By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Perhaps more than any other enterprise, in show business, timing can be everything.
The creators of the new animated fantasy adventure “Kubo and the Two Strings” are being reminded of that fact, as the film has taken on some heated criticism, not for the content or quality, but for its casting choices.
Of the top nine roles in terms of prominence, seven of the actors in this film – set in Japan, about Japanese characters – are white. With the spotlight on the lack of diversity in starring Hollywood roles, brought to the forefront with the last couple of years’ Academy Award nominations, the casting of “Kubo” simply could not slip under the radar.
The story follows the fantastical adventures of poor, one-eyed village boy whose imagination and magical shamisen playing bring to life origami figures in feudal Japan. In search of the magic armor of his late father – a legendary samurai patterned after the late, great Toshiro Mifune – Kubo sets off on a journey with the aid of a monkey and an armored beetle bowman.
Top billing goes to Charlize Theron (Monkey), Matthew McConaughey (Beetle), Art Parkinson (Kubo) and Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King. “Star Trek” legend George Takei voices kindly father figure Hosato (Takei’s Japanese name) and veteran character actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has a featured role.
Of the 23 cast members listed on IMDB, 11 have Japanese surnames, but of those roles, most are bit or incidental parts. It should be noted that the majority of the casting was completed more than three years ago, well ahead of the “Oscars so white” controversy.
The media watchdog group Media Action Network for Asian Americans issued a terse letter slamming the casting of “Kubo” for its casting decisions, for giving only “token roles” to the majority of the Asian acting cast.
“Were Ken Watanabe, Suzy Nakamura, Tamlyn Tomita, Ryan Potter, Ian Anthony Dale, Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho, Ming-Na Wen, Margaret Cho, Lucy Liu or Amy Hill not available?” wrote MANAA founding president Guy Aoki. “Or did director Travis Knight just want white names for a story that cried out for Asian American participation? These white actors would be appropriate for probably 95 percent of the movies out there. For something specific to the Asian/Japanese culture, why not give Asian American actors — who are rarely considered for significant parts in movies — the opportunity to be part of a prestigious project that could bolster their careers?”
Admonishing the producers and distributor Focus Features for their casting choices, Aoki pointed to the film’s relatively soft opening weekend box-office receipts ($12.6 million) and insisted the casting of established Caucasian stars has little bearing on the audience’s desire to buy a ticket.
“It’s not like the public rushed to see the film simply to hear the voices of Theron, McConaughey and (Rooney) Mara. They focused on the plot and look of the film,” Aoki insisted.
The film had a Japanese consultant on staff, to assist the filmmakers in their quest for authenticity. Taro Goto said his job was to ensure that the cultural details in the film as it pertains to Japan are as accurate as possible, remembering a series of inaccuracies he spotted in “The Last Samurai.”
“It was made clear to me that [“Kubo”] is a fantasy film, it’s not in a very particular time period,” Goto told The Rafu. “For instance, the base might be Edo period, but we weren’t limited to that. And the truth is we don’t have a Japan in which origamis fly around and moon beasts destroy villages. So it is a fantasy, and in Japan, jidaigeki movies and TV shows all take certain degrees of creative license, so there was some leeway. But my job was to ensure that the language, the cultural details, those are reflected as authentically as possible.”
The reviews of “Kubo” have been largely very positive, and the work of Laika, the studio that created the animated films “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” is well-respected in animation circles. However, many online comments on what has been called “yellowvoice” have been starkly unforgiving.
“I’m so conflicted,” wrote one female commenter. “I want to go see Kubo … but the cast of voice actors is disappointing considering it is set in Japan.”
One said the casting “spoils a brilliant work of art,” while another wrote she was “sad only two Asian actors were cast in a film steeped in Japanese culture.”
A more pointed observation claimed, “‘Sausage Party’ has a more ethnically diverse cast than ‘Kubo & the Two Strings.’”
Laika CEO and “Kubo” director Travis Knight has been compelled to address the criticism, and he did so at the Japanese National Museum last Thursday. Some of the cast and crew had gathered to accompany Takei as he donated the figurine of his character to the museum.
“I hope that people, even if they disagree with a choice that we’ve made, will understand that there is a lot of sincerity behind everything that we do,” Knight said. “There is always us trying to make the choice that we think will bring the film to life in the best way, in the most powerful way.”
Without dodging the question in any way, Knight was gracious in explaining that in the casting of Laika’s projects, they do their best to be “color blind,” to cast for voices, not for faces, in order to get the best performance for each animated character.
“We always have to disentangle what an actor can do physically — their facial expressions, their body language — and isolate and listen to just their voice,” he said.
“We start by just listening to voices and putting them up next to the design of the characters. For some actors, their voice is not their greatest instrument. We come up with a wish list of people who we think have beautiful voices that are very expressive, and that’s how we approach these things.”
In making his point about selecting based solely on voice, Knight pointed to previous projects in which actors of color were cast as white characters. “The Boxtrolls” prominently featured Ben Kingsley (of Indian heritage) and Tracy Morgan (African American) as ordinary Britons.
“That’s the way we analyze these things, whose voice is best for bringing these characters to life in the best way,” the director described. “Sometimes it goes in one direction, sometimes it goes in the other direction.”
Knight has done his best to deflect the casting criticism in several interviews, but in many opinions, the decisions are a continuation of Hollywood’s reluctance to offer marquee roles to what it considers unbankable talent.
“Disney was able to successfully use a mostly Asian cast in its 1998 telling of the Chinese legend ‘Mulan.’ Pixar cast then-8-year-old unknown Japanese American actor Jordan Nagai to play Russell in their highly regarded animated feature ‘Up,’ which didn’t even call for an Asian American character,” Aoki wrote, noting that this fall’s Disney feature “Moana” will feature newcomer Auli’i Cravalho and half- Samoan Dwayne Johnson.
Moreover, The Rafu has heard from several voices in the community, some working in the film industry. There is a common understanding of the financial demands of show business, but many have wondered why the lead character was voiced by a relatively unknown white actor, the Irish-born Parkinson, known to some audiences for his role in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Takei, who for more than 50 years has faced the limitations that beset any actor of color, heaped praise on the film, yet said he completely understands the flack over the casting. Still, he was quick to remind that this is, after all, show business.
“These people have shown great integrity, and it may be a matter of the bankers insisting on big-name stars,” Takei told The Rafu. “I don’t fault the filmmakers for wanting assurances, and I completely believe the movie will be a success because of its intrinsic value as art.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Knight touched upon the challenges posed by the financial demands of the industry. He described the struggle to secure funding for Laika’s first feature, 2009’s “Coraline.”
“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,” he recalled.
The greatest achievement of “Kubo and the Two Strings” may well be its very existence. In an era when all Hollywood seems to want is reboots and sequels – characters and stories that come with familiarity and a built-in audience – Laika has brought forth an original film set well outside the cultural norms of most American cinema.
The cast of the film includes – albeit in small, mostly unnamed roles – several actors of Japanese heritage, including local performers Alpha Takahashi, Cary Yoshio Mizobe and Ken Takemoto, a fact that Knight wears like a badge of honor.
“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 in the BuzzFeed interview.
Tagawa, who plays Hashi in “Kubo,” said he jumped at the chance to be a part of the cast.
Hollywood has long shown a propensity toward casting Asian roles with non-Asian actors. Perhaps the most notorious example is screen legend Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed buffoonery as Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but there are several recent instances. Last year’s “Aloha” saw Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a character of Asian and Hawaiian descent. Tilda Swinton has been cast as a Tibetan monk in the upcoming “Dr. Strange” and Scarlett Johanssen will play Japanese manga character Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell.”
Also notable, the big-budget flop “Memoirs of a Geisha” featured mostly Chinese actors in its starring roles, for a story setting that couldn’t possibly be more Japanese in its sensibilities.
“Hollywood can’t keep using the same excuses when they appropriate Asian stories and themes and refuse to cast Asian American actors in those roles.” wrote MANAA Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan. “If Hollywood does not use Asian American actors in movie projects where the entire story, culture, costumes are Asian-themed, will they ever? When will Hollywood take the leap of faith to cast Asian Americans in significant roles, especially when it is only to do a voice-over in an animated Japanese-themed movie?”
Takei insisted that strides are being taken, even in the face of frustrating casting decisions.
“We are making progress,” he said. “I can see the larger picture of all this, the fact that we were included in a major release during the summer, the most competitive time for movies. The fact that we were cast, with respect and our valuable input, is a step forward. Maybe a baby step, but still forward.”
Tagawa said the “perfect project” will come when Asian Americans have the means to create it on their own terms.
“It will happen, and maybe soon,” Tagawa said. “When it does, we will tell our stories, from our own perspective.”
Rafu staff members Ichiro Shimizu, J.K. Yamamoto and Junko Yoshida contributed to this report.