Good. God. I don’t know where to start with this. As soon as I heard about this I rushed to trade posts with Lady Geek Girl so that I could write about it. However, upon sitting down to do so, I realized that to write about it, I’d have to—ugh—actually watch the trailer.
If you know anything about me or this website, you can stand assured that I did not enjoy a second of it. This movie looks like it will be a disaster on every possible level, and on top of that, releasing it in the week after Iron Fist crashed and burned in no small part due to whitewashing complaints feels almost comically idiotic.
On top of the thoroughly disappointing issue of whitewashing—presumably due to the stubborn belief that an American Light Yagami has to be white, because all of America is white, right? (heavy sarcasm)—this movie displays a shocking lack of insight into the differences in the justice system between Japan and the US. Japan is a mostly-racially-homogeneous country where, to a large extent, the people in power and the people in jails look pretty much alike. Meanwhile, the racial melting pot of the US has extremely racially skewed statistics in terms of prison inmates. That’s a vague way of saying that despite only about 25% percent of the population being Black or Latinx, Black and Latinx people account for an astounding 58% percent of the prison population. The dynamics of a white guy using police records to “cleanse” prison populations comprised predominantly of Black people and other racial minorities is immediately and horrifyingly problematic in a way the Japanese version is not.
Making Light a white guy is also boring and too realistic, because, as multitudinous naysayers across social media have pointed out, there’s nothing spooky or supernatural about privileged white American men committing mass murders because they believe they’re the ultimate authority on good and evil. It fucking happens all the time.
Taking a look at the rest of the casting, let’s move on to L. Casting a Black actor as L at first seems like a progressive move. However, (spoilers for a decade-old manga) L dies. Light outmaneuvers him in a ridiculous twist worthy of an Ocean’s Eleven sequel, and subsequently fucking murders him. So instead of casting two people who are on equal racial standing, Netflix’s Death Note takes a quirky, soft-spoken, brilliant, potentially neuroatypical Black boy and has him shown up and killed by a white sociopath. To add insult to injury, the only Japanese characters in this, a movie based on Japanese source material which was imbued with a deeply Japanese worldview, are very minor supporting cast, one of whom is L’s butler.
That Japanese source material, is, by the way, only referred to in the trailer in the phrase “based on the international phenomenon”, which is a weirdly vague way for something that seems insistent on retaining so many beat-for-beat aspects of the original that make it so Japanese. From an entirely linguistic standpoint, for example, we see a shot in the trailer of graffiti that says “JUSTICE OF KIRA”. Aside from the phrasing of “Justice of Kira” not sounding like fluent English, the original Japanese used Kira as Light’s serial killer identity because “kira” (キラー) is how the word “killer” is written/pronounced in Japanese. Why on earth is this white boy from Seattle calling himself that? Is Light a huge fucking weeaboo? Even the title doesn’t make sense—in Japanese a notebook is called a no-to (ノート), another English loan word from “note”. No English speaker calls a notebook a note—ノート is a false cognate that has a completely different meaning in English.
Frankly, you’d have to write my name in the Death Note next to “forced to watch the Netflix adaptation of Death Note” to get me to tune into this monstrosity. At least it would be an imaginative cause of death.
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There is a whitewashing element from the East Asian side too: It’s hard for Asian Americans to get jobs teaching English in China, Korea, etc. because parents/students want someone visibly foreign. I imagine Japanese licensors wanted a white guy as the protag. Having said that, I would have insisted on more Chinese American and Japanese American secondary characters.