Between ScarJo’s role as Makoto Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell and Matt Damon’s performance as William Garin (the supposed hero of China) in The Great Wall, East Asians have not been having a stellar year in Hollywood thus far—and it’s about to get even worse. Netflix recently announced its live-action movie adaption of the iconic Death Note, an anime and manga series renowned for marrying traditional Japanese folklore with gritty modern crime drama.
The catch? It’s being completely removed from Japan and Japanese culture, and Director Adam Wingard is going as far as reinventing (read: whitewashing) protagonist Light Yagami as Light Turner, an all-American college student with a penchant for murder.
Now, the original plot of Death Note revolves around a magic notebook (the titular death note) that transfers ownership from Shinigami Ryuk (a Japanese “god of death”) to the aforementioned Light Yagami. Whoever possesses the notebook can cause whomever they want to die, so long as they A) know the person’s face and B) write the person’s name somewhere within the book. Light, a handsome and incredibly intelligent high school student, then begins killing criminals under the pseudonym Kira and, unsurprisingly, develops a god complex along the way. He spends most of the series playing cat-and-mouse with a number of talented detectives with their own trademark personality quirks, and the story ends with Light being killed at the hand of his shinigami, Ryuk, for no longer being entertaining.
(Naturally, Death Note was a big hit with the tween goth crowd.)
Granted, it’s hard to glean much information from Netflix’s minute-long teaser trailer, but awkward name and setting changes aside, Death Note just doesn’t make any goddamn sense as a white story.
What business do shinigami have in Seattle? Why is Ryuk the only one who retains a Japanese name? What right does Light Turner have in assuming the alias Kira, when Kira was originally a pun on the Japanese pronunciation of “killer”? Does Wingard know about all the Fairly Odd Parents jokes the internet has been churning out since Light’s anglicized name was released?
Logistically speaking, it would be worlds easier to craft a convincing live action without Wingard’s halfhearted attempt to overwrite the inherent Japanese-ness of the story. In selectively appropriating aspects of the Death Note that supposedly translate well to an American setting, Wingard and Netflix just prove that—while they want the edgy aesthetic, the unique plotline, and the “exotic” overtones—they couldn’t care less about the culture of the actual people who made the series possible in the first place.
Furthermore, Death Note’s market value (at this point in time, at least) isn’t its plot structure or its insanely high body count—no, Netflix is capitalizing on millennial nostalgia.
Every studded-belt wearing, Hot Topic-shopping former emo kid who was in middle school circa 2008 is familiar with Death Note, and while the exact details of the storyline may be a little fuzzy in our memories, the general tone and atmosphere of the animanga are easy to conjure back up. Netflix, in whitewashing a series so popular that it appealed to even non-weeaboos, is encouraging white audiences to remember the characters how they want to, rather than how they were actually written.
Adam Wingard is bleaching a story that is not his to tell, which only further affirms the notion that appropriating Asian stories to pander to white fascination is somehow okay—regardless of how many Asian-Americans have said otherwise.
Whitewashing Asian stories, particularly anime and manga, isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Dragonball Evolution featured a white Goku all the way back in 2009, and it sparked controversy then just like Ghost in the Shell did in 2017.
Despite outrage, however, actors and directors accused of whitewashing have persistently argued that their blatant racism was for the greater good: Scarlett Johansson claimed that opportunities to play well-written women characters were far too rare to pass up (nevermind that such opportunities are even rarer for Asian women); and Tilda Swinton, for her role as the Great One in Doctor Strange, asserted that the production team wanted to keep from playing into an offensive Fu Manchu stereotype (nevermind that that could easily be circumvented by simply not writing an offensive Fu Manchu stereotype).
Similarly, defensive fans and bystanders who don’t fully grasp the matter at hand cling to the rationalization that actual Japanese people who live in Japan don’t mind the whitewashing. Of all the claims that miss the mark, this one is the most nonsensical.
Asians who live in Asia and Asians who live in the West have completely different experiences. While Asians who live in Asia don’t deal with the same marginalizing cultural landscape that Asian-Americans do, they are still shaped by the white ideal that permeates almost every non-Western country. Trekking the streets of Tokyo to ask Japanese people their opinion on a movie that’s aimed at Western audiences is akin to traveling to the Netherlands to ask the white people their opinion on race relations in Canada.
The unfounded belief that Asians living in Asia are somehow the highest authority in deciding whether a Western phenomenon is or isn’t racist is also symptomatic of the misconception that Asian people are a monolith, and that we are all perpetually foreigners whose language barriers fundamentally prevent us from understanding Western culture. Instead of trying to go over our heads by contacting the so-called Asian mothership for an offhand opinion that validates a racist viewpoint, why don’t white directors, actors, and anime fans just take our opinions seriously?
Objectively, it’s great that Hollywood is branching out into Asian stories; it gives the opportunity for Asian actors to pursue leading roles, for Asian people to find representation in characters that actually look like them, and for tired Asian film stereotypes to finally be laid to rest. That said, all of the potential good crumbles when Hollywood just takes Asian stories and slaps a white filter on them for the sake of turning a profit (which seldom works).
The news about Death Note wasn’t surprising by any means, but it was sorely disappointing—mostly because Netflix is going so far out of its way to attract a relatively niche white audience. For a network that’s lauded time and again for being progressive in its storytelling, a white Death Note adaption isn’t just taking a massive step back; it’s shooting itself in the foot.
8 Comments Have Been Posted
If you actually took the time
Alex21 replied on
If you actually took the time to read the manga series, perhaps you'd know the death notes are written in English (Light Yagami was top of his class, and understood the language.) It was in English, because that's the world's most universal language. And since death gods are bored (he's not necessarily a Japanese death god, he's simply a god of death being seen through the eyes of the Japanese) they drop the notes anywhere they feel in the world to watch what happens. Look like this time, it gets dropped in Seattle.
Antti replied on
I never understood why these changes have to be made. If you are going to use source material, use it. Changing races and genders of characters people already know is just messed up.
I'm similarly upset that L is
Quinbee replied on
I'm similarly upset that L is getting blackwashed and Ryuk is getting DaFoewashed.
But--but--he's light skinned! That must mean he's white!
Cheryl H. replied on
Whenever an anime is whitewashed and people with a clue point out, rightly, that the characters are Japanese, and it's only right they be portrayed by Japanese/East Asian actors, whiners crawl out of whatever holes and caves they normally dwell in to point out, "They're white, duh. Look at the color of their skin. It's, like, really light, so they're white. Get your eyes checked." *headdesk* If the characters were supposed to be from Europe, it wouldn't be wrong to assume they're white--but they aren't. It's a *Japanese* show, with characters that have *Japanese* names, drawn and inked by *Japanese* artists, produced in *Japan* for a *Japanese* audience (the international audience is secondary). The. Characters. Are. Japanese. Whiners need to break their minds free of the Eurocentric way of viewing all light-skinned characters.
Ben Tumbling replied on
This is me EVERY TIME a friend from back in Manila says whitewashing isn't an issue. I'm here trying to talk about how culture shapes the reality of people's lives and they're talking about their feelings. Anyway, read this. Loved it. Shared it on Facebook. You're awesome.
Thank you for writing this,
Christina "DZA"... replied on
Thank you for writing this, and I'm sorry you had to write it. I never saw the anime (that type of medium just doesn't work for me) but I love the manga "Death Note" series. I won't be watching the Netflix adaptation. I don't want to see it ruined.
Thank you for writing this,
Christina "DZA"... replied on
Thank you for writing this, and I'm sorry you had to write it. I loved reading "Death Note" as a kid, not only for the story but because it used such strong elements of Japanese mythology, which I had never seen before.
I won't be watching the Netflix adaptation. I don't want to see this series ruined.
There's more to "whitewashing" than just a face
katiem replied on
More articulate people than I have pointed this out, but changing Light Yagami to Light Turner and moving Death Note to Seattle does more than make Netflix look ridiculous and un-progressive. And it's more than blatantly anti-Asian, too, though it is that.The major point in the plot is that Light, a highly educated honors student with a god complex, starts killing prisoners, convicted criminals, and suspected criminals that he sees on the news, with the assumption that they're all guilty. It's awful. And now imagine transposing that plotline to the United States, where 1 in 5 people in prison are there for a drug offense, and where the racial makeup of the prison population is scandalously biased towards Black, brown, and native folks. (See https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html). And a white kid, a "lone wolf," now gets the unlimited power to murder them indiscriminately.
Honestly, you could say that, more than whitewashing, this is white supremacist-washing.
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