Despite whitewashing in Western media being aracial issue that has been addressed over many years, it remains being relevantmainly because of Hollywood’s persistent choice to cast white actors instead ofgiving actors of color their necessary and much deserved representation.Recently, the discourse has reignited due to the American life- actionadaptations of the popular Japanese anime Ghostin the Shell and Death Note. The term whitewashing most commonly refers tothe act of characters described as people of color (POC) being impersonated bywhite actors in Western adaptations of fiction, but it also includes true POCstories being portrayed exclusively from the white perspective, POC charactersbeing played by white actors that pretend to be of color through for exampleblackface and many other nuances. 1The Netflix life-action adaptation of thepopular manga and anime series Death Noteis one of the latest works of fiction that caused an exuberant debateregarding whitewashing in American media. The original story was created by theJapanese manga artist Tsugumi Ohba2and revolves around the high school student Light Yagami that one day comesacross a supernatural book that allows him to kill anyone simply by writingtheir name in it. Upon this discovery, Light starts exterminating criminals andthereby tries to establish a world of, as he perceives it, ultimate justice. Heis assisted by the Shinigami (Death God) Ryuk as he continues executing hisplan while simultaneously warding off the Japanese police lead by the criminalinvestigator and prodigy L. The plot explores and questions our concepts ofethics and addresses subjects like justice and morality, which in combinationwith the intriguing characters led to the series’ immense popularity.
In 2017 Netflix released its own adaptation of Death Note, which caused a lot of mixedresponses and controversy. The main point of criticism is the production’schoice of casting the Caucasian actor Nat Wolff as Light Yagami, whose name waschanged to Light Turner, instead of an Asian American lead character. In factit is not only the main role, but the majority of the cast that is beingrepresented by white actors even though the original story is set in Japan andtherefore features Japanese characters. However, Netflix decided to transferthe story into an American setting by for example changing the location fromTokyo to Seattle. Despite this being a questionable production choice that wasdisapproved of by many fans in itself, the problematic issue is that thecasting choice is another “instance of American media affirming the stereotypethat to be American is to be white”1This image is further enforced by failing to cast any Asian-American or mixed raceactors not only for the main, but for any important roles despite there beingmany talented POC actors available and thereby once again erasing America’sdiversity from the media.Furthermore, Death Note is heavily based on andshaped by Japanese culture, which means that taking the plot out of itsoriginal setting completely deforms the source material.
For instance, Light’scompanion Ryuk is a Shinigami, which are a well-known element of Japanesemythology and are therefore previously associated with certain traits and boundto specific rules.1Moreover, life under the Japanese educationsystem affects the main character’s behavior and motivation to become a serialkiller.1 The latter is also ominouslyinfluenced by the Japanese criminal system’s structure.
In Japan, many cases donot make it to court because the Japanese police’s power in investigation israther restricted which makes gathering evidence a lot harder as e.g.wire-tapping is not legal. In addition, Japanese court emphasizes establishing aplausible motive in order to prosecute a case which results in many criminalswalking free and many innocent people ending up in prison.
These conditionsshape Light’s perception of justice and lead to his motivation to restore the balancehimself because he feels that the Japanese police is unable to do so. 3Since all of those aspects are affected bychanging the setting to America, the story gets distorted and is no longercoherent. Thus, the production should have at least considered this andproperly adapted the plot accordingly instead of altering isolated aspects ofthe source.
This unintelligibility is the main reason why so many fans arediscontent with the American remake and feel like it is an insult to the original.Nevertheless, surprisingly enough the majorityof Japanese people aren’t offended by the Western adaptations of their media.On the contrary, responses from my own Japanese friends show that they are evenglad that Japanese works of fiction are getting attention and gainingpopularity in Western countries. This overall positive reaction can beexplained by two main factors. The first is the concept of mukokuseki (withoutnationality), which describes the idea that Japanese fictional characters donot need to look racially accurate in order to be considered Japanese. Manyanime characters do not really look Japanese, they often have big eyes,colorful hair and a very light skin tone, one of the many examples beingTsukino Usagi from the popular series Sailor Moon. Yet, they are automaticallyperceived as Japanese because they are fictional and therefore do not need tobe realistic. The same attitude is applied towards Western life actionadaptations which means that the Japanese audience does not expect thecharacters to look ethnically Japanese in the first place.
4Second, America and Japan are demographicallyvery different. America is a country well-known for its diversity whereas Japanstill considers itself as a relatively homogeneous country in terms ofappearance. As a result, the same problem of erasure and underrepresentation ofethnic minorities simply does not exist.1The Japanese associate America with a Caucasian appearance and therefore expectwhite actors in an American remake just like they would expect Asian actors ina Japanese adaptation, they are simply unaware of the discrimination againstAsian American actors.
Nevertheless, in my opinion the relatively positiveJapanese reaction can not be used to justify whitewashing in Netflix’s Death Note or any other Western remake.Not only does exclusively casting Caucasian actors in adaptations of Asianfiction and changing their cultural settings distort the work’s coherence andtherefore upset many fans, it also reinforces stereotypes and privileges anddenies Asian American actors their much needed chance of representation. For those reasons, it is regrettable thatNetflix missed the chance of setting a sign and changing something about theinequality of opportunities but the heated debate and unpopularity of the moviesuggest that maybe in the future, movie productions will stop whitewashing andstart representing and celebrating diversity. 1 So you want to talk about Ghost inthe Shell, the white washed edition?, Rene Tsukawaki, Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com , 21.04.2017, website status: 15.12.20172 Tsugumi Ohba, www.deathnote.wikia.com/wiki/Tsugumi_Ohba , website status: 15.12.20173 Deathly White: On Death Note andWhitewashing, Fatima Ahmed, 04.04.2017, Schema Magazine, website status:15.12.20174 Representation in WesternAdaptations of Japanese Media, Jamal Smith, 09.06.2017, Reel Rundown, www.reelrundown.com website status: 20.12.2017