A trend has been on the rise in Hollywood: taking an anime classic and making an unnecessary, westernised live action film out of it. This is not transnational or Asian-inspired cinema. This is not like Hong Kong action film inspired classics like The Matrix or Kill Bill. These films are blatantly taking a plot, already existing in the visual medium of animation (or anime, as the Japanese call it) and creating a whitewashed adaptation.
Let’s look at an example of the aforementioned trend. Let’s take a look at Netflix’s recent adaptation of Death Note. Adapted from Japanese manga series of the same title, the 2006 anime series became a world-renowned entry title into the world of Japanese animation for many. Death Note has had several TV and film adaptations in Japan since, as well as spin-offs. In the Netflix version, directed by Adam Wingard, the film featured Nat Wolff as Light and Lakeith Stanfield as L. These choices seem bizarre not only because they are untruthful to the ethnicity of the characters, but even more so because they erase the essence of these characters.
Light is meant to be a dashing genius, a perfect sociopath that can get away with anything he does; and he can get away with it because of his charm, looks, and intelligence. Nat Wolff, however, comes across as the awkward kid of the school at best. A black man with a healthy muscle mass, he does not have much in common with L’s signature pale, skinny, sleep-deprived look. L’s look is meant to be repulsive, intimidating, and this is not what Lakeith Stanfield’s look conveys. There have been countless reaction videos to these casting choices on YouTube before the release of the film and even a petition on Change.org against this casting.
The interesting part is that this whitewashed representation of the characters has lead Netflix’s version of Death Note to Americanise the entire story through a series of high school film cliches. Light becomes not only dorky looking but downright stupid. He gives away the secret of Death Note in a heartbeat, to attract a cheerleader of all things—a move that Light would never risk, let alone be attracted to. It pulls Light out of the mastermind of a series of intelligent murders and turns him into an epitome of the idle teenager. His nickname Kira (Killer) suddenly loses its grandeur and becomes a cheap invention of an unimaginative dude.
L, on the other hand, has to fulfil another task as his newly Americanised version. He is the guy helping us solve the crimes, so suddenly he needs to be the righteous, emotional protector of law with a strong sense of duty. This is a huge departure from the original character of L, who can be described as mostly unemotional, awkward, and working like a clock. L solves crimes because he likes the stimuli to his brain, not because of any other reason. Because the appeal of Death Note, the anime, largely lies in witnessing the epic cat and mouse game between Light and L, erasing their identities has also erased the main appeal of the film itself. The story was not just lost but entirely destroyed in translation.
Here is a higher profile example: Ghost in the Shell. There has been controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major from the very beginning. The whitewashing of yet another Asian story was criticised both by Asian-American actresses and YouTube stars, even making its way onto BBC Trending news.
Ghost in the Shell film shares a further problem with Netflix’s Death Note adaptation. The whitewashing doesn’t end with the appearance of the characters but extends itself to their characteristics. For example, in the film version, Major is conveniently renamed as Mira Killian and finds out she used to be Motoko Kusanagi in another life. She discovers this initially through “the glitches” in her human brain put into her cybernetic body, which later come out to be her memories of a previous life. She is driven by her desire to find out who she was. Whereas, the original anime had a much darker premise.
In the original anime, Major one day just wonders if she has a ghost (a soul) in her shell (cybernetic body) because she happens to be one of the first and only people entirely built as a cyborg. This leads her to an identity crisis and draws her to Kuzo. Unlike humans, she seems to have no origins. No beginning and no end, and this is what makes the story so powerfully depressive.
The Americanised film version, of course, could not handle the idea of a body without a soul. The team behind the adaptation seems to have decided that it was too dark and complex for the American mass. So they decided to make it clear that Major, in fact, has a human brain (and therefore a soul), and they even went further to make an entire sequence out of her past life, just so it’s clear where she came from.
This has caused Ghost in the Shell to lose the central tension of Major’s crisis and even the very meaning of its own title. For why have a crisis about not having a “ghost”, if you clearly have one. The grandeur and complexity of contemplating about what makes us human and the human soul was suddenly reduced down to a story about the origins of a woman with amnesia. Once again, we witnessed everything that was great about the story of Ghost in the Shell get destroyed in the process of adaptation.
Interestingly enough, there are plenty of Western stories out there that do not present such challenges. For example, the recent Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, draws on the Hollywood tradition of film noir, as well as the newer tradition of the Mind Game film. It has the same cybernetic themes and aesthetic of Ghost in the Shell, but touches upon similar themes such as privacy, identity and the existence of a soul, without having to define technology as something oriental and alien to its Western audiences. Why then does Hollywood keep jumping on making film adaptations of anime with inherently foreign storylines?
In the process of Western adaptation, the Japanese roots of anime become not only misrepresented but completely erased. In failing to represent a race, the studios are failing to represent a character, not only by external looks but also by internal tensions. When these tensions are erased, the essence of these characters’ stories is lost, too; and when you lose the essence of the story, you lose its target audience.
The industry needs to start taking some risks to truly expand its cultural horizons and provide true diverse representation. Otherwise, their whitewashed productions will keep failing, just like Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Death Note (2017) did. Perhaps the key lies in not trying to appeal to the masses at the expense of the source material, but rather in staying truthful and opening up opportunities to minorities and directors ready to work with new ways of storytelling.