This Friday, Paramount Pictures’ version of Ghost in the Shell will hit theaters. A few days ago, the first teaser for Netflix’s Death Note aired.
You know what that means.
Google “Netflix Death Note”. Chances are the first two hits will be recent news articles from major news outlets like CNN and USA Today talking about whitewashing. Death Note, Ghost in the Shell, and even Western properties like Iron Fist are accused of ignoring their Asian roots and inspirations.
Death Note and Ghost in the Shell are hardly the first anime to be given a Hollywood-type makeover. Dragonball Evolution is arguably the most famous example — or rather, infamous example. Panned by fans and critics alike, the 2009 film only garnered about 14% positive reviews from critics and 20% from fans on Rotten Tomatoes.
Like the two previously mentioned manga, Dragonball Evolution caused controversy with its decision to cast Canadian actor Justin Chatwin as Goku. In fact, the movie has been included on many “worst whitewashing examples” lists.
So, are Death Note and Ghost in the Shell destined to follow in Dragonball Evolution‘s footsteps? Or is the controversy just overblown?
First, what is whitewashing? You may have heard of whitewashing the past, a way to gloss over the bad events of history. In movies, it refers to Caucasian actors getting roles of characters of other races. The practice goes back to the start of the film industry, which isn’t surprising considering various historical prejudices and civil rights struggles over the years. While casting white characters based on real non-white people hasn’t bothered some people, other depictions are much more problematic, even racist:
If you look at the previous CNN or USA Today articles or the dozens of other posts across the web, you can see various fan reactions. They basically fall into two groups:
1) It’s whitewashing. Actors of Asian descent should play the cast, especially Light and L, the leads.
2) This Death Note is set in America, so it’s not really whitewashing.
If you haven’t seen the teaser, here’s Light, the main character in Death Note:
Meanwhile, in the case of Ghost in the Shell, the anime film’s producer thought Scarlett Johansson was “the best possible choice.” A Kodansha executive added the company “never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.”
That didn’t stop fans from doing things like trolling Ghost in the Shell‘s official “Major Me” campaign into a campaign against whitewashing.
But back to the original question: whitewashing or not?
Before I answer, let’s start with this poster:
Do you have a problem with this image?
What, you don’t know what this is? Well, perhaps you’re more familiar with this one:
This is a poster of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. The previous poster was Ken Watanabe in Yurusarezaru Mono, the Japanese remake of Unforgiven. While the 1992 movie took place in the American Wild West, the Japanese film was set at in early Meiji-era Hokkaido.
Notice the keyword remake. It took an American work and made it into a Japanese one. There is nothing wrong with re-imaginings. Lots of Chinese, Korean, and Tawainese dramas are set in their native countries despite being based on Japanese anime and manga stories. Amestris in Fullmetal Alchemist is based on Western cultures (unlike the Eastern-inspired Xing), but Edward is being played by a Japanese actor. You even get situations like in the case of Lady & Liar: the original manga (Hakushaku Reijou) was set in 1800s France. Lady & Liar was redone in 1930s China.
Are Asians — or minorities in general — underused in film media? Absolutely. Remember #OscarsSoWhite from just last year? There’s no doubt that films are dominated by Caucasians, and men in particular.
In the case of Netflix’s Death Note, Light Yagami is renamed Light Turner, the European-mixed L is African-American, and the English Watari is now Japanese. Could Netflix have set the film in Japan, and have everyone be the same race as their original manga counterparts? Absolutely. Would it have been a wonderful way to promote all the talented Asian actors out there? Of course.
But here’s the thing: that might have been awesome, but that doesn’t make Death Note wrong.
Again, let’s go back to Yurusarezaru Mono. Do you have a problem with it? After all, it completely changes the setting and does not use Americans.
Plus, I hate to break it to you Death Note fans: it’s not exactly the most Japanese-heavy story. Sure, there are a lot Japanese culture references (shinigami death gods being the most obvious), but there are some Western influences as well. Heck, Light’s name is an unusual reading of the kanji in his name; it’s hardly a common name like Haruto or Yuto.
As for being white, yes, over 60% of Americans are white. So then is it terribly shocking that a white teenager in Seattle, Washington finds the Death Note?
Nobody has seen the movie yet. Is it possible that Nat Wolff is a horrible choice for Light? Sure. But perhaps he places the moral-gone-immoral Light in the same spirit Ohba designed him to be and how Mamoru Miyano played him in the anime. He could also be an awful choice. But let’s not ignore the fact this isn’t an all-white cast.
From the trailers, it looks like Ghost in the Shell is keeping the original Japanese setting. However, the movie hides the Major’s name. Could the director have hired an Asian actress to play Motoko? No doubt. As Mamoru Oishii points out, the Major’s body and name is not her own. Plus her purplish hair and red eyes are hardly realistic. She’s not exactly supposed to fit in visually with her squad members like native Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano as Daisuke Aramaki.
If you are saying there needs to be more Asians in major roles, then the answer is yes.
If you’re really trying to argue that these two films are ruined because of racism and that the only way these two movies could have been done correctly is with Asian actors, I’m going to disagree with you.
One is a re-imagining and the other stars a non-human. Fans should use Death Note and Ghost in the Shell to raise awareness about their original manga sources, and they should push for more minority characters as leads in all film projects, not just ones inspired by Japanese stories. Ghost in the Shell and Death Note won’t be the last Hollywood anime/manga remakes. I won’t blink twice if they make, say, a Sailor Moon set in Los Angeles. But if they ever make a movie about a former Japanese swordsman assassin who now vows never to kill and cast a white male, I’ll be right there with my proverbial pitchfork.
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