Despite many consumers of media pushing for more diversity in their various forms of entertainment these, it seems like whitewashing seems more prominent than ever. Specifically looking to movies for a second, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, ‘The Martian’, and ‘Doctor Strange’ are just a few of the biggest recent examples of characters that were originally portrayed as Asian being played by white actors and actresses. Earlier this summer, Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of the popular Japanese manga ‘Death Note’ became the latest project to be criticized for swapping out people of color for Caucasian stars. However, rather than open a dialogue to discuss the public’s problems with the film starring Nat Wolff as Light Turner (originally Light Yagami) and Margaret Qualley as Mia Sutton (originally Misa Amane) that is set to hit the streaming service on August 25th, director Adam Wingard took his frustrations out on Twitter by dismissing the criticisms as “premature”. But now it sounds like he’s finally ready to talk about it.
During the film’s New York premiere over the weekend, Wingard told Vulture that he is ready to open the debate on whitewashing in ‘Death Note’. In sharing his side of the story, apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even consider that it would be a problem since they aimed to create something completely new. Although once the futuristic Scarlett Johansson action movie also based on a beloved manga and anime was released, the floodgates had been opened for them:
“It’s one of those things where it’s a good conversation to be having, and it wasn’t one we were really expecting. It wasn’t until the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ cracked it open [that] it became a conversation. But by then, we had already cast all of that stuff. It’s not just taking a character and trying to say a white kid is a Japanese kid. It is a whole new thing. The characters are all very different and it is a different kind of experience all together. The approach, in some ways, was letting go of the original source material. [It was] about creating a new experience out of it. This stuff has already been made into movies in Japan. The anime itself is an adaptation, and a lot of those things are on the nose, so this was a chance to reexplore the material in a new light.”
While it’s understandable to see where he’s coming from when he says that they were looking to present their own take on an iconic story with a huge fan following, it’s curious that Wingard and company didn’t go even further and completely change things up. Rather than keeping the main character as Light, they could have easily chosen a different name for him. Then they could have made it so that the actual Death Notebook from the Japanese films made its way to America and some serious shit started to go down in this kid’s life.
Alternatively, they could have cast an Asian American actor as Light. I’m sure that Nat Wolff did a great job in their eyes, but with this story being so ingrained in Asian culture, why not use it as an opportunity to spotlight the extremely underrepresented culture of Asian Americans in a major feature film? In real life, we’re everywhere in just about every major city and in all walks of life. But in the movie industry, white filmmakers or studio executives don’t even think about including us in western adaptations unless they need a nerd or a doctor? Obviously, that’s a generalization but that’s how it feels sometimes.
Of course, we can’t really truly judge how this new ‘Death Note’ turned out since it hasn’t been released to the public yet. For all we know, they only used the stuff that was most reminiscent of the source material to promote the film and everything else is completely different. Or it could be just as bad as we thought it would be a la ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Either way, it’s very important that we continue to be critical of whitewashing and the like in films, TV, comics, and beyond whether it was intentional (or merely subliminally intentional) or not so that our stories can finally start truly reflecting the world that we live in.
What do you think about ‘Death Note’ director Adam Wingard’s comments about whitewashing in his film? How different from the source material do you anticipate the new movie to be? And how do you feel about the recurring trend of casting white leads in East to West adaptations or stories? Sound off in the comments.
‘Death Note’ starring Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe will be streaming on Netflix starting on August 25, 2017.