Unpopular Opinion: Netflix’s Death Note is NOT White-Washing
written by Justin Prince (prince_justin)
Fans have been quite divisive over the American adaptation of famed manga/anime series Death Note. It’s no surprise that after Ghost in the Shell bombed and how the conversation of white-washing is so prevalent today… of course there would be outrage. Personally, I was also a bit let down by the casting initially but vowed that I would give it the good ol college try before stamping a bit “NO” on the project as a whole.
The film’s release is still less than a month away (premiering on Netflix on August 25th) but in the months leading to the release, especially after the first couple trailers, the nerd-outrage hit a fever pitch. I felt the need to say loudly and proudly that while the opinion may be unpopular… Netflix’s Death Note is absolutely not white-washing.
To me, Death Note sits as one of my all-time favorite manga series. I was elated when they announced the anime adaptation and was also a fan of both the original TV-movie and the theatrical Death Note 2 starring Tatsuya Fujiwara and Ken’ichi Matsuyama. Despite the series firmly planted in Japan with Japanese characters and certain elements of Japanese culture on display, the meat and potatoes of the story has always been so malleable that Death Note could be set in any locale with any type of character. They could have set this in Italy or South Africa and the themes of the story would persist. I’ve stuck to my guns and as long as I’ve loved the series I’ve always felt that Death Note is a story that can take place anywhere in the world and still convey the same narrative.
I remember a change.org petition I came across a while back where the creator of the petition opposed Netflix's Death Note because the original was a story “with deep roots in Japanese mythology and culture” and that casting Nat Wolff as Light was an unforgivable case of white-washing. I (figuratively) banged my head against my (figurative) desk reading through this petition. All I could say was “WHAT DEEP ROOTS ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT.” Death Note is a supernatural crime-thriller, a cat and mouse game at its core. Even if you argue that “Shinigami are part of Japanese mythology,” every culture has some form of death or reaper personified. Aside from smaller narrative beats like school culture and idols, there is nothing in the original story that is steeped in “Japanese mythology and culture.” If there was an attempt to adapt a story like Inuyasha or xxxHolic which is actually steeped in Japanese mythology… the outrage would be well placed, but honestly these kids are fooling themselves if they actually believe that Death Note is inherently a Japanese story.
The whole Death Note story has been told from a Japanese perspective multiple times already. Four live action movies, one drama series, an anime, and of course the manga. I would have been let down more if Netflix’s Death Note followed the original the original too closely, even opting for Japanese names and a similar setting. To me, this adaptation feels more in line with films like The Ring than it does with Ghost in the Shell. The fact remains, a damn near faithful adaptation has been done before. For those outside of the “doki-doki-desu” crowd, Netflix’s Death Note will be the first introduction to the story, but as far as the outrage is concerned… those aren’t the people clinging to a notion of Death Note being a prime example of Japanese culture and mythology. If this is successful, it could actually be quite fantastic for the source material. Ideally, someone who has never heard of Death Note could watch this movie and wish to consume more media… prompting them to journey down a rabbit hole of anime and manga.
While I personally am looking forward to seeing it, I do have some reservations. My biggest being how they seem to have characterized Light and Misa in the trailers. In the original manga, Light Yagami is the quintessential over-achiever. Whether academics, athletics, or even socially… Light seems to excel at whatever he touches. Misa Amane on the other hand was naive to a fault, her love and adoration of Kira (and later Light) becomes another tool for Light to use in his fight against L. Nat Wolff’s Light Turner seems to be an awkward loner type and from an earlier synopsis Margaret Qualley’s Mia Sutton (this version’s Misa Amane) is the popular cheerleader. In one trailer Mia seems to be egging on Light with some scenes depicting Light to actually care about Mia… completely contrary to Light Yagami and how he seeks to only use Misa for further his goals. While basing a final judgement on a trailer is furthest from my intentions here, I am hoping that these quick slices won’t be indicative of the final product.
In closing, I will stand by my opinion that Netflix’s Death Note is not white-washing. This doesn’t mean I’m blind to the clear problem in Hollywood and how there is clear erasure of strong Asian leads in cinema. This isn’t the conversation here though, the conversation to be had here is by the end of the day… was it any good? If Netflix’s Death Note proves to be a disappointment, you better believe that in my review I plan to rip it a new one. But if it does prove to be good… dare I say enjoyable… then let’s not cling to the white-washing argument which feels so out of place for a project such as this.
Netflix’s Death Note stars Nat Wolff (The Fault in our Stars, Paper Town) as Light Turner, Margaret Qualley(The Nice Guys, Palo Alto) as Mia Sutton, Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Straight Outta Compton) as L, and Willem Defoe (Spider-Man, Platoon) voicing the Death-God Ryuk.