Death Note: Netflix sparks whitewashing controversy once more with new film

Blair Witch's Adam Wingard adapts the manga that quickly became a sensation in Japan back in 2003

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 23 March 2017 10:26 GMT
Death Note - Trailer

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Louise Thomas

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Netflix managed to once more leap straight into the centre of a major whitewashing debate with its latest original film, an adaptation of the insanely popular manga, Death Note.

The source material, written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, follows Light Yagami, a high school student who uncovers a mysterious notebook; when he meets its original owner Ryuk, a Shinigami, he learns that it grants its user the ability to kill anyone whose name and face he knows, as long as he writes their name within its pages.

After its release in 2003, Death Note became a huge hit both locally and across the globe; in Japan, it spawned an anime series, four live-action Japanese films, a TV drama, and even a musical.

The conversation here is certainly more complex than Paramount's treatment of Ghost in the Shell, which still sets itself within a futuristic Japan but has merely swapped out its Japanese lead for Scarlett Johansson. Netflix's Death Note, however, is a westernised adaptation in the vein of the US version of The Ring or The Grudge, completely relocating the action to Seattle.

Directed by Blair Witch's Adam Wingard, Light Yagami has now become Nat Wolff's Light Turner; with Light's love interest (of sorts) Misa Amane now Margaret Qualley's Mia Sutton. The show also stars Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe.

However, there are two issues here. First off, there's the backwards implication here that any American adaptation of the show would instantly rule out the possibility of casting Asian-American actors in the lead roles. Which is certainly an issue when stepping back and looking at the greater lack of lead roles for Asian-Americans in any context or genre.

Furthermore, it's yet to be seen how Netflix's Death Note will handle the Willem Dafoe-voiced Ryuk, who in the original manga is a Shinigami, a death spirit particular to Japanese religion and culture; will he remain a Shinigami in the new adaptation? Can an intrinsically Japanese story really be so easily adapted with a white lead?

Twitter certainly had its conflicting views:

It's a conversation that's felt the added weight of Netflix's recent Marvel series Iron Fist, which has seen major frustration from fans over the fact the potential for an Asian lead was passed over, reverting instead to the original comics' reliance on old white saviour tropes.

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