Producer Roy Lee has spent years in Hollywood working on remakes of Asian films for audiences in the United States, like 2002's The Ring, 2004's The Grudge, and 2006's The Departed. But he had never encountered backlash like he did last month, when Death Note took center stage.
In March, a trailer for Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of the popular manga series of the same name made its debut. When fans saw Nat Wolff, a white actor, playing the protagonist, who is Japanese in the source material, Twitter erupted with rage. Some criticized Netflix and the film’s director, Adam Wingard, for whitewashing the Japanese story, likening it to Paramount Pictures’ treatment of Ghost in the Shell, which starred Scarlett Johansson. But others argued that as a remake, the film wasn’t an example of Asian erasure. It was a controversy Lee, who produced the film, had not anticipated.
“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 News at the office of his LA-based production company, Vertigo Entertainment.
To him, Death Note is not an example of whitewashing. “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,” he said. But that’s not the case.
The team behind Wingard’s adaptation of Death Note made some creative changes, adapting it for a “different culture,” since this version is set in Seattle, not Tokyo. The main character, Light Yagami, is now Light Turner, and his lovestruck accomplice, Misa Amane, has been renamed Mia Sutton (she's played by Margaret Qualley). Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, and Masi Oka round out the cast.
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“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.
It’s the same treatment that he gave the 2002 horror film The Ring (an adaptation of Hideo Nakata’s Ring), which is set in Washington state. Naomi Watts plays the lead, Rachel Keller, the journalist who uncovers the source of the videotape curse. There was no outcry from fans that the studio should have cast a Japanese or Japanese-American actor as the lead, who's named Reiko Asakawa in the original Japanese thriller. “No one criticized it then,” Lee said. “Maybe they should've or maybe they could've, [and] I just didn't know about it.”
But Lee said the recent debate over Hollywood whitewashing has not affected the way he works. “Whenever I pitch, I don't pitch with any specific actor in mind. I just pitch based on the actual core story and the quality of the screenplay,” he said, before asserting that Death Note does indeed feature a “diverse” cast.
Of the key actors (Wolff, Qualley, Stanfield, Dafoe, and Nakauchi), “one of them is Asian, one's African-American, and three are Caucasian,” Lee pointed out. “Saying 'whitewashing' is also somewhat offensive,” he added, since "one of our three leads is African-American.”
“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.”
Reporting by Eimi Yamamitsu.