‘Kubo’ and the Whitewashing Controversy

When Kubo and the Two Strings was first announced, I was excited. A new film from Laika, the creators of ParaNorman and Coraline! It looked like it was going to be an interesting film…until I read the cast list.

Charlize Theron? Ralph Fiennes? Rooney Mara? Mathew McConaughey? As main stars in a movie set in ancient Japan? And the main character, a Japanese boy, is voiced by the Irish Art Parkinson? When the movie was first announced, there were absolutely no Japanese or even Asian actors listed, so my interest in the movie went out the window.

Later, I was informed that George Takei would take part in the film…but not a very big one. In fact, the extended cast list does list a few Japanese actors, but they are all conveniently minor characters. All the major characters? No no, they belong to white people.

I know what some of you are thinking: but it’s not live action, so why does it matter? Well, the thing is, in all mediums, Asian American actors don’t get a lot of opportunity. (To the point where some Asian American actors have to go to to Asia to get roles!) And worse still, a lot of actual Asian roles get downplayed or erased completely to make room for white characters and actors. So Kubo ends up rehashing the Hollywood formula of taking parts of Japanese culture they like and not bothering to give enough roles to actual Japanese people.

This article is especially insulting because the director, Travis Knight, insists that Art Parkinson was picked on talent (oh so Asian actors aren’t talented enough to voice a character of their race?) and it’s clear that white actors were cast pretty much to rake in the money. Well it doesn’t look like that worked because this movie is disappointing at the box office, so really, it was all for nothing.

And what especially makes me especially wary of this film is that it looks like no Japanese people, save for a few actors, were involved with the film’s production (and please let me know if that’s not the case). So how do I know for sure that this film accurately portrays Japanese culture? Say what you will about Big Hero 6, but at least they accurate cast the characters (Ryan Potter, a Japanese/white actor, plays the Japanese white protagonist Hiro Hamada, Jamie Chung voices Gogo, Damon Wayans Jr. plays Wasabi, etc., and they even went the extra mile of casting black/Jewish Maya Rudolph as the white Aunt Cass), and Asian people were heavily involved with the production. Jin Kim and Shiyoon Kim worked as character designers, and Scott Watanabe created the world of San Fransokyo, just to name some of the more important examples. What is Kubo‘s excuse?

So I’m disappointed. Am I going to see this movie? Probably, because Laika is capable of telling amazing stories with progressive themes, along with some beautiful stop motion animation, and I wouldn’t want them to go bankrupt. But I want them to learn from this. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the whitewashing of their cast hurt this movie’s success, and while I don’t want this mistake to completely ruin them, they need to keep this in mind before they make more movies about non-white characters and non-Western worlds.


Author: Laura Alexander

My name is Laura, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm a recent graduate of the Social Service Worker Program at Sheridan College. I'm on the autism spectrum (Asperger's) and I have a passion for film and animation, social issues, and helping others, all of which will be featured on The Flying Red Robot blog. Please read the about page before commenting or following. "Big Hero 6" is my favourite movie.