Death Note remake producer speaks out against whitewashing complaints

Nat Wolff in the upcoming 'Death Note' (credit: Netflix)
Nat Wolff in the upcoming ‘Death Note’ (credit: Netflix)

Roy Lee, producer of Netflix’s upcoming ‘Death Note,’ has responded to accusations of whitewashing in the US remake of the Japanese property.

Created by writer/artist team Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, ‘Death Note’ began life as manga comic book centred on teenage male Light Yugami who finds a mysterious notebook which summons a demon to kill anyone whose name is written in it. It went on to spawn an anime cartoon series, and a live-action film franchise in its native Japan.

However, in this new take on ‘Death Note’ from director Adam Wingard (‘The Guest,’ ‘Blair Witch’), the character of Light is played by Nat Wolff, a Caucasian North American actor; which, in the wake of the controversy over recent big screen misfires ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘The Great Wall,’ has led to widespread accusations of whitewashing.

The irony is, producer Lee (himself an Asian-American, of Korean parentage) has worked on a number of high-profile US remakes of Asian properties, including ‘The Ring,’ ‘The Grudge’ and ‘The Departed’ – and, as he tells Buzzfeed, “this is the first time that I’ve been seeing negative press.”

Nat Wolff in 'Death Note' (Credit: Netflix)
Nat Wolff in ‘Death Note’ (Credit: Netflix)

Lee explains, “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.” This, notably, was the case with ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ which cast Scarlett Johansson in the lead.

However, as this adaptation transposes the action to the United States, Lee feels the whitewashing complaints are unfair – and, he contests, inaccurate. Whilst Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigam and Willem Defoe are white, Paul Nakauchi is Asian-American, and Keith Stanfield is African-American.

As such, Lee argues, “saying ‘whitewashing’ is kind of offensive.”

Of their new take on ‘Death Note,’ Lee says, “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.”

Naomi Watts in 2002's 'The Ring,' another US remake of a Japanese property (credit: Paramount)
Naomi Watts in 2002’s ‘The Ring,’ another US remake of a Japanese property (credit: Paramount)

Lee notes that his earlier production ‘The Ring’ did much the same thing, casting Naomi Watts in a role that was originally Japanese: “No one criticised it then… Maybe they should’ve or maybe they could’ve, [and] I just didn’t know about it.”

Of the flack ‘Death Note’ has received, the producer says, “People can criticize it, but I’d say that they should see the movie first. Then they could accuse us of not having a diverse enough cast … just judge the movie after it comes out.”

‘Death Note’ will be released on Netflix on 25 August.

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