Netflix recently unveiled the trailer for their upcoming film Death Note, a live action adaptation of the manga/anime series of the same name. Written by Tsugumi Ohba, the Death Note series is well loved in the anime/manga community.
The main character is named Light Yagami, the quintessential example of the perfect high school kid. Smart, charming, attractive, A student, and athletic, Light embodies everything that every school kid wants to be. He eventually stumbles upon a black notebook with the words DEATH NOTE written on the cover, and gains the ability to play god by killing anyone by writing their name in the book under the vigilante name of Kira.
He goes on to enact his own brand of justice in Japan since he feels the Japanese government and justice system are a failure. His main foe comes in the form of L, the world’s greatest detective come to solve the mystery of Kira.
Basic plot elements aside, time for Netflix to enter the ever growing pool of mass-media producers whitewashing films. It’s worth noting here that only the trailer and basic casting have been revealed, but those details have already sparked massive criticism.
What we know: Nat Wolff is playing Light Yagami, whose name has been changed to Light Turner. Margaret Qualley is playing Misa Amane (Light’s love interest and another Death Note holder) whose name has been changed to Mia Sutton. Keith Stanfield is playing L whose name stays L, though his aliases may have been changed. Willem DeFoe is Ryuk, whose name is still credited as Ryuk. (IMDB 2017)
The controversy here isn’t just that they’ve ‘whitewashed’ the film by having white actors play the main roles (save for L), but they’ve also ‘Americanized’ the film by changing the names of the characters and the location from Japan to Seattle (Big Hero 6 San Fransokyo anyone?)
This is one of the biggest issues I see with the directors’ ‘creative’ decisions. By taking the main characters and ‘Americanizing’ them it normalizes the idea that America is White and/or Black, but not Asian. Edward Zo, an Asian American actor who auditioned for the role goes into greater detail in his video here, saying that he was told he wouldn’t get the role because he’s Asian.
It’s a bit of racial erasure in a supposedly post-racial world that mirrors much of the whitewashing that early film depictions of Asians utilized. Michelle Villemaire calls attention to this in her photo series Correcting Yellowface, but the fact that it’s something that still needs to be pointed out is both astonishing and frustrating. Be it the comic book industry’s (and films) utilization of Asian culture and locations for the betterment of their white characters (Batman and Iron Fist to name two), the techno-fetishization of Asian culture and locale in the cyberpunk and sci-fi movements (here’s looking at you Blade Runner), or the complete erasure of Asian characters from their main roles as in Death Note or even Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood and American entertainment media as a hole have a long history of using a broad brush to white out Asians in their productions.