I'm up at 5 in the morning writing this because there's so much to unpack about how I feel about the live action Death Note film I just watched on Netflix. I have previously said ad nauseam to the Ghost in the Shell protesters that the GitS fight isn't worth fighting, because manga and anime adaptations aren't really "Asian American" stories, they're Asian stories, ported over for American audiences. I can't help but feel a bit hypocritical talking about Death Note in the same light, because it's a franchise I have a strong emotional attachment towards. But I'll attempt to try to sift through what I'm thinking without being too verbose.
Let's get the easy stuff out of the way first. The movie is straight trash. It was doomed from the beginning of conception, the film tries to pack a story spanning hundreds of issues of manga in a single 1.5 hour movie (I don't even know why they went with that run time given how much content there was, and even then I feel like they wasted a bunch of time on poor directorial choices) was probably not going to produce anything coherent. None of the "fun" of the series is present in the film, the mind games and psychological warfare is all but disposed of, in favor of tropes typical of a horror movie. The characters are under developed, the story is rushed, and it's just one big cacophonic mess. Death Note was a great story because at its core, it challenged the audience with the simple premise of questioning moral absolutism. This film does not challenge any beliefs you may have, it doesn't inspire you to root for Light or L at all, it doesn't do anything to make you care. There's nothing that I'll say that hasn't already been covered in dozens of reviews I've already read, so I'll leave it at that.
But why does the fact that the movie is terrible trouble me so much? Adaptations are never perfect, they get things wrong, and aren't always hits. Why wasn't I this upset at the "Ghost in the Shell" adaptation? Is it simply because I'm a huge fan of Death Note? That's part of it, but at the end of the day, it's the way in which it was made that really bothers me.
Racial problems today are insidious, they appear to be nonexistent to the majority simply because of a lack of understanding and exchange between different groups. But these problems are becoming more apparent since the internet and social media has spread information more readily. Why did the #blacklivesmatter movement start recently? Is it because cops in the past decade decided to disproportionately kill black men all of a sudden? No, it started because cell phones have cameras on them and no longer did we have only police officers writing the narrative of how these tragedies went down.
Similarly, whitewashing, along with shaping the narrative of people of color with stereotypes, has been around Hollywood forever. I recently rewatched 21, a movie based on an actual Asian American's life experiences, made less than ten years ago with a story that's distinctly (if not "perfectly" stereotypical) Asian American, an MIT student good at math desperately trying to stand out from his grades to get a medical school. How many Asian American applicants to higher education heard that they need to be more "well rounded"? Watching that movie was painful, especially when Kevin Spacey says the "big player" can't be Choi (Aaron Yoo), because he's well, Choi. As recently as 2008, a character in a movie couldn't believe that an Asian American could accomplish a task that the real life character the movie was based on had done as an Asian American.
Whitewashing has become more spoken out against because my generation, the second generation Asian American kids who have grown up in America and speak the language, can see the way media portrays Asians as foreigners, nerds or other stereotypes. We can analyze and point out the way the narrative has been controlled and used to erase them from the story of America in ways our parents could not due to the language barriers and their main objective of survival. While I believe that there are some whitewashing battles to leave alone and others to take up the mantle, the fact remains that it exists and it's tough to hear Hollywood whitesplain it to us that it's because there are no bankable Asian American stars (chicken, egg, etc.).
And while Ghost in the Shell and Death Note aren't TECHNICALLY whitewashing per se, it seems that there is an abundance of ignorance in how these properties were ported over. I largely ignored the GitS thing because I chalked it up to studio execs making a big budget film for American audiences, they're not going to give the role to an unknown Asian American actress with the amount of investment they put in.
But the Death Note situation irked me a lot more because the producers are Asian American, they should know better. The main producer in charge is Roy Lee, a producer who broke in the industry porting over Asian properties into American properties. He's a smart guy, he got his start in the business by effectively and efficiently identifying good scripts by using an early method of crowd sourcing. After a few initial hits, he got his big break by convincing DreamWorks to port over the Ring (a Japanese horror film) to the US in 2002. After that he had several other big successes (The Departed, The Grudge) porting over a bunch of Asian properties in the 2000s. Not all of his ports were successes, his company botched some of my favorite Korean films (My Sassy Girl, Old Boy) because porting over movies isn't as simple as copying a story from another culture and expecting it to translate especially with these character driven films, as what happened with Death Note to a large extent.
I had a chance to ask him at a Korean entertainment panel in LA a few years ago about what he thought about Asian American representation in media and his response was basically that it wasn't his priority nor was it something he felt focused on, which I thought was strange, given that we were at specifically an event for Korean Americans. I knew that Roy's company was developing Death Note, so to hear that coming from him was a great disappointment.
To be fair, on a personal level, what he's doing is understandable. He's not a creative, he's essentially finding a product that sells in one area, trying to find what's universal about it and transfer it over into America. His job is basically to repackage content to make it "palatable" for American consumption. And clearly from his port of Death Note, making thoughtful content isn't really his prerogative either, it's just "How can I tell the same story to a fan base eagerly waiting to consume the product as cheaply and as efficiently as possible?"
But his recent interview regarding Death Note really shows tone deafness about whitewashing. When he says, "I’ve been involved in many adaptations of content from all over the world, and this is the first time that I’ve been seeing negative press." It speaks to how he chalked up all of his successes before as evidence that this is the way Hollywood works and this is how its done. He's also been on record before saying that studios would not be interested in projects with Asian Americans in lead roles, just showing how much of the Hollywood kool-aid he's drank. When he says, “Saying 'whitewashing' is also somewhat offensive, one of our three leads is African-American", it's a clear deflection to the effect of "I'm not being offensive, YOU'RE being offensive."
One of the things that annoys me the most about the Death Note adaptation isn't that the leads aren't Asian (and that I'm not the one playing L, a dream role of mine since I started acting), is that when the Asian characters appear in the film, they're Asian, not Asian American. The comments made by the Asian American producers (and even Masi Oka) seemed to be misguided and part of the problem itself. It seems that they didn't even fight to try to make the "American" roles cast as Asian, they simply accepted that American meant white and that Japanese actors that they approached were unacceptable because they didn't have good english. They basically admitted that they didn't even consider casting an Asian American in an American role.
What's also frustrating is that opportunities for Asian Americans to lead in movies are virtually non-existent. With a property like Death Note, it wasn't necessary to make the leads "bankable", I would say most people watching the film aren't doing so because of the "star power" of Nat Wolff and Lakeith Stanfield (no offense to those actors, but they're not Scarlett Johansson in terms of clout). For it to not have even been a conversation to make a lead English speaking character Asian is a gross oversight. And it's harder still to swallow that the people in charge were Asian American. It's hard enough convincing white people that we belong in American stories, how much harder is it going to be still if our own people won't stand up for us?
I strongly believe that Asian American representation in these films would have improved the product. And not just visibly in lead roles as actors, but also in the writing room, it would help to have people who understand the cultural differences and nuances to effectively translate these properties. The writers of this movie clearly just had one job, to cram as much of the story of the manga into a 100 page script as they could. It didn't work.
From a financial standpoint, the American public has shown with their spending that they're interested in diversity in storytelling and less so with the white name headlining the property (provided the white name isn't an A lister). There were chances to cast Asian Americans in all of these ported movies, but they were not even considered because even to Asian Americans in the industry, we're still not "American". Hopefully people like Roy Lee will listen to the criticism of these films and work towards creating a better product, rather than blaming Asian Americans for being offended.