What’s the one thing Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, Iron Fist and Netflix’s forthcoming Death Note adaptation have in common? Barring the fantastical story elements and built-in fanbases, all four high-profile productions have been accused of whitewashing major characters, which has led many to call Hollywood’s representation of Asian people into question.
And so, after the casting of Danny Rand and The Major (AKA Motoko Kusanagi) fuelled heated debate online, the Internet’s eye of scrutiny has turned toward Death Note after Nat Wolff landed the role of Light Yagami in the morbid Netflix original. Because of the IP’s Japanese roots, many consider the decision to go with Wolff in lieu of an Asian actor to be in poor taste – or worse, overtly racist – but seasoned producer Roy Lee firmly believes that Netflix’s star-studded rendition of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s iconic manga series is not another example of whitewashing in Hollywood.
I can understand the criticism … if our version of Death Note was set in Japan and [featured] characters that were Japanese-named or of Japanese ancestry. It is an interpretation of that story in a different culture, so there are going to be some obvious changes. Some people will like them, some people may not. One of [the leads] is Asian, one’s African-American, and three are Caucasian. Saying ‘whitewashing’ is also somewhat offensive.
One thing’s for sure: Lee is certainly no stranger to the issue at hand. Throughout his career, the producer has been involved in reinventing the likes of The Grudge, The Ring and The Departed – itself a loose remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s über-stylish Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs – so Lee knows a thing or two about molding a story for a western audience.
Case in point: Netflix’s Death Note takes place in Seattle, where Nat Wolff’s cursed protagonist goes by the much more American name of Light Turner. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, is attached to the godly part of Ryuk the Shinigami, a nefarious deity that seems to hold the secret behind the titular notebook, and in those pages lies the bone-chilling ability to kill off anyone and everyone whose name is etched onto the parchment.
A student who discovers a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone begins a crusade against evil in order to rule the world as a benevolent human god. Then a deadly game of cat and mouse begins when a reclusive detective begins to track down the young man, attempting to end his reign of terror once and for all.
Also starring Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Masi Oka, Adam Wingard’s R-rated Death Note movie will bow via Netflix on August 25th.