Last night I went to see Kubo and the Two Strings. On the ride to the theatre my friend asked me what I knew about the movie – bearing in mind this a friend who knows exactly the sort of miserable sod I am when it comes to movies. Since I’ve spent the last few weeks enjoying the fun that is radiation therapy, I’ve been a little unplugged from the endless shitstorm of barely mediocre claptrap that has been this summer’s big screen offerings. To wit, my response was along the lines of “some highly stylized Japanese thing.”
I’ll admit Kubo took me by surprise. For a “family” movie, it tells a rather mature story about life and loss. It doesn’t condescend to the younger audience, but neither is it so bloated with parental in-jokes as to become estranged from the target demographic. Imagine Samurai Jack but less weird-for-the-sake-of-weird and done in stop motion animation. Sounds good, right? So what can I possibly have to complain about amid a summer movie season that gave us Batman v. Superman? What ills can I speak of a movie featuring this song…
Shamisen George Harrison is great, but where are all the damn Japanese people?
Kubo is an aesthetically Japanese movie. The setting is Japanese. The characters are Japanese. The mythology upon which it draws is Japanese. So why (spoiler alert) does fucking Dirtbag McGee (Matthew McConaughey) voice a character called Hanzo. Hanzo, who has an unbreakable sword. Hanzo, who is almost certainly inspired by the legendary ninja Hittori Hanzo.
Fucking Matthew McGreaseball. Take a shower and drop the hill billy affectation; you do commercials for Lincoln, you unspeakable turd.
Moving swiftly on, Kubo’s mom is voiced by Charlize Theron. Other white people voicing Japanese characters include Ralph Fiennes, Art Parkinson (as Kubo), and Rooney Mara. The only recognizable voice acting from Asian people comes in bit parts: two lines from George Takei, and one line from Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
I mean, come on. How hard would it have been to get Ken Wantanabe or Masi Oka to play Hanzo? Why not promote George Takei to the antagonist rather than the bit character who says, “Oh my.” Come on, George.
I suppose the kids watching the movie aren’t going to know the difference between one voice actor or another. Perhaps me and every other obnoxious, self-righteous critic out there is making hay over nothing. Here’s what gets me, though: Kubo is directed by a white guy from Portland. It’s written by two white guys called Chris Butler and Marc Haimes. Are these creatives being intentionally being exploitative of Japanese culture? No. At least, I don’t think so. There’s no white saviour character. There’s no reduction of Japanese people to lazy tropes or stereotypes. On the surface, everything seems above board. But without representation, without recognizing that it doesn’t trust Japanese voice actors to anchor the movie, Kubo has to get filed adjacent to the institutional racism that sees Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi.
So close, Kubo. We almost had white people telling a story set in Japan, featuring Japanese characters, and not making me feel like the entire thing had the stink of colonialism about it. So very close.