Light Yagami is a Tool, and Light Turner is a Neo-Nazi
A few weeks ago, an American adaptation of the Japanese manga and animation Death Note released a trailer showing a whitewashed cast and highly Americanized setting. The original story of Death Note centers around a Japanese high school student, Light Yagami, who finds a notebook of death that kills anybody whose name is written within it. He decides to use his newfound power to cleanse the world of evil by killing criminals in jails to “become the God of the New World.”
The Netflix version has redubbed him “Light Turner,” and he is now a blonde, pasty-looking kid with a bad hairdo and a sinister look (as my friend says, he looks dangerously like a school shooter.)
Controversy has ensued over the casting choice. Online articles have called for a change: people are asking for more actors of colour, and particularly someone Asian-American to play Light Yagami.
Whether or not they expect the Death Note adaptation to take place in America or if people wanted Light to remain a Japanese student in Japan was unclear. In fact, outside of distaste for the whitewashing of the cast and the demand for more work for Asian-Americans, there seems to actually be a lot of nebulous, shapeless anger directed at a vague notion of “Not Enough Asians.”
I don’t agree in any way with the Death Note casting—and not in the nostalgic way where I’m childishly upset that it wasn’t Zac Efron. Nor is it in the cinematic way where I’m disappointed that it didn’t end up becoming the gritty, high-concept film it could have if Gus Van Sant had directed it like he was supposed to back in 2014. As a diehard Death Note fan, I was expecting Hollywood to ruin it by casting a white boy, and I wasn’t surprised. And I’m still not surprised. But I disagree with everybody trying to change it or calling for more people of colour to act in it, because I don’t think that even scrapes the surface of the much bigger issue here.
Death Note is going to be a shitty film because of a vast web of issues surrounding Hollywood that goes beyond the skin colour of actors, which concerns even more explicitly the way race, sex and violence is packaged in our media. Putting an Asian face on that racism or that blatant dismissal of historical violence on bodies of colour will do nothing to stop the deeply racist issue that Hollywood is dealing with.
We are making leaps and bounds now. There is the ABC original series, Fresh off the Boat, which tells the story of a Taiwanese-American family, and the CBC equivalent, Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in Toronto.
However, the casually violent racism that exists in film should be dismantled as a narrative on the conceptual level. Until then, being upset about casting will not change the systematic way Asians are being represented in film in general.
The issue here for me isn’t that Light Yagami is not Asian. Death Note as a series isn’t just pan-Asian; Light Yagami conforms to the ideals of an explicitly Japanese society of honour, judgement and collectivism. And Death Note itself is far from being Asia-specific. Within the series, the notebook travels around the world, from Japan to America to England and then back to Japan. Casting a person of colour for the role of Light Yagami is a short-sighted and quick-fix solution to a radically bigger issue: racism in Hollywood does not end because an Asian-American actor gets cast. Had Light actually stayed a Yagami, then Netflix’s Death Note would become the story of a Japanese-American cleansing America, which also has its share of problematic implications.
The issue more glaringly obvious for this specific series is that its Americanization is inherently racist and violent because of its subject matter. Extrapolating the story into an American context troubles its moral debate on good and evil and its critique of judgement and capital punishment. Less politically, there are the psychological aspects of this anime that had fostered conversations about the politics of death. Under Hollywood’s jurisdiction, what Death Note will ultimately become is sex and violence at the hand of a white boy, rendering it utterly worthless in terms of commentary and devolving it into some spectacle of white power. (The trailer makes it seem like all we’ll be seeing is SEX! AND DEATH!) What’s worse, a white boy cleansing the prison system is nothing more than a rehashing of familiar Hollywood concepts—again, the white man saves the world from black men by putting them in prisons so that “they don’t rape his women and kill his children!” There is nothing subversive about something that sounds suspiciously like eugenics.
While the plotline of a Japanese boy creating a master species of good citizens is violent given Japan’s history of imperialism, it is precisely that psychological, strongly moralistic aspect of the show that allows the critique of good versus evil to happen at all. When it’s a white boy in his room ordering deaths on the lower rung of society in the American prison system, the film becomes radically assimilated into a Hollywoodian action spectacle. It’s all about making out with cheerleaders and hanging off ferris wheels, so it’s actually just appealing to bottom-feeder intellectuals who want justification for “cleansing” their world of lower class criminals.
Death Note’s plot translates horribly into America and appeals to the American population in the wrong ways: what was originally a commentary on the ethics of capital judgement have now become a self-indulgent display of a white boy’s creation of a master race.
Whitewashing, in this case, is harmful because it places America in the centre of the world and displaces the cultural significance of what it adapts in order to create a commodity. To pick and choose between Hollywood’s issues and settle for the easy target of casting Asian- American actors in random roles will do nothing at all to help the issue of racism in film in general. This is just like the way Asians are casted, filmed or portrayed when they do get on the big screen, unable to break from certain typecasts throughout their careers.
Our issue with whitewashing with films like Death Note should not be that anime characters should be played by Asian actors, but that Hollywood cannot aptly translate foreign media into sex and violence and expect to be let off scot-free. It should allow us to examine Asian representation in Hollywood in general, regardless of whether or not that series originates in Japan. It should push us to examine the racial hierarchies of Hollywood films in general, which would not be fixed by simply casting Asians. We need representation beyond anime and beyond what cages Hollywood puts us in, lest we become food for American consumption.
And while Death Note tried (and failed) to create a palatable American Light Turner, another Japanese animation, Ghost in the Shell, also attempted—though in a different way—to make disparagingly racist ends meet in their Hollywood adaptation released last month. The original features a protagonist named Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg of calculated coldness and extreme physical prowess. In its new rendition, Motoko Kusanagi has become Mira Killian, and is played by Scarlett Johansson. The film attempts to combat claims of whitewashing by casting an Asian-American actress. In the film’s “twist,” Mira Killian in fact is Motoko, only her consciousness is uploaded into a white woman’s body. The film ends with Mira hugging her Japanese mother. This is done perhaps in response to the negative reception of the casting, and maybe in the vacuum of a white director’s brain, seems like a “Checkmate, SJWs.”
However, Mira’s “I’m-not-actually-white” twist reeks of imperialist beauty standards and erasure anyway, as Mira is explicitly created within the film to be beautiful (and therefore, white). As well, the actress for Motoko never shows her face to the camera. ScarJo is also digitally edited to appear to have flatter, more Mongoloid features, which is clunky in and of itself, as it seems like the director’s way of cutting corners and appeasing the masses in the most disgusting way.
Even if it were some genius commentary on colonialism—which isn’t really plausible, but for argument’s sake let’s say so—it defeats the point that Hollywood is trying to make about the Eurocentrism of Asian beauty standards by casting an actress viewed as sexually appealing to an American audience.
How does casting an Asian actress change the racist undertones of Ghost in the Shell, then? How can an Asian Light change anything about the deeply rooted issue of racism within Hollywood? Why should we sit down and take it when blockbuster shitshows released in 2016 like Now You See Me 2 still find it acceptable to base an entire plotline in Macau because the Far East is some exotic, liminal space where nobody speaks a lick of English, and then suddenly get angry when anime isn’t getting represented?
Casting Asian-Americans might be a first step, but not nearly as big of one as we’d like. Instead of casting Asians for anime adaptations, we should be focusing on writing home-grown North American narratives that explore the intricacies of being an Asian-American—series like Fresh off the Boat, or movies like Saving Face. Casting is the least of our concerns when because even if an Asian actor had been casted, the racism still wouldn’t disappear. In Hollywood, racism is not just skin-deep.comments powered by Disqus