A white guy’s take on whitewashing Death Note

Hollywood’s lack of diversity affects everyone  

As a straight, white male — also arguably known as mainstream media’s favourite demographic — I’ve never had trouble feeling represented. But an upcoming whitewashed series made me stop and think twice about how I might see myself if the imagining was all up to me. 

On March 22, Netflix released the trailer for its new movie Death Note, a live-action adaptation of a Japanese anime series. The wildly popular story revolves around Light Yagami, a high school student who comes into possession of a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in its pages. In Japan, the Death Note franchise has spawned four films, a TV drama and even a musical.

The Netflix adaption seems like a logical next step on the franchise’s path to mainstream domination. However, fans of the series were shocked to see that the anime show’s new iteration had been stripped entirely of its Japanese identity. Light Yagami became Light Turner, portrayed by white actor Nat Wolff. The majority of the movie’s cast is white, and its location has been moved from Tokyo to Seattle. 

Death Note is unfortunately a mere bullet point on a long list of whitewashing instances in Hollywood. Some more recent cases include Emma Stone playing a character with mixed Hawaiian and Asian descent in 2015’s Aloha, Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of a traditionally Asian character in last year’s Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson’s current leading role in an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.  

Intrigued by the Death Note controversy, I decided to search the movie’s title on Twitter, expecting to find a countless supply of arguments against the film’s cultural appropriation. I was surprised to find an almost equal number of defenses of Netflix’s casting choices among the bevy of tweets on the topic. Tweet after tweet explained how Netflix’s recasting and use of white actors was simply because Death Note is an American adaptation, and thus more accurately reflects America through its cast and location.

These defenses inspired me to do a sort of introspection — which, believe me, doesn’t happen often. 

I’ve always been able to turn on the TV at any given moment and see someone that looked just like me doing practically anything. Since television was and is such an integral part of our cultural capital, what I saw on TV largely shaped and expanded my imagination.

If I wanted to imagine myself as a goofball, I could watch a Jim Carrey movie. If I wanted to imagine myself as a detective, I could turn on The Pink Panther or Inspector Gadget. If I wanted to imagine myself as a superhero, I could turn on practically any superhero movie ever.

The most important thing television or movies ever did for me was make me feel like I had a place in the world as anything I wanted to be. From a young age, I considered my possibilities as endless largely because I could quite literally see myself in any profession or time or place with the click of a remote. 

It terrifies me that so many children in the same society I live in are unable to do the same, due to the colour of their skin or where they come from. 

Representation matters, and I’m proof of that. Taking away someone’s representation in media limits their imagination and maybe their future in the process. Adaptation or not, Death Note was a prime opportunity to make at least some Japanese-Americans and Canadians feel like they had a place in their country’s mainstream media, not to mention offer a leading Hollywood acting opportunity to Japanese actors. 

Netflix dropped the ball. I hope this controversy at least directs Netflix towards a path that allows every child to feel like they belong, just as I did.

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