Last week, Death Note: Light Up The New World – the sequel to the double-punch of 2006’s Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name – opened in Australian cinemas.
Based on the manga series of the same name by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the Death Note series also inspired a TV show in 2015, starring Masataka Kubota as Light and Kento Yamazaki as L.
In Death Note: Light Up The New World, the characters of the original films still cast a shadow. Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and L (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) are gone, but their ‘successors’ find themselves playing out the same battle between death and life – with equally blurred lines between good and evil.
There’s a ‘new Kira’ on the streets of Tokyo. Kira – the name given to the murderer who killed criminals in Japan ten years previously – considers themselves to be a God, and above the law. They’ve got their hands on a Death Note; the mysterious notebooks dropped on earth by Shinigami, or Gods of Death, that kill anyone whose name is written inside. Kira is literally writing felons off, one name at a time. But who are they really?
Meanwhile, Masaki Suda plays a cyber-terrorist intent on getting his hands on six Death Notes that are circulating on earth. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide), an earnest law enforcement agent, has been assigned to the Death Note taskforce, while Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is the 'new L’. Wild, unpredictable, and outside of the law, he will use any means necessary to track down the Death Notes.
If a new live action film created ten whole years after the originals doesn’t demonstrate that there is an appetite for stories set in the world of Death Note, then there’s also this: Netflix is working on an original production, set to be released in 2017.
An American version of a beloved Japanese manga series - how will they tackle that?
Well, consider this simple three-step formula for making an American television show or film: 1. Take one hugely successful international production. 2 Decide to remake that story, even if the original still holds up. 3. Cast mostly white actors.
Sometimes even having actors of an Anglo-Celtic background in the original production won’t help. Just look at the British success Broadchurch, starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman – which Fox remade just a few years later for American audiences. Retitled Gracepoint, the premiere still had the same writer, the same director, and even the same lead actor – David Tennant.
Netflix’s Death Note follows this predictable formula. Palo Alto and Paper Towns’ Nat Wolff will play Light Turner (love that Anglicisation) and Straight Outta Compton’s Keith Stanfield has been cast as L, while The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley will play Mia Sutton, believed to be a version of Misa Amane.
It arguably makes sense that to make the show more appealing to a larger American audience, Netflix wanted to set the retelling of the story in the US. But the fact that none of the lead roles were given to Japanese-American actors, feels like yet another case of whitewashing in Hollywood.
It’s disappointing, especially because casting Japanese-American actors could have allowed the production to acknowledge and draw upon the source material in a richer way – such as the fact that the Shinigami have their roots in Japanese folklore.
Not to mention that retaining more cultural cross-pollination could have let the production explore tensions between Japanese and American societies – a theme which seems to make itself especially felt in films and television where governments go head-to-head, as seen recently in Shin Godzilla. There is already a tradition within the Death Note universe of the FBI getting involved in solving the crimes committed in Tokyo. Why not switch it up, and have Japanese law enforcement visiting the US for a change?
Teen Wolf’s Arden Cho tweeted her disappointment about the Death Note casting in November last year.
By refusing to cast culturally diverse actors in stories which have their origins outside of the West, Hollywood is diminishing the number of already few and far between roles for Asian-American actors.
Executives behind the movie-making machine want audiences to find its films ‘relatable’, which is often the excuse for whitewashing in casting. But the Western world isn’t all white. To remain relatable – and indeed, relevant – production companies need to reflect the diversity of the real world.