Netflix's Death Note Creators Don't Really Understand The Whitewashing Criticism

Last week, Netflix's Death Note adaptation premiered in New York City and the screening gave its creators a chance to respond to the widespread criticism of the film's whitewashing of Japanese characters and context. Their responses aren't exactly encouraging, but at least they're talking?

Image Credit: Netflix

When news of Netflix's Death Note adaptation surfaced earlier this year, it met a lot of hostility one simple reason: the film, based on the Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, doesn't feature Japanese actors. The villainous protagonist, Light Yagami, is Light Turner and is being played by the incredibly Caucasian Nat Wolff, with the entire story now rewritten to take place in Seattle.

The adaptation's detractors say the film traffics in the longstanding practice of whitewashing, where characters and stories from non-white backgrounds are rewritten for an American context and cast with white actors in roles that were initially played by people of colour.

Talking to Vulture at last night's premiere, director Adam Wingard said the controversy caught him by surprise. "It's one of those things where it's a good conversation to be having, and it wasn't one we were really expecting," he said. "It wasn't until Ghost in the Shell cracked it open [that] it became a conversation. But by then, we had already cast all of that stuff."

"I think we got the right actors for the parts that were written," said Roy Lee, one of the film's producers (and, it should be noted, an Asian American himself). "We didn't look at race as a factor. We just did the version that was set in the US. There are remakes of US movies like Sideways in Japan, abut there was never a thought for them to bring in American actors to play the [characters] in the Japanese remake."

There's a lot to unpack here. The conversation around whitewashing in American media is sometimes messy, but it's an essential one to have. White voices and white stories are still disproportionately represented in our culture. And stories are cultural power.

Casting Death Note with white actors, erasing Japanese names, situates the power of telling in the hands of mainstream American culture. It threatens to erase the cultural particularities of the original work, and it sends the message that the only way to adapt something to an American audience is to make it whiter.

That's why I find Wingard and Lee's responses so frustrating. Neglecting to think of race as a factor seems irresponsible when telling a story that's borrowed from another culture. And Lee's argument about Japanese films ignores the context of race in America in general and Hollywood in particular, where Asian American actors still struggle to find roles. When race isn't considered as a legitimate factor, my fear is that egalitarianism doesn't win. Erasure does.

And I understand this isn't fun or simple to talk about, and I'm certainly not an authority on the subject. I'm just a white girl, after all, and there's certainly a debate to be had about the best practices and messy practicalities of trying to adapt work from cultures different from one's own. I have opinions, not answers. But those questions can't be just afterthoughts. They have to be central, and they have to start being asked before pen ever hits paper.

[Vulture]

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Comments

    The fact that it's been adapted for US audiences doesn't suddenly mean the original no longer exists - and the wider audience likely to try to watch Death Note probably wouldn't have been interested in the original Japanese production anyway.

      Without knowing much about it, I'm guessing that the problem is that there's very little acknowledgement that it's different from the original Death Note. If it were "Death Note - Boston Chronicles", and the characters had vastly different names, etc, no-one would care.

      So... this is what people didn't like? Rather than the fact they may as well have cast Justin Bieber as Light, and... did I see "high schoolers" passing paper notes? Seriously? Is note-passing still a thing?

    Interesting that they noted that Japanese remakes don't cast white actors, is that blackwashing?

      Wrong colour but yeah, if it's whitewashing for the Americans to do it then it should be just as bad the other way.

      I was actually thinking of some of the older Japanese movies that basically redid Shakespeare.

      I don't like the whole "white-washing" argument in general, but there are times when it's valid. In this case though, when they're completely remaking the movie, setting it in the US then it makes sense to recast with a more "American" cast.

        The issue there is the implicit idea that a more 'American' cast is a whiter cast- there are certainly many non-white Americans. It also seems a bit odd to suggest that a movie/TV show's success would be reliant on the main character having the same skin colour as most of the audience, clearly the rest of the world has little problem seeing Americans in just about every TV show/film.

          And the reality is lots of people empathize more with characters that look like themselves. Whether you want to claim that's right or wrong it's still the truth for many people. And the reality is America is predominantly white 61-77% ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States ) so film makers are going to aim at that demographic to make money by marketing for the bigger audience.

          If you want to complain about the races of the characters, the two largest minorities in the US are African American (13%) and Hispanic (17%). Asian Americans come in just under 5%. So it'd make more sense demographically to have mostly white characters with a few African American and Latino and maybe one Asian character.

          Now, if they were remaking it *and* setting it in Japan then I think they should have the opposite with a predominantly Japanese cast. But why would you do that? I mean they already have the original film.

          And this was mentioned before, but the movie Sideways was remade by Japan with a Japanese lead character, so it's not just "white" people who do this.

          Remake:
          http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1236373/
          Original:
          http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0375063/

          Do you have a problem with that?

    Do you complain about femalewashing a male character?

    If not, then you have no right to complain.

    What about the rampant age-washing that goes on in movies and tv shows? How often do we get 24yo actors/actresses playing 16yo high school students, when there are clearly plenty of 16yo’s available to play these characters?

    This is a real issue.

      I've been whingeing about this since I was 16. I care less now that I'm old.

      It’s well known that child labor laws cause studios to hire adult young folks to escape the necessity of shorter working hours and having a teacher on the set to conduct required schoolwork.

      Why wouldn't you get someone older with more experience and often skill to play the role? Seems like a good business decision. And not having to deal with restrictions of child actors on set would undoubtedly be a benefit.

    "I have opinions, not answers. But those questions can't be just afterthoughts much like this blog. They have to be central, and they have to start being asked before pen ever hits paper."

    I'm pretty sure those questions were asked before pen hit paper. It's called an adaptation. They have adapted it... for a different audience... so they did what they did. There is no should here.

    This outrage culture is so fuckin dumb. Its like common sense doesnt exist anymore.

    They have done multiple Death Note remakes in Japan, which anyone is free to watch and see themselves with some of them being on Netflix as well. This is just another remake in a long line of remakes which the company that owns Death Note approved of.

    If you want to talk about bad casting look at the Attack on Titans live action, everyone was supposed to be european but they made them all asian which watered the CULTURAL significance that the character Misaka who was supposed to bring as the only Japanese person.

    Your issue is really against adaptation, not whitewashing.

    As an Asian-Australian, I disagree with this article. This is perpetuating the idea that adapting a film from a foreign market for some reason requires the source material's culture to be represented too. I do truly appreciate your support in having more Asians in film, but this is an adaptation for a new audience. For many adaptations, a similar story can be told to a Western audience using Western culture as a setting.

    Some could argue that a manga/anime such as Akira would be difficult to adapt as the threat of nuclear war is unfortunately related to significant events in Japanese history, however Death Note does not have that sort of baggage. Along those lines, Scorsese's The Departed is an adaptation of a Hong Kong film named Infernal Affairs, yet very little has been said of its 'whitewashing'. That's because for one, it's a good movie, and for two, the events that transpire are largely unrelated to the characters' ethnicities.

    I'm not sure that I speak for all races, but I see the real issue being when the culture/background/ethnicity is intrinsic to a plot or character. One of the latest examples of this being Emma Stone's role in Aloha, an older example being Fisher Stevens playing an Indian character in Short Circuit.

    Of course, I have to mention the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation, which is one that I am undecided on, as the setting varies depending on which show you follow - the original being set in a country that may be Japan but has a significant Hong Kong influence. The filmmakers went out of the way to explain the character's origins, which had its own faults, but at very least wasn't something that they ignored.

    When I think about it, I don't see true whitewashing that often, at least for Asians. What I personally find more offensive are stereotypes of Asian culture. It's getting better nowadays, but we are still far too often portrayed as martial arts experts, awkward nerds, or wise old men (the latter of which being similar to the 'magical negro' trope). These stereotypes are more likely to reinforce a certain one-dimensionality of Asian culture and has a more direct effect on how we are perceived. I was actually glad when Marvel replaced The Mandarin and The Ancient One with non-Asian actors.

      Well written indeed. I just realised I'm a stereotypical Asian. I'm a nerd, a martial arts expert and hopefully one day a wise old man lol

    It is an adaptation. I'm getting sick of outrage-making and victim-making. Many of us are sick of the puerile lack of depth in modern conversations (from media types mainly).

    This is an adaptation. It isn't racist.

    I wouldn't of thought a second about this being issue of race for a second or if a Japanese adaptation used only Japanese actors for an adaptation. Yes, there are different races involved in this issue but that does not make it racist or whitewashing or anybody becoming a victim.

    Enough with wanting to be outraged. This was not whitewashing but simply an adaptation.

    Wanting to be outraged is not healthy for anybody especially over issues that aren't even issues.

    reeee i'm gonna screech about a movie adapted for the majority of US audiences reeeeeeeeee

      What is this reeeee shit? I've seen it a few times now.

        it's an onomatopoeia

          Lol fair enough. I guess I never make that noise or know anyone that does. Maybe it's a regional thing.

            it's used for the people that just like to screech and complain, lol. part of the [autistic screeching] meme.

    So... you're saying that they should have made it with Asian actors?

    That already exists. Several live action Death Note movies already exist with Asian actors. And a TV series as well. Are we complaining that they didn't make it exactly the same as the original movie adaptations?

    This is the first time I've seen a comments section on these sites united as one hahaha.

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