Netflix dropped a teaser trailer for their upcoming live-action film adaptation of Death Note, a popular Japanese manga, last Wednesday. For the uninitiated, the original story follows student and all-around golden boy Light Yagami, a young man who finds a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it and sets out to purge Japan of crime, one murder at a time. In Netflix's adaptation, Light Yagami is now Light Turner, played by Caucasian actor Nat Wolff.
If you don't understand why people are upset about this, let me give you a run-down of Hollywood's recent track record of Asian appropriation and whitewashing:
- Marvel's Doctor Strange casts Tilda Swinton, a white woman, for a character that was originally Tibetan, sacrificing racial diversity for gender diversity.
- Paramount and Dreamworks announce their live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, another widely popular Japanese manga, with a teaser photo of the Japanese main character — played by white actress Scarlett Johansson.
- On March 16, not two weeks ago, Netflix confirms its casting of actor Finn Jones as the lead in Marvel's Iron Fist, spitting in the face of an opportunity to reclaim a white-savior story for the Asian community. For clarity, a white-savior story is one in which a white person enters a foreign culture and proceeds to save the "helpless" people of color from some threat. This overshadows characters who are native to that culture and stems from a mindset that POC cannot save themselves, but need to be shown the true way by "civilized" whites.
If you still don't get it, consider that, though Asian Americans make up 5.4 percent of our population, only 1.4 percent of lead characters are Asian, and more than half of media properties feature zero named or speaking Asian characters. More than half!
Which brings us to Death Note, yet another link in Hollywood's whitewashing chain. While some argue that it isn't a problem because the new adaptation is set in Seattle and targeted toward American audiences, I think the casting reveals a troubling tendency in American media to consider white men as the "default" lead character. Seattle has a 14 percent Asian population. Would it have really been so hard to cast a Japanese lead?
Ultimately, it's not so much about this one specific instance as it is about the trends in our media — the aggravating erasure of the diversity that makes American great. In my opinion, casting Asian actors in Asian stories isn't asking much. It's the year 2017. It's time to put the narrow-minded idea that the white man is always the hero back in the 1970s where it belongs.