Is Netflix ‘Death Note’ Another Case Of Whitewashing?

Netflix released the first trailer for the highly anticipated adaptation of the Japanese manga series Death Note on March 22, 2017. The manga, created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, was first published in Weekly Shōnen Jump in 2003. The story tells how the protagonist, Light Yagami, discovers a notebook that grants him the ability to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. His efforts to cleanse the world of evil as he sees it are opposed by a brilliant detective known only as L.

Death Note has already been adapted into four Japanese live-action films, a succesful television series, several novels, and a 37-episode anime adaptation. With such a huge fan base already in place, it’s no wonder that Hollywood decided to attempt a western adaptation of the material.

The film is a pet project of Adam Wingard, known for his horror chops as the director of You’re Next (2011), The Guest (2014), and Blair Witch (2016). The movie was previously produced by Warner Bros., but just before it headed into production, the film company decided to drop it. Warner Bros. allowed Wingard to shop the movie around, and Netflix picked up the rights.

Whitewashing Or Something Else?

The film has already generated buzz, but not in a good way. Many fans are wondering why Netflix chose to cast a predominantly white cast, especially given that the source material is inherently Japanese. The manga and subsequent previous adaptions show the location as Japan with most of the cast being Japanese. This adaptation has changed all of that, putting the action in what appears to be the United States, even going so far as to change the lead character’s name from Light Yagami to Light Turner. The female lead’s name was also changed from Misa Amane to Mia Sutton.

Curiously, some names weren’t changed, and the plot hasn’t changed from the anime or manga. The primary antagonist is still named L, and L’s butler is still named Watari. In a strange juxtaposition, Watari is portrayed in the manga and anime as British, while in this adaptation, he is played by Paul Nakauchi, an Asian-American actor, who is best known as the voice actor for Hanzo in the popular video game, Overwatch.

Netflix's new live action adaptation of Death Note is under fire for whitewashing
Nat Wolff, despite being a brunette, is cast as a blonde in Netflix's new live-action adaptation of 'Death Note.' [Image by Evan Agostini/AP Images]

The lead role of Light is being played by Nat Wolff, who is known for his roles in The Fault in Our Stars, and Paper Towns. The role of the detective pursuing Light, L, is being played by Lakeith (Keith) Stanfield whose acting chops include the role of Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton, and Darius in the television series, Atlanta.

This is by no means the first instance of whitewashing where Asian Americans are concerned. The practice of putting white actors in roles that could be filled by Asian actors stretches back to the beginning of Hollywood. One of the most blatant examples is the portrayal of Holly Golightly’s Asian landlord, Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The gross caricature portrayed by Mickey Rooney is a huge scar on what is otherwise a brilliant movie.

More recently, other films have come under fire for whitewashing roles. Marvel’s Doctor Strange cast Tilda Swinton, a white female actress, in the role of The Ancient One. In the source material, The Ancient One is a Tibeten monk, not a British woman. The 2017 adaptation of the cult classic manga and anime Ghost in the Shell is being panned by fans for casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi. Like Death Note, Ghost in the Shell has renamed the lead to avoid confusion, opting to rename Kusanagi as Mira, and referring to her as “The Major.”

Whether Netflix and Wingard meant for this to be an intentional whitewash of the source material or not, the controversy remains. Neither Netflix nor Wingard have responded to the outcry as of yet, but Lakeith Stanfield did post a rather coincidental message (that has since been deleted) on Twitter that read, “Currently blackwashin sh*t.”

Nat Wolff in a scene from Death Note.

What do you think? Is Death Note another example of Hollywood whitewashing to make a film more palatable to Western audiences? Do you think that too much has been made of the whole thing? Let us know in the comments below.

[Featured Image by Netflix]