Why You Should Care About #DeathNoteWhitewashing

Do you love the manga and anime Death Note? I do. If you love the franchise, you’re probably excited about the upcoming film. I would be, if I wasn’t already sure Hollywood was set to whitewash it. My fears were proven when Nat Wolff, best known for his role in Paper Towns, is now in talks to star in the American film adaptation.The fear of watching an American adaptation of an anime has deep roots, and every few years, there’s always a film that brings those tensions back to life. The oft-rumored Akira adaptation is an example (and hopefully, they never make it). The Last Airbender, which is based on Avatar: The Last Airbender (American anime to begin with) is also a good example, as is  that Ghost in the Shell adaptation that seems to have died down once outrage occurred over Scarlett Johansson being in talks to play Major Kusanagi. Now we have this.

“But it’s not like it’s Nat Wolff’s problem or Scarlett Johansson’s problem! They just aced the audition!” Someone reading this might say. Well, dear reader, I’ll gently tell you that while it’s not their fault, there’s more at work than just someone acing their audition. No one’s against actors and Wolff and Johansson getting roles. What folks are against is Hollywood obviously barring other people, such as America’s minority actors, from getting those same roles. In Hollywood, a white actor can play white, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern characters and plenty of other characters that they may or may not apply to. However, an Asian person can’t even play an Asian character like Death Note‘s Light or L, who are Japanese.

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, Hollywood is constantly at work finding ways to bar people it feels isn’t of the Tribe. Consistently, those not of the Tribe are those who are discriminated against in society at large. Yet, the stories told of and by discriminated people are some of the stories that are the most popular, thus being the stuff that Hollywood wants to get in on. However, the never tell the story in a way that’s truthful to the creator, to the characters, and to audience.

If the audience loved a property that consists of only people of color, then why is it so hard to make a film that consists of only people of color. In other words, Death Note, like Ghost in the Shell and Akira, is set in Japan. Is it so hard to cast Japanese actors for the role? Or, to be even broader, just Asian and Asian-American actors? There are plenty of Asian and Asian-American actors who make big bank here and would bring in the butts in seats. Just give them a doggone chance to prove it, Hollywood! Stop catering to the racist idea that only Americans can identify with white characters, because it’s not true! Fall TV alone shows it’s not true!

Another thing Hollywood loves to throw around is that “diverse casts don’t work overseas.” If you think about it, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. How can a diverse cast, especially an anime film, not work overseas, when the story itself comes from overseas??? How would an American film starring Japanese people do poorly in a Japanese market? Hollywood, you know that doesn’t make sense.

Hollywood will also say that films based on anime don’t work. “Just look at Dragonball: Evolution! and The Last Airbender!” some bigwigs might say. I’ll tell you why those films didn’t work. First, they were poorly written. Second, poorly directed. But the biggest reason is that they were far cries from their source material, material that contains only POC characters. Don’t even start, DBZ Uberfan reading this, on how Goku and the Saiyans aren’t humans, therefore they aren’t Asian. They’re still coded as Japanese (even if Vegeta’s attack names were in English to mimic how Japanese street gangs use English to denote their bad-assness).

I’d say both of these films did an even worse job in terms of their casting, because not only were the main characters whitewashed, but both films cast Asian actors in roles that were treated like second class. You cast Joon Park as Yamcha, fine. You cast Jamie Chung as Chi-Chi. Okay. Eriko Tamura as Mai. Whatever. But all of these roles, including the role of Grandpa Gohan and Master Roshi, are treated less like the well-rounded main characters they were in the anime and manga and more like Asian stereotypes you’d find in any American movie. They’re considered fodder in their own story. Let’s not even get into The Last Airbender, which was a travesty.

I wonder how much say Dan Lin and Masi Oka, who are producers on the Death Note movie, had in the casting of the film. I wonder what the casting process was like. I wonder about a lot of things, since I think Hollywood is ready for the Asian leading male. Why is this film hindering the process?

The short of it is that we should expect outrage to begin. It’s warranted. Everyone who is passionate about Death Note and movies in general should decry Hollywood doing business as usual. The #DeathNoteWhitewashing needs to be called out so Hollywood can realize everyone needs a chance to headline blockbuster films.

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Art from Viz Media