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Despite whitewashing in Western media being a
racial issue that has been addressed over many years, it remains being relevant
mainly because of Hollywood’s persistent choice to cast white actors instead of
giving actors of color their necessary and much deserved representation.
Recently, the discourse has reignited due to the American life- action
adaptations of the popular Japanese anime Ghost
in the Shell and Death Note.

The term whitewashing most commonly refers to
the act of characters described as people of color (POC) being impersonated by
white actors in Western adaptations of fiction, but it also includes true POC
stories being portrayed exclusively from the white perspective, POC characters
being played by white actors that pretend to be of color through for example
blackface and many other nuances. 1

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The Netflix life-action adaptation of the
popular manga and anime series Death Note
is one of the latest works of fiction that caused an exuberant debate
regarding whitewashing in American media. The original story was created by the
Japanese manga artist Tsugumi Ohba2
and revolves around the high school student Light Yagami that one day comes
across a supernatural book that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing
their name in it. Upon this discovery, Light starts exterminating criminals and
thereby tries to establish a world of, as he perceives it, ultimate justice. He
is assisted by the Shinigami (Death God) Ryuk as he continues executing his
plan while simultaneously warding off the Japanese police lead by the criminal
investigator and prodigy L. The plot explores and questions our concepts of
ethics and addresses subjects like justice and morality, which in combination
with the intriguing characters led to the series’ immense popularity.

In 2017 Netflix released its own adaptation of Death Note, which caused a lot of mixed
responses and controversy. The main point of criticism is the production’s
choice of casting the Caucasian actor Nat Wolff as Light Yagami, whose name was
changed to Light Turner, instead of an Asian American lead character. In fact
it is not only the main role, but the majority of the cast that is being
represented by white actors even though the original story is set in Japan and
therefore features Japanese characters. However, Netflix decided to transfer
the story into an American setting by for example changing the location from
Tokyo to Seattle. Despite this being a questionable production choice that was
disapproved of by many fans in itself, the problematic issue is that the
casting choice is another “instance of American media affirming the stereotype
that to be American is to be white”1
This image is further enforced by failing to cast any Asian-American or mixed race
actors not only for the main, but for any important roles despite there being
many talented POC actors available and thereby once again erasing America’s
diversity from the media.

Furthermore, Death Note is heavily based on and
shaped by Japanese culture, which means that taking the plot out of its
original setting completely deforms the source material. For instance, Light’s
companion Ryuk is a Shinigami, which are a well-known element of Japanese
mythology and are therefore previously associated with certain traits and bound
to specific rules.1

Moreover, life under the Japanese education
system affects the main character’s behavior and motivation to become a serial
killer.1 The latter is also ominously
influenced by the Japanese criminal system’s structure. In Japan, many cases do
not make it to court because the Japanese police’s power in investigation is
rather restricted which makes gathering evidence a lot harder as e.g.
wire-tapping is not legal. In addition, Japanese court emphasizes establishing a
plausible motive in order to prosecute a case which results in many criminals
walking free and many innocent people ending up in prison. These conditions
shape Light’s perception of justice and lead to his motivation to restore the balance
himself because he feels that the Japanese police is unable to do so. 3

Since all of those aspects are affected by
changing the setting to America, the story gets distorted and is no longer
coherent. Thus, the production should have at least considered this and
properly adapted the plot accordingly instead of altering isolated aspects of
the source. This unintelligibility is the main reason why so many fans are
discontent with the American remake and feel like it is an insult to the original.

Nevertheless, surprisingly enough the majority
of 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 even
glad that Japanese works of fiction are getting attention and gaining
popularity in Western countries. This overall positive reaction can be
explained by two main factors.

The first is the concept of mukokuseki (without
nationality), which describes the idea that Japanese fictional characters do
not need to look racially accurate in order to be considered Japanese. Many
anime characters do not really look Japanese, they often have big eyes,
colorful hair and a very light skin tone, one of the many examples being
Tsukino Usagi from the popular series Sailor Moon. Yet, they are automatically
perceived as Japanese because they are fictional and therefore do not need to
be realistic. The same attitude is applied towards Western life action
adaptations which means that the Japanese audience does not expect the
characters to look ethnically Japanese in the first place.4

Second, America and Japan are demographically
very different. America is a country well-known for its diversity whereas Japan
still considers itself as a relatively homogeneous country in terms of
appearance. As a result, the same problem of erasure and underrepresentation of
ethnic minorities simply does not exist.1
The Japanese associate America with a Caucasian appearance and therefore expect
white actors in an American remake just like they would expect Asian actors in
a Japanese adaptation, they are simply unaware of the discrimination against
Asian American actors.

Nevertheless, in my opinion the relatively positive
Japanese 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 Asian
fiction and changing their cultural settings distort the work’s coherence and
therefore upset many fans, it also reinforces stereotypes and privileges and
denies Asian American actors their much needed chance of representation.

For those reasons, it is regrettable that
Netflix missed the chance of setting a sign and changing something about the
inequality of opportunities but the heated debate and unpopularity of the movie
suggest that maybe in the future, movie productions will stop whitewashing and
start representing and celebrating diversity.




1 So you want to talk about Ghost in
the Shell, the white washed edition?, Rene Tsukawaki, Huffington Post, , 21.04.2017, website status: 15.12.2017

2 Tsugumi Ohba, , website status: 15.12.2017

3 Deathly White: On Death Note and
Whitewashing, Fatima Ahmed, 04.04.2017, Schema Magazine, website status:

4 Representation in Western
Adaptations of Japanese Media, Jamal Smith, 09.06.2017, Reel Rundown, website status: 20.12.2017


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