation studio that brought you Coraline and ParaNorman, recently released the trailer for its latest feature Kubo and the Two Strings, an epic adventure set in fantastical Japan.

The story centers on a young boy named Kubo who lives a quiet, normal life in a small shoreside village until a spirit from the past turns his life upside down. On the run from gods and monsters, Kubo must find a magical suit of armor once worn by his father, the greatest samurai the world has ever known.

The movie looks incredible. Check out this trailer:

Looks pretty badass.

In the epic fantasy, scruffy, kindhearted Kubo ekes out a humble living while devotedly caring for his mother in their sleepy shoreside village. It is a quiet existence — until a spirit from the past catches up with him to enforce an age-old vendetta. Suddenly on the run from gods and monsters, Kubo’s chance for survival rests on finding the magical suit of armor once worn by his fallen father, the greatest samurai the world has ever known. Summoning courage, Kubo embarks on a thrilling odyssey as he faces his family’s history, navigates the elements, and bravely fights for the earth and the stars.

So here’s my gripe: this badass-looking animated feature set in fantastical Japan stars, like, the whitest voice cast ever. Art Parkinson. Ralph Fiennes. Rooney Mara. Charlize Theron. Matthew McConaughey. This would have been a pretty cool opportunity to feature a Japanese American or Asian American voice cast.

It’s great that someone thought to include the voices of George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. But hell, their voices should just be included in every animated movie because their voices are dope.

I know. It’s just voices, you say — you don’t actually get to see any of the actors. And “stars” are more marketable. But let’s be real. Nobody is buying a ticket to this mind-blowing, visually-stunning animated movie because they’ll get to hear the voices of Ralph Fiennes or Matthew Effin’ McConaughey.

I’d argue that it makes the work more whole if animated Asian characters are voiced by Asian voice actors — even in unaccented English, when it seemingly shouldn’t matter. You don’t have to do it. You don’t need it. But these pieces add to the bigger, fuller picture. Mulan did it. Big Hero 6 did it. Up did it. And those movies are better because they starred the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Ryan Potter, Jordan Nagai, etc.

But dude, I’ll probably still go watch this.

Kubo and the Two Strings will be released in theaters on August 19.

Phil Yu is the founder, editor, and primary blogger behind Angry Asian Man, the web’s foremost destination for all things Asian American. He also co-hosts the YouTube series Angry Asian America for ISAtv.

49 thoughts on “Why is the Kubo and the Two Strings Cast So White?

  1. It does matter. Asian voice actors and/or Asian actors (or any POC actor) will never become household names unless they get parts – parts like these.

    1. It absolutely matters. Phil, don’t watch this movie.

      This movie is a slap in the face to Asians. As much as the movie looks promising, I’m refusing to support a movie that doesn’t have Asians in a Asian movie. F-that.

  2. Jeez. I can’t get with that. All Caucasian voice cast for Kubo–aye. That’s not right.There’s just too much talent out there to predominately cast Kubo that way. I like the Ming-Na Wen suggestion and ….How about the following Voice Cast suggestions:

    George Takei – CHECK. Thank you.
    Devon Aoki
    Masi Oka
    Yoko Ono
    Dean Cain
    Fred Armisen
    And the guy from Helix and Extant……

    I know they are looking for voice “stars” but let’s be real. We have them. No excuses.

  3. I hope this is a good reply. (Sorry, it’s a long comment.)

    Sound is very important to me in cartoons, movies, etc.
    When I was young, I was confused by Mulan (and some other films) where the VA sound and the character didn’t always match.

    Like, Li Shang starts singing “Let’s get done to business”, suddenly he’s Donny Osmond (aka the singing friend from Johnny Bravo cartoon), and not B.D. Wong (Jurassic Park scientist)!

    But I didn’t question the English dub of Pokemon cause when they did music videos (Pikachu’s jukebox) Team Rocket/ Rocket Dan, Ash/ Satoshi, Misty/ Kasumi, Brock/ Takeski had the same “singing voice” as “speaking voice”.

    Later, I found raw and subtitled versions of Pokemon (eventually watched other anime too) on youtube.

    When the Singing voice and speaking voice were the same, I could follow the story easily. (Some of my friends had trouble matching Pokemon name changes: Squirtle/ Zenigame, or Meowth/ Nyasu. For me, as long as the sound was consistent, I got it.)

    But if they switched VA (like an actor died mid-season or production company changed, it took me longer to connect character to voice in my mind.)

    So for me, I think I would enjoy and understand Kubo best if I saw a version, either official or fans re-dubbing it where Japanese actors played Japanese characters.

    English subtitles or recap afterwards might help me pick up nuances, but I could probly follow most of the story from watching the animation.


    1. I’m with you. I know it’s just a movie — but giving it money is like saying it’s okay and rolling over. Thank you, Gods of Egypt.

    1. I will see it even though it seems like yet another glory of war for kids movie. The pros words is actually what upsets me the most.

  4. The latest trailer made me more excited, although I don’t see why they needed those actors to voice these roles.

  5. If you bothered to look on the IMDb you’d know there are a dozen Japanese-American actors in the voice cast. The only one who is well known enough to get marquee billing is George Takei. As for the idea that nobody will be drawn to see the film because of Oscar winners, that’s silly. Who do you think is going to be publicizing it on Fallon, Good Morning America, etc. They will. Unknown actors don’t get invited onto talk shows to publicize movies.

    1. But if you plug these actors into lead spots in films that do really well — even, sleepers — then you start building them into bankable stars that can eventually publicize on AM & late-nite talk shows. This is lazy casting. Not that this film owes us anything in casting. Cast who they want, why they want — it’s their time and money. But, it’s a missed opportunity to widen, diversify the playing field in Hollywood.

  6. Thank you Kerry for explaining and making us Asians realize we should just be thankful for whatever whitey gives us. We should just play our role of “the guy who’s good with math” and quietly stand there with no emotion, just as Hollywood pegged us.

    But I’m not one of those Asians so actually, let me point out what’s wrong with your thinking. That last sentience: “Unknown actors don’t get invited onto talk shows to publicize movies.” So, you’re thoughts are “Who knows any Asian actor popular enough to carry this film? They need big names bla bla bla…” True. But, how does an Asian actor become a big deal if your kind of thinking is what drives Hollywood logic? And, the most important thing, the reason why I’m furious over this and what you said: this is a Japanese story deeply rooted in Japanese culture , and Hollywood fucking turned it white. They won’t dare do this to an African folklore, but us Asians are little pushovers, right? No one would notice, right?

    But thanks for the explanation. That really clears things up and puts me in my place.

    1. Actually hollywood does it to African folklore as well. Did you see egyptian god movie? It was in africa and had no black people. I hate when hollywood does this crap. I wished kubo was at least played by an Asian American. The story looked interested but the voice actors do not fit the characters at all.

    2. Exactly! And it’s always a surprise when there’s a new ‘breakout’ star that is non-white or overweight or physically challenged. It’s still a big deal because of this largely white-washed thinking by Hollywood power players, bank rollers. That said, me thinks the times will be changing in the next few decades. Coming soon…

  7. Won’t be watching until it’s free on a premium channel. What a wasted opportunity.

  8. I’m wondering how two American writers with no Japanese or Japanese-American staff managed to write a culturally accurate AND sensitive plot in the first place? Not super thrilled about this movie, but how will we critique it if we don’t go see it?

  9. Well, I understand being Mexican and watching Spaghetti Westerns with Italians playing Mexicans or Watching Chuck Connor’s playing Geronimo, In my lifetime they are trying to change that, I guess it takes centuries for show bizz, to change the mindset.

  10. I’m a huge fan of Laika and I’ll be catching this movie in theaters, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that the bulk of the cast wasn’t Japanese despite the setting. Some may feel it makes no difference but I’m sure all of the incredibly talented Japanese actors and actresses that didn’t get those roles certainly feel the difference.

  11. Disney is usually behind on diversity yet mulan, princess and the frog, big hero 6 and now Moana have casts that are similar or the same as what’s shown on screen so this should’ve been a no brainer.

    1. Kubo’s a Laika movie, no ties to Disney. Man, all the major animation studios need to work on this… Geez!

    2. Sigh. Please go to tvtropes and look up “All Animation is Disney” because you need to read that.

      1. i don’t actually. i used disney as an example saying if they can do it, why can’t laika.
        i’m well aware of said tv trope but its disingenuous of you to think that applies to me. i’m an advocate for animation from non-white, non-north american regions because we create great animation. in the caribbean our animators are doing immense things.

  12. This has been my issue with this movie. It looks amazing and Laika does great work. But the casting leaves so much to be desired. (You’d think Rooney Mara might have learned after the Pan debacle too.) It doesn’t matter if you see the actors or not. Representation matters whether it’s live action, animation, video games, radio dramas, theater, etc. I totally agree with The TV Diva. This should be a no-brainer.

  13. It’s written and directed by white men, and therefore probably not worth the price of admission. But if you must watch it, consider that eventually the movie will be released in Japan and voiced by an all Japanese cast. So boycott this whitewashed version and wait for the Japanese one instead.

  14. “But dude, I’ll probably still go watch this.”
    Your entire argument is moot if you support this whitewashing by watching this.

  15. To be honest I could care less just ad long as the movie is good and I can understand it.

  16. You do realize that we get white voice actors to play Asian characters in Studio Ghibli films right? As well as COUNTLESS anime. So I don’t see what’s so racist about this film. To me it just seems like you are just trying to desperately find something oppressive when really it’s not as big a deal as you put it. And I don’t think you people understand how white washing works. It only works when You replace the ethnicity or race of a certain minority group with white actors, based on pre-existing fiction But here’s the thing, this is an original idea, not based on a any other work of fiction so this whitewashing crap is already nonsense. Would it be cool to have Asian voice actors voicing these characters? Sure, but here’s the thing, this is a small studio so they don’t really know many Asian actors. If you can find some within their budget then I’ll guarantee that they will cast them. And you know, I’d be willing to bet that the country that isn’t going to be offended by this film, will be the people of Japan. Because, well they are going to cast Japanese voice actors to translate this into the Japanese language anyway, So if the voices here bother you, go buy the DVD and then change the language preference to Japanese and then you can watch it there.

  17. We saw this yesterday & went not knowing really anything about it other than the animation looked groovy. However, when cast credits came up we were both disappointed. Especially as George Takai should have had the røle of the Father. (They used him to say, “O my!” ?? What a waste) Also, I thought using the Harrison song was strange – it was a beautiful rendition but it wasn’t really appropriate. Seemed like a selling point only for the soundtrack. O well. Another opportunity wasted to use the prodigious talent of Asian artists. (O & in case you’re wondering & in case it makes a difference: I am Scottish/German & my husband is Welsh/Greek. So, our skin tones are “white”. )

  18. This matters in my opinion. Here is why, and I will use Steven Universe, an animated TV show, as an example.

    Steven Universe is animated, so you don’t see any people. The main characters of this show are also gem people, so they don’t have races. They are basically aliens. Absolutely no earthly skin color. But who are their voice actors? Currently lots of Asians! So as a woman, I identify with a few of these gems, but as an Asian American, I’m able to further look up to the voices behind them. I can see that Asian actors ARE valuable in America. I see that they can sing beautifully, and that they can bring to life characters I strongly identify with/cherish. It may not be as important for children, because I never knew the voice actors when I was a kid, but I definitely got into that kind of stuff as a teen.

    We need to keep cutting the narrative that Asians can only do science. We’re leading a lot of Asian college students into majors they are not passionate about. Film is practical. Acting is practical. Only if we allow our screens to become more diverse.

    1. Actually you stubble upon a different point; the ethnicity of the actor should NOT be based on the ethnicity of an animated character. The only reason you have an Asian Amercian actress playing a leading role on steven universe is because the ethnicity of the actors didn’t matter. If ethnicity mattered then the Asian voice actresses may have been overlooked. They got the role based on the quality of their voices, their talent and their singing ability. Black actors, Asian actors, Arab actors are all options for casting when ethnicity of the voice actors doesn’t matter. Kevin Richardson for instance is a prominent black voice actor for cartoons and he gets a lot of work doing both white and black characters… Sure more Asian american actors need work in the industry, but it doesn’t HAVE to be in Kubo; they can get work in ANY animated film.

  19. So people are going to boycott Laika, one of the last torch bearers of stop motion animation, because they didn’t cast enough Japanese actors?

    Ridiculous. I will be there, paying my money, keeping this dying art alive. Suck it up.

  20. The movie is horribly non-diverse. Where are the black characters? Where are the Indian characters? We’re supposed to believe in magic origami and dragons, but not in black or Indian people?

  21. The reason why their voiced by white actors is because we live in America and most of our actors are white. I also think that it’s such a double standard…. Sometimes there’s a black character in a cartoon and it boggles my mind that a black person has to play that character. That seems kind of racist. Should there be more actors and actresses of different ethnicities, and let’s not forget people diff ages? Of course there should be but the reality of it is there are more white people in this country. There are more privileged people in this country that are white and have connections to be actors in the first place. Let’s worry about actual civil rights instead of which top paid movie star gets what role. That’s kind of ridiculous. I also love to just swap the roles. If you were a white person and you moved to Japan and they had a cartoon, again a cartoon, about whites and they used Japanese actors to play those roles, would you really care? Would you be unable to explain that to your child? I wouldn’t. Women get screwed over too, all the time. Are we going to change it and make sure that all the women cast are old and fat? Obvi not the same but it’s as superficial. It’s just not the way the world works. I’m more concerned about a real job, education, and REAL areas of discrimination. Pop culture will catch up when those more important things are addressed. Just my opinion.

  22. My sons and I almost didn’t see the movie JUST because it had Matthew McConaughey. We were shocked that there were so few Asians in an Asian story. We are choosing movies with diverse casts because these are much more awesome films–stories, characters, and film background.

  23. Why is everyone so shocked? Hollywood is a small exclusive club where the same actors are given all the roles. No one is getting into that club unless you know someone. They brainwash you into thinking that the women are the most beautiful in the world blah blah blah. It ain’t rocket science. You are playing pretend here. I’ve always said that animated movies should go to voice over actors. Why would you pay Charlize 10 million for this? Well maybe they will see that it’s not necessary since it barely grossed over 27 million dollars. In box office receipts it’s a dud!

  24. Laika, unfortunately, doesn’t have the marketing machine or name recognition to be able afford the luxury of appropriate casting. Despite one of the best animation studios out there and creating quality film after quality film (that also promote open-minded and progressive ideals like none other), they’re not pulling in the numbers of, say, Ice Age .. 8? 9? With their minimal marketing, they have to rely on big names to pull in movie-goers, because their name alone definitely won’t. At least they cast some impressive talent* and not, say, the whose-considered-bankable-at-this-moment. Theron, Mcconaughey, and Fiennes have more than proven their acting chops.

    *Seriously, Ralph Fiennes’ pre-monster monologue was brilliant, lending itself to some impressive animated acting choices.

    If you do some research into the studio, listen to the interviews of Travis Knight, I think you’ll find Laika is a force of good in this world, and definitely not one of your typical Disney/Dreamworks/Sony type studios. Their emphasis on the craft and art of animation and storytelling on modest and intelligent budgets is inspiring in this day and age of bloated film making. I truly believe if they had the footing they deserved in the industry they would easily broaden their casting out of the typical Hollywood system. So, as much as I hate the white-washing of casting and the white-man-saves-all in films (The Great Wall, Avatar, The Last Samurai, etc.), I strongly encourage everyone to judge Kubo *after* you have seen it, and judge Laika by their talents in animation and storytelling, and not by the difficult marketing situation they as a small, independent studio find themselves in.

  25. I didn’t even know the voices of Hiro and Tadashi were Asian; from their voices, they just sounded like any native born American white guys. Same with Mulan’s voice actor, if I hadn’t looked it up, I would’ve never even known she was voiced by an actual Asian woman. I could see why people would care if a character in a live action movie who was supposed to be Asian was white or black or hispanic, but in an animated movie, a lot of people can’t even tell the difference.

  26. Wow! This just goes to show that people have small minds and small hearts.
    How are we going to open and diverse if we let these kind of things stop us?

  27. Are white voiceover actors your only issue with the film? There are tons of other issues with the film. First, it’s a Portland hipsters’ inaccurate envisioning of Japan. The characters look like white people’s stereotypes of what Japanese people should look like. I can’t get over Kubo’s odd, oil-slick, piece-y hair. Japanese people would NOT make animated characters look like that! Also, his mom is supposed to be a Japanese beauty, but it’s white people’s vision of an Asian beauty – actual Japanese people would NOT make an attractive Asian woman look like that! Also, the whole movie is a Portlanders’ fantasy. Contrary to what you’d think, it’s NOT based on a Japanese myth or legend! Also, the elements in there are shallow white people’s envisioning of Japanese culture, like origami and samurai.

    Also, here’s the most painful point for me – progressive white people LOVE Japanese culture – to the neglect and under-appreciation of other major Asian cultures. It’s great to be Japanese in the Western world, while it’s terrible to be Chinese. The Chinese/Taiwanese are at the bottom of the hierarchy in the US and the West. China, and its descendants, are feared and hated, while Japan, Tibet, Korea, and India are beloved. This movie reflects progressive America’s tastes and culture. They claim to be for “diversity,” while actually being patronizing. They loathe and stereotype some Asian cultures more than others. Japan has been huge in the past 20 years due to anime and manga. Japanese culture is one of the beloved Asian cultures, in Westerners’ minds, while they HATE Chinese & the Chinese diaspora, unfairly. I get a lot of crap everyday – stereotyping, excluding, etc.

    I suspect most non-Asians would ADORE the film, while only Asian Americans would have issues with it. That’s because the film itself is pretty well made – excellent animation, cinematography, creativity, and a more sophisticated storyline than most. But Asian Americans would find issue with the various biases and cultural underpinnings, like lack of Asian voiceovers, and everything I wrote in this comment. I suspect Asians in Asia would like this film as well, not being familiar with being second class citizens in white America.

    1. It’s a good piece of work. Why should a few voice actor/actresses stop you from enjoying it? It is of course a stop motion film and realize that they are puppets made from tangible materials and not drawn. Purely, these allegation that you have made sounds like personal opinions, and stereotypes are never going to go away as long as people have their own thoughts and see the world in a different lens than your own. Its the things that we are exposed to by media that conditioned people to believe it that way. Again, like racism, stereotypes are never going to go away. It’s a disease with no cure only treatment.
      Watch it if you want to know why the hair looks like that.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vhpq7-c911A

  28. just feel super duper disappointed, the asian elements in this movie are basically transformed or just from china while be named as Japanese elements, most of the white people tend to love japanese culture while disdain chinese cultures, but if anybody do study chinese cultures even just one dynasty, you are just gonna right away realize that the beauty, broadness and depth of chinese cultures are beyond anyone’s imagination. not saying japanese culture not cool or whatsoever, but if you do know some asian history, ancient china existed long before ancient japan did, and japanese learned from so many things from chinese like calligraphy even until nowadays, there are still japanese people learn to write chinese characters to cultivate the spirit and mind, dont deny it, most of people are aware. the main reason that the western world knows more and adores more Japanese culture is probably coz of the policies carried on in these two countries after the world war 2, but judging one country’s culture and its people just by the policies released by some rulers and the government is not fair at all, the two similar cultures were never be treated with same attitudes or given the same chance ever. but i gotta admit that most of chinese people have no idea how amazing their cultures are but bury their head in industry like manufacturing and business which is super pathetic.

    1. I agree, Chinese culture is just as amazing and interesting. In love with things like hanfu which most people would mix up with kimono because of pretty much what you explained even though it’s much older…

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