There have been a number of high-profile acts of whitewashing in films lately, the most egregious of which was Ghost in the Shell, which Matt Goldberg recently wrote about as just being flat-out racist. But when it comes to Netflix’s adaptation of the Japanese manga Death Note, producer Roy Lee is fighting back against those claims. The protagonist is played by a white actor (Nat Wolff), but the story is also not set in Japan, so its status as an adaptation has set it apart for some. Still, the controversy has still taken Lee by surprise.
In speaking to BuzzFeed, Lee noted that “I’ve been involved in many adaptations of content from all over the world, and this is the first time that I’ve been seeing negative press.” Lee has also adapted The Grudge, The Ring, and The Departed for American audiences. As BuzzFeed writes:
To him, Death Note is not an example of whitewashing. “I can understand the criticism … if our version of Death Note was set in Japan and [featured] characters that were Japanese-named or of Japanese ancestry,” he said. But that’s not the case.
The story now takes place in Seattle, and the characters’ names have been changed to reflect typical American surnames. In addition to Wolff, the cast features Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, and Masi Oka.
“It is an interpretation of that story in a different culture, so there are going to be some obvious changes. Some people will like them, some people may not […] “one of [the leads] is Asian, one’s African-American, and three are Caucasian. Saying ‘whitewashing’ is also somewhat offensive.”
Lee then urged detractors to of course see the movie before judging it, but this is the internet so judging is going to take place regardless. As for the claims of whitewashing, it’s pretty easy to see both sides. This is originally a Japanese story, but as Lee admits, things were changed to “make it more appealing to the US or to the English-language market.” This isn’t Matt Damon being the lead in a movie called The Great Wall, and it’s not Ghost in the Shell, which takes place in a Japan that does not seem to feature any Japanese people. Still, frustration is understandable when these kinds of media properties are now much easier to find and consume globally instead of regionally, which opens up more opportunities, one would think, to tell a Japanese story in the U.S. and have it work.
What do you think of Lee’s comments, and are you a fan of the original manga? And are you still planning to watch the movie?