A watchdog group that advocates “balanced, sensitive and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans” is calling out producer Laika, and by extension distributor Focus Features, for using mostly white actors to voice Japanese characters in Kubo and the Two Strings, the animated feature that bowed Friday.
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which has been battling the issue for decades, noted that even though the movie takes place in ancient Japan, the voice actors getting the most time onscreen and playing the most important characters are white. The film centers on a young boy (Art Parkinson) who makes an honest living telling tales to the people of his seaside town until his humble existence is interrupted by a spirit from the past that has returned to enforce an age-old vendetta. Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, and Brenda Vaccaro also star.
MANAA noted that although he is listed relatively high in the credits, George Takei’s lines “could probably fit on a single page.”
“These white actors would be appropriate for probably 95% of the movies out there,” MANAA founding president Guy Aoki said in a statement. “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? … Why is the title character played by a 14-year-old white boy from Ireland? In fact, why are white actors playing an entire extended Japanese family?”
Laika president and CEO Travis Knight, who also directed Kubo, said in a statement to Deadline: “The critical conversation around diversity is one that Laika cares very deeply about. We have been at the forefront of issues around gender equality, sexual orientation, and complex family issues. We are proud of the diversity of experiences both on screen and behind the camera with our creative team and actors working on Kubo and the Two Strings. I look forward to further conversations about how we can continue to create even more opportunities in our films.”
Kubo and the Two Strings is just the latest target for MANAA, which has called out such films as The Martian, Aloha, 21, The Last Airbender and the upcoming Dr. Strange, Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall that its says have “white-washed Asian American characters” by casting white or non-Asian actors.