Casting of ‘Death Note’ Adaptation Questioned

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In a scene from “Death Note,” Light (Nat Wolff, right) is confronted by L (Lakeith Stanfield). (Netflix)

Asian American media watchdogs are questioning the casting in “Death Note,” a horror-fantasy film based on the Japanese manga of the same name, which was released on Netflix on Aug. 25.

Created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the popular manga is about a high school student who comes across a supernatural notebook and realizes that it holds within it a great power — if the owner inscribes someone’s name while picturing that person’s face, he or she will die. Intoxicated with his new godlike abilities, the young man begins to kill those he deems unworthy of life.

Both animated and live-action adaptations have been produced in Japan.

In the Netflix movie, set in Seattle, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) comes across the notebook and decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective (Lakeith Stanfield) known only by the alias L. The cast also includes Margaret Qulley as Light’s love interest, Mia Sutton; Shea Whigham as James Turner, Light’s father and a police officer; Jason Liles and Willem Dafoe (voice) as Ryuk, the death god; and Paul Nakauchi as L’s assistant, Watari.

Wolff is a musician and actor whose film credits include “Paper Towns,” “Admission,” “Behaving Badly,” “Palo Alto,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Ashby.” Stanfield is a rapper and actor whose film credits include “Short Term 12,” “The Purge: Anarchy,” “Selma,” “Dope,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Snowden” and “Get Out.”

The director is Adam Wingard, whose credits include “The Guest” and “Blair Witch” and who will direct “Godzilla vs. Kong” for release in 2020.

One of the producers is Masi Oka, known for his TV roles in “Heroes” and “Hawaii Five-0,” who recently caused a stir by suggesting that he could not find an Asian actor who spoke English well enough to play the lead. Critics responded that there are plenty of Asian American actors who speak perfect English.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, Oka said that he was misquoted and taken out of context: “I meant specifically Asians, actors from Asia who don’t speak English as their first language … I made the assumption that people would understand I was going outside of the United States to make it more of a global franchise … I made it a mission myself to go to Japan and audition a lot of Asian actors — specifically Japanese actors and some Korean and Chinese actors …

“And I’m not saying Asians can’t play Asian Americans, or Asian Americans can’t play Asians. It’s not about that. It’s just that I specifically wanted to open it up to make it a global property.”

Light Yagami in the animated version of “Death Note.”

Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), said, “Unfortunately, producer Roy Lee (who’s Korean American) has been doing this for 15 years: buying the rights to Japanese and Korean properties and leaving out Asian Americans in the U.S. film versions.

“Masi Oka really stuck his foot in his mouth when he told Entertainment Weekly they auditioned Asian actors in Asian countries for roles but couldn’t find those who could speak ‘the perfect English,’ which in itself, ironically, is not ‘perfect English.’ What about the Asian Americans they auditioned? They weren’t good enough? Their English wasn’t understandable?

“The filmmakers say they wanted to reflect the population of Seattle, which is 14 percent Asian, yet they hired only one Asian American actor in a significant role and three black actors when blacks make up less than 8 percent of the city’s population. Oka said the studio insisted on there being Asian actors in the film, yet the filmmakers still only gave one Asian a significant part in it.”

Buzzfeed reported, “Oka acknowledged that it is harder for Asians and Asian Americans hoping to break out in Hollywood. ‘I’m Asian. I know how hard it is. I want to give back to the community. There are things I can do and can’t do. [But] as long as film is a collaborative process, I’ll fight. I’m always going to fight on behalf of my brothers and sisters.’”

Said Aoki, “Well, if this is the result, we can’t count on him in the future.

“Many reviews say the new film dispenses with the psychological horror of the original to concentrate on the physical gore of the killing of targets. Some felt the producers weren’t even realistic when they used a black protagonist hunting a white suspect, ignoring the way a black man with a gun chasing a white man would be treated. It’s like they tried to be so ‘color-blind’ that they were ignorant to racial context in the U.S.”

After watching the film, MANAA Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan reported, “It feels kind of like a B-grade effort by Netflix.

“There are few opportunities for Asian Americans in films, and to have a movie based on a Japanese manga not include enough Asian Americans in significant roles is a lost opportunity and makes the project inauthentic to its source material.

“In ‘Death Note,’ the high school scenes seemed more like they were shot in a Midwest high school instead of Seattle. There was no diversity even in the movie’s depiction of the city. Actors playing students in the background of the high school did not require ‘perfect English.’”

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