‘Death Note’ whitewashing controversy a reminder of the film industry’s lack of Asian-American representation

In Arts & Entertainment, Film & TV
(Courtesy of Netflix)

Netflix’s film adaptation of the manga series “Death Note” was released Friday and was immediately met with backlash. The film continues the whitewash casting controversy and displays an ignorance to the source material’s Japanese origins.

Today, the relationship between the Asian-American community and Hollywood faces nuanced but apparent problems. Hollywood continues to cast Asian characters with white actors in manga adaptions like “Death Note” and in the 2017 film, “Ghost in the Shell.”

Roy Lee and Dan Lin, the producers of “Death Note,” are Asian-Americans who see their film adaptation as “a universal theme that knows no racial boundaries.”

The primary antagonist of the film, Detective L is played by African-American actor Lakeith Stanfield. During an interview with The Verge, Stanfield said that labeling Netflix’s version of “Death Note” as “whitewashing” is “a fundamental misunderstanding” by critics.

“This film takes place in Seattle, in America. So it would make sense that the cast reflects American demographics,” Stanfield told The Verge. He added that even though their version of “Death Note” is Americanized, there is an Asian character.

Paul Nakauchi plays Detective L’s assistant, Watari. He has the largest role of any Asian actor in the film although his time on screen is limited. The inclusion of Nakauchi in “Death Note” doesn’t fulfill the material’s narrative because it puts the Asian-American community in the background instead of allowing its members to be the heroes of their own stories. It shows a disregard to look for Asian actors who can represent their community.

In “Death Note,” Light Turner (Nat Wolff) and Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) write criminals’ names into a notebook called Death Note, to magically end violence in the world. Their alias, Kira (which is a transliteration of the word “killer” in Japanese) slaughters people in a nightclub in Japan. This scene limits the focus on Japanese people to only a sequence of violence and continues an ongoing narrative of unimportance toward the Asian-American community.

CSUF Asian American studies professor Dom Magwili, says that the movie industry shouldn’t consciously avoid casting Asian actors. It should be actively looking to place them in parts.

“If it is an Asian manga, you should do more than toss an Asian person to meet the quota,” Magwili said. “‘Death Note’s’ whitewashing extends the discussion on Hollywood not looking hard enough to fulfill diverse roles.”

Part of the reason Hollywood isn’t looking harder for animated adaptations could be because the characters can pass as white. Anime characters are often identified as racially ambiguous leading people to presume they are white.

Assuming manga characters are white ignores the origins of the characters. Light Yagami’s name, which was changed to Light Turner in “Death Note,” originated from Japan, not the United States.

Asian-Americans have minimal roles in Hollywood and are usually reduced to background or stereotypical roles. When a designated role for Asians are recast as white, it becomes an issue for the community. “Death Note” is a reminder of how Hollywood disregards origins of Asian characters. If Asian actors were casted as main characters more often, the film industry wouldn’t be criticized for their lack of interest in reaching out to a more diverse audience.

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