In Defence of 'Death Note' Making Its Lead Character White
Image sources: YouTube, Wikimedia Commons. | Art by. Noel Ransome

In Defence of 'Death Note' Making Its Lead Character White

Netflix’s reboot of a classic anime series makes timely pop culture commentary by recasting an Asian role.
May 18, 2017, 5:29pm

My first thought was, don't do this again, and then my second thought, this could be good. Listen, I get it. We've all been down this road for too long now. I'd like to think most people of colour have that "some ol bullshit" radar before any adaptation is announced, but damn if we don't still come away disappointed. Of course judging by the title of my argument, we're talking about the controversy surrounding the Netflix film adaption of Death Note—a Japanese manga series that I'm a big fan of. The controversy is all too familiar— Ghost in the Shell, anyone?—a white actor cast in an Asian role, but in this case, I think it makes sense. Hear me out. For the uninitiated, the Death Note story goes like this: You've got this popular Japanese teen named Light Yagami—the sits-in-front-of-the-class-with-his-hand-permanently-raised sort of teen. On a random day he finds a notebook entitled "Death Note," dropped by Ryuk, a Shinigami (more on that later), which instructs the reader that they have the ability to kill anyone, instantly, just by dotting their names down within its pages. Naturally, the brat starts to develop a bit of a god complex as he begins to murder criminals indiscriminately and develops a following that dubs him "Kira." A famous Japanese detective named "L" becomes aware of Kira's vigilante actions and decides to take him down.

With Death Note, you've got the complexities about death and life—a lot of it rooted directly in Japanese beliefs and traditions. The "Death Note" book itself is entirely fictional, but inspired by Japanese folklore. Writer Tsugumi Ohba flipped the script and included the "book" idea as a tool used by Shinigami's (gods of death) to kill humans—typically believed to be spiritual gods that welcomed humans towards death. With this upcoming Netflix adaptation, however, the producers seemed to think that taking some of that Asian inspiration and turning it into an easily digestible American story—with white boys and girls, and a black guy for extra credit—would be acceptable. Instead of the Japanese lead character Light Yagami, we now have Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff) from Seattle, and Detective L now being portrayed by former "magical Negro" from Atlanta, LaKeith Stanfield, a black guy. It's another example of the "Hollywood gentrification" of our times, where your Egyptian gods, Chinese benders, or Persian Prince's are transformed, body-snatchers style, and have no chance against Hollywood's inevitable market spin that determines white is right. People were quick to jump on Netflix for the move. "Netflix is going to ruin Death Note and I'm sick of this white washing bullshit," said one Twitter user. "It honestly hurts so much that Death Note is going to get a bad, whitewashed American adaption. This anime/manga means so much to me," said another. "Boycott Netflix's Death Note for Whitewashing" screamed an online petition with over 10,000 signatures. Even I was surprised though to learn that the film's producers didn't even consider an Asian actor for the lede role. Asian-American actor Edward Zo went as far as to claim that he was told by casting agents for Death Note that, "they were not looking to see Asian actors for the role of Light Yagami." While this is the latest in a series of controversies about whitewashed casting, there is also significant data to back up the outrage. According to USC's February, 2016 study on diversity in entertainment, Asians represented only 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters across digital series, television, or film in 2014, and around half of those featured absolutely no Asian characters at all. For me though, and I say this with the caution that comes with not seeing the film yet: The introduction of a white Nat Wolff and black LaKeith could actually be a good thing.

For one thing, monsters often embody the fears of any era. Writers and filmmakers used them symbolically to conjure up deep anxieties over mass contagion, infection, racial classism, atomic destruction—and just about anything messed up. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead for example went face first into conversations over race and anxieties over the Vietnam War. Dawn of the Dead was also completely centered within the confines of a mall; a commentary about consumerism and the zombification of the consumer class. Then there's the more obvious 2015 horror film, Unfriended, a look into the dangers of a constantly connected generation. Death Note's anti-hero Light Yagami comes off as a different but familiar breed of monster. He's not supernatural, doesn't sport fangs or some thirst for blood—he's just a kid who feels entitled, with the willingness to kill anyone that falls in opposition to his ideas of justice. He wants to be heard, but also soothed, placated, and obeyed. I say familiar because real life Light Yagami's are just as monstrous in reality. Whether it be a Nazi like Dylann Roof who shoots up a church over a lie of superiority. Or a spoiled brat like Elliot Rodger who kills six and injures 14 because he can't muster up a good pick up line. If we want to talk about the monsters I fear, it's shitty young white men. Because unlike any other, they represent the racial anxieties of our times that I can't always see. A 2013 study from the University of Washington VICE reported on illustrated the high number of mass shootings by white men. The study showed a direct correlation between feelings of entitlement among white males and homicidal revenge.

This is less about a difference of morality spectrums—we're talking about a complete difference in privilege and experience.

Flip that on its head, and replace the gun with Death Note's book. Replace the Japanese character with the arrogance of a white North American teenager who believes he's woke. Sound familiar? We haven't even mentioned the dimension of a detective in L who, as a black man, sees the immaturity of Light's actions. The anime L often felt that Light was driven by an idealistic sense of justice, as spoken through his cross examination—"a childish sense of right and wrong." Light Yagami declaring himself a "god of a new world" or justifying the killings of innocents in the name of his own brand of justice did nothing to make him look anything but childish. This is less about a difference of morality spectrums—we're talking about a complete difference in privilege and experience. This alone gives a heap of depth to L's own worldview in respect to people like Light because I never identified with L's own stubborn insistence. This undying mission to bring justice to a kid who was pretty much killing bad people. As a black man much like this new L is, I can some how better see the motive and absolute need to stop someone like this through the context of real life. And Light's own sense vengeance by way of white privilege adds to that. I'm hopeful that the series director Adam Winguard will see this and not waste an opportunity for a visual commentary about the fears and issues of white identity many of us are witnessing today. Listen, I still can't be too optimistic for a director who helped deliver the trashy remake of Blair Witch. But I want to believe that even a director who thinks that nudity, violence, and swearing is a proper sign of maturity can use the chance he has with all this whitewashing business to say something relevant that'll make up for it. Either way, I got my pitchfork and Twitter ready if it doesn't happen. Death Note will premiere in August on Netflix. Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.