When it was announced that “Paper Towns” star Nat Wolff would play Light Turner/Light Yagami in Netflix’s adaptation of the popular Japanese anime and manga “Death Note,” the film immediately faced accusations of whitewashing. Now, producer Roy Lee has responded to those whitewashing criticisms surrounding the film, noting that he didn’t anticipate such a backlash.
“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,” Lee told BuzzFeed.
Lee asserts “Death Note” is not an example of whitewashing, because it adapts the story for a different culture. “I can understand the criticism… if our version of ‘Death Note’ was set in Japan and [featured] characters that were Japanese-named or of Japanese ancestry,” Lee said. “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.”
“One of [the cast] is Asian, one’s African-American, and three are Caucasian. Saying ‘whitewashing’ is also somewhat offensive,” he explained, saying, “one of our three leads is African-American.” Lee also said that the changes were made to “make [‘Death Note’] more appealing to the US or to the English-language market.”
“Death Note” isn’t the first Japanese property Lee has been involved in adapting. He produced the 2002 film “The Ring,” which also came from Japanese source material. The lead character, Reiko Asakawa, became a white woman named Rachel Keller in the American adaptation. “No one criticized it then,” he said. “Maybe they should’ve or maybe they could’ve, [and] I just didn’t know about it.”
“People can criticize it, but I’d say that they should see the movie first,” Lee concluded. “Then they could accuse us of not having a diverse enough cast… just judge the movie after it comes out.”
“Death Note” is among one of many series that has faced accusations of whitewashing recently. Last year, Marvel was accused of whitewashing when the Ancient One was changed from an elderly Asian man into a white woman in Doctor Strange. More recently, the live-action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” came under fire for casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Paramount blamed the film’s failure on that controversy.
Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, “Death Note” tells the story of a high school student who stumbles across a supernatural notebook that allows the owner to kill anyone simply by writing their name in its pages.
The Netflix version of the story is directed by Adam Winged and stars Nat Wolff as Light Turner, Margaret Qualley as Mia Sutton, Keith Stanfield as “L,” Paul Nakauchi as Watari, Shea Whigham as James Turner and Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. It debuts exclusively on Netflix on August 25, 2017.