Unless you’re an isolated monk in the mountains flogging yourself for even thinking about having any earthly human connection, then you’ve most likely have at least heard about the latest teaser for the Death Note live-action adaptation. It’s hard to ascertain where the sea of pitchforks and torches begin and end when trying to evaluate the teaser for completing its singular purpose of promoting the movie in light of some questionable casting decisions.
Death Note is far from the only one as it joins the esteemed list made up of Dragon Ball Evolution and Ghost in the Shell of live-action adaptations that have sparked discussions on blatant whitewashing in Hollywood. The main talking points stem from the fact that the source material is a Japanese medium with stories that take place in Japan with Japanese characters, and therefore any deviation from that formula are unfaithful to the original story and steeped in subtle racist attitudes as opportunities for Asian actors and actresses are taken away by the cold, white supremacist hand of Hollywood.
Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role. https://t.co/VS6r6iish9
— Ming-Na Wen (@MingNa) April 14, 2016
I REALLY like Scarlett Johansson. She’ll do great in Ghost in the Shell. But it bothers me Hollywood STILL overlooks a lot of Asian actors.
— Meghan Sullivan (@Meghan_IGN) April 14, 2016
There is literally a new white actor playing an Asian role for me to put on blast every day of the week. Unreal. https://t.co/FOc06QGstB
— Jen Bartel (@heyjenbartel) April 14, 2016
Were all these women busy?? Were they contacted, Paramount? They’ve all acted in a superhero and/or SFF property. pic.twitter.com/YeHLbvIRJs
— Clara Mae (@ubeempress) April 14, 2016
It’s not like they could have cast anyone else as Motoko for Ghost in the Shell. pic.twitter.com/Bvfp9NUwH7
— (@doppelhanger) April 14, 2016
However, it’s more complicated than that.
That line of thinking is bullshit because it’s nothing more than a lazy oversimplification that ignores the context of each adaptation by painting over it with the assumption that simply because the source material is Asian that it absolutely has to be reflective of that by casting specifically Asian actors.
Systemic racism and whitewashing are undeniably prevalent throughout Hollywood, but not only does this mindset insufficiently address the core issues at hand, but it also would do little but perpetuate the problem of Asian actors being pigeonholed into playing either characters in Western adaptations of anime series, or lovable side characters that embody some quirky flavor of the day racial stereotype.
This point of view falls apart when you take a step back and actually take a good look into each story being adapted. Ghost in the Shell and Death Note in particular have themes and stories that aren’t necessarily confined by any ethnic boundaries, and can theoretically take place anywhere in the world with the core storyline and themes largely intact. As a result, the stories aren’t contingent on the actual ethnicity of the characters in question.
Mamoru Oshii, the director for the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell, chimed in and gave a nod of approval for the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson.
“What issue could there possibly be with casting her?” Oshii told IGN by e-mail. “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”
The arguments and criticisms against the Ghost in the Shell live-action adaptation that don’t acknowledge this point suggests that the vast majority of people up in arms about the casting haven’t even seen Ghost in the Shell, yet they won’t hesitate to talk about upholding the integrity of the plot through the casting for a story they haven’t even seen simply because it originally took place in Japan with supposedly Japanese characters. While the adaptation itself did have quite a few objectionable calls that can definitely be brought up in a case for the movie featuring ignorant racism (like it actually taking place in Japan but still featuring a white cast what the fuck Paramount Pictures?) along with the story just being a pile of shit, this controversy was drummed up long before it was even released in light of the initial trailers and announcements, and before anything concrete was known about the actual story for the film adaptation.
An adaptation for Death Note could have Ryuk theoretically drop the book anywhere in the world, such as say for example, Seattle, WA. Does that count as a spoiler? Either way, it’d be a very reasonable change in setting within the context of the original story, which somehow led us to the casting of this dude.
Truth be told, I had no idea who Nat Wolff even was before looking him up. The Naked Brothers Band? I’m not even sure how many people remember the Nickelodeon Jonas Brothers. The Fault in Our Stars is a noteworthy addition to any resume, but not a good enough standalone claim to fame. At least Scarlett Johansson is a big enough name that it makes sense at face value for why she was cast (however, the lack of big-name Asian actors/actresses further illustrates the problem of white-dominated cinema), but can’t say the same about Mr. SPF 75 over here.
The problem with Ghost in the Shell director Oshii’s interview with IGN is that he intentionally ignored the larger issue at hand with race and casting in Hollywood.
“In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, and Omar Sharif, an Arab, can play Doctor Zhivago, a Slav. It’s all just cinematic conventions,” he explained. “If that’s not allowed, then Darth Vader probably shouldn’t speak English, either. I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.“
While I agree with his view on how casting Scarlett Johnansson makes sense within the context of the story, this statement of his operates on the steeeeeeeeeeeeep assumption that “artistic expression” in casting decisions in Hollywood is pure without any trace of prejudice, which we all know at this point is bullshit.
Take Edward Zo’s account for example.
Apart from being prettier than anyone’s OC, Edward Zo had personal experience with some of the blatant pervasive racism that plagues Hollywood when he tried to get the role of Light. As he said in this video, he literally heard through the grapevine that “…they’re not looking to hire any Asian actors for the role of Light Yagami.”
How much more explicit could you get? While this is obviously only his side of the story, his video delivers a lot of valuable insight in how race influences casting decisions in Hollywood, and how Asian actors in particular have to work many times harder than their white peers to find notable roles.
An American adaptation of Death Note taking place in America starring an American actor as an American version of Light is perfectly reasonable. The issue here isn’t that they weren’t actively looking to cast an Asian actor for an originally Japanese character—it’s that they were actively excluding Asian actors from the role under the disturbing implication that being American exclusively means being white. Now that’s kinda fucked.
Guess what, though? The issue isn’t as simple as a white producer wanting to cast a white actor for the lead role and being woefully ignorant to the offensive implications within their privileged little bubble.
Pictured from left to right are Roy Lee, Dan Lin, and Masi Oka—three out of the four producers for the Western adaptation of Death Note who also happen to be Asian-American. Only thing more ironic would be having a Western adaptation of an ethnically neutral story about a cyborg woman that can take place literally anywhere in the world, but the producers settled on having it take place in Japan with the main lead being played by a big-name white actress. What are the fucking odds?
Roy Lee in particular as a film producer has an extensive resume, but most notably he’s produced movies such as The Ring, The Grudge, and The Departed—all of which are American adaptations of Japanese and Korean stories with predominantly white casts. Sound familiar? Needless to say, he was taken aback with the controversy and accusations of white-washing surrounding the movie given that he’s essentially done this before.
“It 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,” Lee said. But the changes were necessary to “make it more appealing to the US or to the English-language market,” he explained.
While I do agree with the general idea he’s trying to convey, if we were to assume that Zo’s account is absolutely true, then that makes the last line of his explanation far more problematic. Even if his explanation makes sense within a vacuum, it only reinforces this unsavory subtext with the casting that anyone who isn’t white is any less American than someone who is.
As Zo alluded to, racism in Hollywood can’t be attributed to one singular entity. It’s an abstract force that has its hand in play on multiple levels in the hierarchy of film production. Whether Lee’s explanation was 100% his own or was pressured by a higher authority to go a specific direction with casting his movies and gave that answer simply to save face is entirely up to speculation. The biggest reasons in why his Death Note adaptation is facing the controversy his prior adaptations didn’t is the advent of social media serving as a platform for the recent wave in social activism and cultural sensitivity along with the fact that Death Note‘s source material enjoyed a lot more salience in the US than either The Ring or The Grudge prior to their American adaptations.
All in all, it pisses me off when I continue to hear people put Western live-action adaptations of anime on blast purely because they didn’t cast an Asian actor or actress in favor of a white one. It fails to address the issue at hand beyond such a narrow scope that doesn’t constructively discuss the other caveats of the consistent and ongoing trend of defaulting to a white cast in an effort to make these adaptations “more appealing to the US market.” It’s not that Light Yaga—I’m sorry, Turner should have been cast by an Asian actor. No, it’s that Light could be played by an Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Indian, Black, or any other actor of color, but this stubborn refusal to cast an actor with a skin pigment darker than a glass of milk to pander to imaginary market forces that rationalize a thinly veiled racist narrative of minorities continuing to get marginalized in media are in the way as a seemingly unmovable obstacle.
I wanted to use this post to help re-frame the discussion. Yes, Asian actors and actresses getting marginalized for lead roles in shows and movies is a very real and ongoing problem, but it’s part of a larger trend and issue that I don’t see many people actively engaging in these discussions about Western adaptations.
The discussion begins with people acknowledging the nuance of the issue through a case-by-case basis instead of lazily settling for the gross oversimplification trending on Twitter. It’s easy to visualize the problem of whitewashing in Hollywood existing because of a few racist old white men at the top giving priority to white actors in leading roles under the guise of equality, when it actuality it’s closer to a complex web of systemic attitudes and prejudices that intertwine in how we perceive media within the context of race, and how we’re more or less subconsciously guided by those same forces on both ends of the spectrum as producers and consumers.
As I mentioned before, it’s more complicated than that.