White Yagami

I doubt anyone here will be surprised to learn I was massively into the anime culture as a kid and as a teenager, to a lesser degree I still am a fan. A love of Japanese animation planted in my heart by Pokemon and Digimon flowered over the years with exposure to more and more examples of the medium – Full Metal Alchemist, Psycho-Pass, Attack on Titan – point is, I can translate your ‘otaku’ friend for you into English again with some modicum of success. A good manga/anime I had come across in my travels through his sub-culture was Death Note, perhaps one of the most-well known mangas of its generation, it certainly passes the lips of every manga lover I’ve ever met at least once in their list of past reads. If you don’t know about Death Note already, chances are you either vehemently hate all things anime or you’re about to learn of its existence, either through me, or the impending movie release…

Death Note is the story of a teenage boy, Light Yagami, who finds a magical notebook with the power to kill whoever he wishes, just by writing their name on its pages. He can decide the time of death, cause of death and basically any set of foreseeable circumstances surrounding his target’s demise and rather than use this power for petty personal reasons like striking down bullies or grudges, he thinks big, real big. How big? He makes himself judge, jury and executioner to every criminal he sees in the news, striking them down and declaring himself an anonymous angel of justice. Of course, this doesn’t go unnoticed and in comes Detective L, a bizarre little man that looks like Gollum wearing a wig and eating more sweets than even the greediest of children, set on working with the genius Light Yagami to track down this mass murdering ‘angel’. What ensues is a manga that revolves around a contest of wits, enough plot twists to make the plot thread a double helix of confusion and gratuitous amounts of cold-blooded supernatural murder. Death Note is a very popular anime, manga, collection of films and source of fan-fiction and now Warner Brothers wants their name on it, specifically in the form of a Westernised Death Note, complete with a white cast and more American based story. Is this what we want? Well here’s the thing about that…

Warner Brothers have let slip precious little at this stage of their plans but so far we know this – it’s not Japan, it’s America and the lead role will be played by Nat Wolff. Nat Wolff isn’t a dreadful choice, in fact to give credit to him, he doesn’t look dissimilar to Light’s appearance. However, whitewashing is never a good idea, it just doesn’t work, you offend the people whose culture you’re essentially saying “You won’t be as good a hook for this film as said white guy/girl” and fans get irked, fans appreciate the culture of their beloved franchises as much as they do the franchise itself. Whilst the Death Note story is nothing that could not be white-washed, though the shinigami element (multiple death gods, something our culture sort of lacks) will be hard to get around, just a bunch of Grim Reapers everywhere? Or ghosts? Or haphazardly sticking with Shinigami but not the name Light Yagami? I’ve yet to see a film get whitewashed and come out better – Avatar: Last Airbender, Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Dragonball Evolution (the absolute worst thing to ever claim it was based on an anime) – it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t, you make those responsible into laughing stocks and whoever was interested in it before loses it because you’ve flipped a bird at their heritage.

In an age where Captain America is black, Thor is a woman and Spiderman isn’t always a story of a nerd given extraordinary power, maybe you’re of the camp that if white characters can be made black, why not vice versa? Firstly, white characters are not given a different ethnicity if being white is key to their character history, which is why black or Asian or Hispanic characters don’t get turned white very well, something about their heritage is key to their character. Tonto is a Native American, make him a white guy in make up and that’s what we see, a white guy in make-up, playing a parody of the character through ‘spirit magic’ and ‘war cries’, stuff the original Tonto did not do, he was actually an equal to the Ranger, not his goofy sidekick wearing a silly hat. Why can Captain America be black? Captain America represents the symbol of patriotism, at the time that was the Aryan build of Blond White Straight Male but since then there have been Black American idols – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama – the black culture got the recognition it deserved as being just as much a part of American history as white culture so with that in mind, Cap can be black. Thor can be a woman because it is whoever is worthy, plus Norse mythology specifically mentions female warriors in Freya and the Valkyries, no upset there, except to the Mjolnir/Penis comparison. Light Yagami might not fall in these same categories but Death Note established itself in Japan, it found a Western audience who knew it as Japanese, the entire franchise is rooted in such an origin, doing it differently alienates the old fans.

I have to say this movie premise stinks of desperation and a failure to consider who they are making this film for. Asian audiences? Offended. Anime fans? There’s already a collection of comics and films, what good is this cut-rate reboot to them? The mainstream audience? Maybe, but that either means compromising on plot and character to make commercial slop that won’t stand out at the box office or making an intelligent film that people will look right past for being boring and convoluted. You can’t claim this will be good for the source material, none of the original writing staff are involved. The director looks to be Adam Wingard, known for such films as ‘VHS’ and ‘You’re Next’ so is this going to be a horror story? Will the message of the original carry across, laden with contempt for the failures of the justice system whilst making insightful commentary on the idea of what if God’s hand did interfere and the inability of man to play that role, how power corrupts and how frail genius truly is? Or are we to expect a film about a crazed psychopath with supernatural powers played up for kicks? So many questions, how many were asked and answered at the board meeting?

I can’t predict things with certainty but I don’t see this film working out, anime to live action is a hard thing to pull off and whitewashing the entire thing only serves as a shot in the foot before the race has begun. I hope, I pray even that this falls in the gutter with the likes of Dragonball Evolution and Mortal Kombat (Granted, an American creation but Raiden, a Japanese thunder god was played by a white guy… badly… really badly) because last thing I want to see is a new wave of Westernised animes. Rachel Mayers over Ryuko Matoi, Joey’s Bizarre Adventure, another botched up attempt to make Dragonball a Hollywood franchise, there are just some things that should never happen, some things even the film industry should leave alone.

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