For a moment in mid-July, I regretted not seeing “Death Note” during SDCC, but that would have meant a late-night followed by an early morning. I didn’t want to judge the movie which moved the action from Japan to Seattle; that alone would not be considered whitewashing from my point of view. Last week, after watching “Death Note” on Netflix, I felt that the production team wanted to have it both ways–in Japan but not of Japan. That’s almost out of the recent “Ghost in the Shell” playbook. Give them credit for creativity in whitewashing and keep in mind that playing the black card by casting a black American actor doesn’t make it less of a whitewash job.
Let’s look at it like whitewashing your fence but adding some notes of Orientalism in the hardware with a bit of black detailing to make it a more attractive package. Unfortunately, this Netflix package is not that attractive. It drags, it insults and it uses stereotypes (loner geek, mopey girl who turns out to be good-looking, wise Asian teacher) to fast forward past actual character development.
If the action was totally in Seattle with references in passing to Japan along with other countries, that would not be dripping in whitewashing. However, this production insists on keeping the connection to Japan. Light chooses the name Kira because it would be “killer” in Japanese although it means other things in other languages. He wants to make Kira Japanese, but it isn’t clear why or how he’s able to write messages in “perfect Japanese.” Is that the miracle of Ryuk and the Death Note?
As I pointed out earlier, Kira will instantly relate to Light in Japanese. This is not true in English. Killer in Japanese is something like hitogoroshi (人殺し), ansatsusha (暗殺者) or satsujinsha (殺人者). In Japanese, there is a difference between kiraa (キラー), the gairaigo for killer, and kira. Note also means something different in Japanese (notebook).
If Light was Japanese American, the connection to Japan might be more natural. He might have cousins there. He might have been there; he might have been forced to attend Japanese school. He might have an interest in his ancestry. All of those are more natural easier connections but Light isn’t the only perplexing Japan connection. The other is L.
In the original manga, L was black-haired and English. In the 2006 live-action movie, L was played by Kenichi Matsuyama (Tatsuya Fujiwara played Light). Matsuyama played L in the 2006 “Death Note 2: The Last Name,” the 2008 “L: Change the World,” and the 2016 “Death Note: Light Up the World.” In the 2015 TV series, he was played by Kento Yamazaki. The part of L has been previously played by an ethnic Asian.
Here in the Netflix version, L is an African-American (Lakeith Stanfield ) who speaks Japanese but was raised at a spooky place in urban America. Why either Light (Nat Wolff ) or L have any connection with Japan is not well explained except as a means of keeping the connection with otaku and exotica.
At the end of the movie, you have to wonder why L is in Japan at all. Is there some convoluted back story like the one behind Benedict Cumberbatch’s very white Khan Noonien Singh? The kinky shootout could have just as easily been transported to Manhattan, Los Angeles or Chicago instead of Japan except then you don’t have something for those who like seeing oddball Japanese men and fetish-dressed Asian women.
Why is L dressed in an exaggerated version of a turtleneck? An obsession with Steve Jobs? Ninja nonsense without the cool? Hoodie gangsta affectations? An admiration for black bloc and Antifa?
Never was I convinced that L was an incredible mind and the grand battle of wits between L and Light is underwhelming. L isn’t the obsessive Monk or any idiosyncratic version of Sherlock Holmes. Watari, who also didn’t have to be Japanese in this Netflix version but is, then becomes a cross between Batman’s Albert and the Green Hornet Kato (without the six-pack abs).
Playing the black card here doesn’t take away the whitewashing problem in “Death Note” anymore than making one of Hawaii’s fictional governors in black in the reboot of “Hawaii 5-0.” In either case, it only adds to an illogical mix. Consider two things: The Edward Zo’s YouTube video about how he heard Asian American actors were NOT being considered for Light (“Racist Hollywood? Death Note Whitewashing”) and Japanese reaction to that (“Japanese React to Netflix Death Note” by That Japanese Man Yuta on YouTube).
You have to wonder if in these two cases, casting a black actor isn’t playing a protective tarot race card against accusations of whitewashing. Imagine those discussions in your head. It shouldn’t be hard. Let’s not pretend this is a gray area and call it gray washing. Sure, it’s diversity but still black actors jumping on the whitewashing bandwagon, sidelining Asians because in contemporary times whites and blacks can lead a movie in the US, but not Asian Americans. That’s progress but not on all fronts because racism is more complicated than black and white. Yes, there is no more black face, but yellowface and whitewashing still are given the green light.
As for the romantic angle, if your most successful pickup line has to do with murder or your popcorn pleasant evenings consist of making out and murder, that’s a red flag on fire. I’m not speaking from experience but from thousands of hours watching true crime documentaries and TV shows which, even with wooden re-enactments are more interesting than this version of “Death Note.”