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.