Netflix’s Death Note remake is the latest adaptation to feel the backlash from whitewashing allegations, following similar controversies surrounding Doctor Strange, the Iron Fist series, and The Ghost in the Shell.
Producer Roy Lee was shocked by the reaction to the trailer that premiered in March. “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,” he told BuzzFeed in an interview.
While Lee said he “could understand the criticism… if our version of Death Note was set in Japan and [featured] characters that were Japanese-named or of Japanese ancestry,” he noted the remake “is an interpretation of that story in a different culture, so there are going to be some obvious changes. Some people will like them, some people may not.”
Death Note, directed by Adam Wingard (Blair Witch) and adapted from the Japanese manga, stars Nat Wolff as high school student Light Turner, who stumbles upon a supernatural tome with the ability to kill any name written into its pages. “How about we stop whitewashing NON-WHITE characters,” one Twitter user posted when the footage was released online. “It’s not hard to go out and find aspiring Asian actors/actress for #deathnote,” another tweeted.
The cast — including Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe — is meant to “make it more appealing to the U.S. or to the English-language market,” Lee said. He added, “Saying ‘whitewashing’ is also somewhat offensive… one of our three leads is African-American.”
In a previous interview with EW, Masi Oka, also a producer on Death Note, explained the difficulties that arise when casting. Oka didn’t oversee casting for the project — which did look at actors in Asia — but he points out that Death Note cast its leads based on the new version of the story, which is set in (and features characters from) Seattle, not Japan. “Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn’t find the right person, the actors we did go to didn’t speak the perfect English… and the characters had been rewritten,” he said. “They could have gone [with an] Asian [actor], I can’t deny that. The studios were adamant about trying to cast Asian actors. I mean, this was a difficult one. It was something we were definitely conscious about.”
Oka further argued, “For Ghost in the Shell there hasn’t been a Japanese live action so that’s a little bit different. So if you’re trying to make the Hollywood version that already has a version in Japanese, then it’s like, where do you draw the line?”
Death Note will premiere on Netflix Aug. 25. “People can criticize it, but I’d say that they should see the movie first,” Lee remarked at the end of his interview. “Then they could accuse us of not having a diverse enough cast… just judge the movie after it comes out.”
—Additional reporting by Shirley Li