Deathly White: On Death Note and Whitewashing
These days, animes are becoming more and more mainstream. From Netflix producing their own to big budget movie adaptations, Japanese content is up for grabs. Anime is a rich pocket of literature that has done some of the most ground-breaking work. From the art to the writing, Japanese creators have been pushing the envelope to give us great narratives, incredible story arcs, and fully-realized characters. Why wouldn’t Hollywood want in on this? And they should. However, with recent adaptations like Ghost in a Shell and Death Note, it is obvious that Hollywood just doesn’t get it.
Death Note is an anime based on a manga series of the same name which takes place in Japan. It focuses on an anti-hero who finds a notebook that can kill and decides to take the law into his own hands. He faces-off against the Japanese police, the FBI, and the smartest minds in the world with nothing but a Shinigami, a god of death, on his side. It’s an intense thriller with some crucial questions about morality at its core. And with a new Netflix movie, it’s on its way to becoming even more popular. The film will star Nat Wolff as Light Yagami (Turner), our morally grey protagonist, and is set to premier on August 25th of this year. That all sounds great, except Nat Wolff is white and Light is supposed to be Japanese. This film seems to be following in the controversial footsteps of Ghost in a Shell, which cast Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese-presenting android. So, can Death Note be removed from its Japanese roots?
The original anime borrows heavily from Japanese culture. In Japanese mythology, Shinigami are supernatural spirits that tempt humans toward their deaths. In different iterations, they can make humans commit suicide or even possess people to do so. They are rooted in Shinto religious lore and many modern Japanese people still believe in them. However, Western adaptations have a track record of taking Eastern culture and watering it down to take advantage of it. Whether it’s through movies like Gods of Egypt or Doctor Strange, Hollywood likes to cash in on clichés of non-Western cultures.
Let’s also not forget that the Japanese criminal system shapes the way Light views justice. In Japan, many cases don’t make it to a court and never get convicted. This is because the Japanese police doesn’t have as much power to investigate as the western countries. They cannot use plea bargains, undercover operations, or wire-tapping which makes gathering evidence very difficult. Moreover, the Japanese criminal court relies on the proving of motive. Without fully establishing the “why” of the crime, the court will seldom prosecute. In these circumstances, prosecutors only forward those cases with a high chance of conviction to court. This means many criminals walk free and many innocent people end up in jail.
Moreover, Japan is mostly racially and culturally homogeneous. This means that they don’t have to deal with racism like the kind embedded within the American justice system. Making any kind of American adaptation on the justice system and ignoring the high incarceration rates of Black males and the impact of police brutality on Black communities is tone-deaf and ignorant. How someone sees a criminal or their reaction to a defendant relies on their race. Light is a cisgender, straight, man that has now also been made white. Light will eventually come across Black people suspected of crimes. A white man passing judgement on Black people on his own privileged terms is unacceptable.
This is not about discouraging cultural appreciation or stopping artistic inspiration. That cannot be policed. Nevertheless, the Americanization of any non-Western narrative needs to be handled right. Firstly, Americanizing an anime does not mean whitewashing it and we need to start by separating those two concepts. The Asian diaspora is incredibly present in American society and has been for quite some time. Casting Asian actors in these roles would not only have allowed the story to stay authentic and honest, but also better lend itself to a Western adaptation.
If Hollywood is determined to cast white people in almost all major roles then it begs the question: Why choose Death Note to adapt to a white, western, Hollywood movie when so many incredible animes focus on Caucasian characters? Full Metal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, Cowboy Bebop, and many other animes feature white people in speculative fictional worlds that would have lent themselves easily to a Hollywood film. Many take place outside of Japan, or at least detached from the Japanese experience, and would not be critiqued for whitewashing. Cast Scarlett Johansson or Nat Wolff in them and be done with it
The bottom line remains that missing the nuances of race will reduce Anime adaptations to uninspired drivel that not only insults the source material but also the fans of these stories. The same fans who see themselves in these characters and narratives and who will pay to see your movies and shows. If the opening weekend of Ghost in a Shell is any indication, then this ignorance will also lead to failure.