By: Matthew Silkin  | 

How White was My Movie: A Look at Whitewashing in Film

I was reading through some of the plot synopses for upcoming movies this year when one of them caught my eye as adapting something I had recently watched. The plot, without spoilers, reads as follows:

“A high school prodigy finds a book in the street one day. This book happens to belong to the God of Death, who decided to drop it in the human world out of sheer boredom. The rules for using the book, as reiterated in the inside cover, are that if you know someone’s name and face, you can write their name in the book and they will instantly die. The high schooler uses the book to kill off criminals and other people he finds undesirable, while being tracked down by Interpol’s best detective.”

The movie, if you haven’t guessed it already, is an adaptation of the hit manga and anime series Death Note, created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. There is, however, one difference between the Japanese original and the American adaptation that I find a little baffling: Light Yagami, the protagonist of the manga, has been changed to Light Turner for Western audiences. And he’s not the only character with this bizarre change in ethnicity - his father, Soichiro Yagami, is now James Turner, and pop idol and love interest Misa Amane is instead Mia Sutton. And while there’s not a lot that Hollywood can do to Americanize a shinigami (Japanese mythological death god) named Ryuk, they did get the voice of Willem Dafoe for the character, instead of having someone of Japanese descent provide voice work.

This, surprisingly enough, isn’t the only offender of whitewashing in the past few years. 2017 also brings us an American adaptation of the 1995 Japanese animated movie Ghost in the Shell, starring noticeably not-Japanese actress Scarlett Johansson as The Major, the cyborg leader of an anti-terrorism squad. And last year’s Doctor Strange drew ire when it cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character who in the comics is portrayed as Tibetan.

Do not take this article to mean that I do not think the actors I listed above are incapable of acting. Scarlett Johansson and Willem Dafoe have both proven themselves to be fine actors, and Tilda Swinton has, in the past, been nominated for many major awards, including winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Michael Clayton. What I have been seeing, though, and what I do want to point out, is that all of these actors are white, portraying characters of different ethnic backgrounds - specifically, in the case of those films referenced in this article, East Asian. The angry comments on the Internet following each of these casting announcements would have you think that this is a bigger problem than it is, but it still is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The goal of American movie studios is, first and foremost, to make a profit. They are businesses, after all; their product just happens to be anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours long and a good excuse for movie theaters to overcharge for everything associated with them, but I digress. The logic of the studio is that the consumer will only come see the movie if they recognize the talent behind that movie, regardless of the other aspects of the movie, such as the story. This is why Michael Bay’s name, with all the CGI exploding nonsense that comes with it, still rakes in money, even though his movies are mediocre at best. This is also (partly) why the producers of Doctor Strange went with the Celtic background for their portrayal of the Ancient One, rather than keep the Tibetan aspect and aggravate the nasty dragon that is China in the process. And this is why we are seeing an American actress star as a Japanese cyborg, rather than an up-and-coming Japanese actress.

Oddly enough, this phenomenon has been happening the other way around as well. A 2015 Japanese live action adaptation of the manga series Attack on Titan received some criticism for casting Japanese people into the roles of German characters Eren Jaeger and Armin Arlert, and moving the setting of the movie from what was ostensibly Germany - or at least Western Europe - in the manga and anime, to Japan in the live action film.

But what I really wanted to bring to the spotlight is the whitewashing in the Death Note adaptation. Why was this done? Do producers think that people will refuse to watch something that isn’t remotely connected to America or the West? What’s the creative advantage to moving a story about shinigami, an inherently Japanese concept, from Japan to the USA? What’s the point in further changing the names of the Japanese characters to English ones? Of course, the name Light doesn’t make that much sense in the original work, but a name like Light Yagami makes (marginally) more sense than Light Turner!

And if you would think that this is the first instance of whitewashing ever in movies, you would be mistaken. Among other things, the 2009 film Dragonball Evolution, an American adaptation of the classic manga series Dragon Ball, was derided for the casting of American actor Justin Chatwin as the part of protagonist Goku. The American licensing company 4Kids Entertainment made a name for themselves in the 1990s by dubbing anime in English from the original Japanese, but was infamous for making cultural changes in the process - rice balls became jelly doughnuts in Pokemon, and the characters Katsuya Jonouchi, Hiroto Honda, and Anzu Mazaki from Yu-Gi-Oh! became Joey Wheeler, Tristan Taylor, and Téa Gardner, respectively. Perhaps a little more egregiously, DIC Entertainment - another company responsible for bringing anime to the West in the 90s - heavily censored the show Sailor Moon in their broadcast by editing out any violence in the show, and implying that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, two characters who were homosexual in the original Japanese broadcast, were actually cousins (as if it makes any scene with them together more wholesome, somehow).

Even outside the realm of adaptations of foreign IPs, there has always been a problem of whitewashing. Going back to 1961, the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s - which won two Oscars - has been taken to task for casting the late Mickey Rooney, a white American comedian, in the role of Japanese photographer I. Y. Yunioshi. In 1956’s The Ten Commandments, the notably not-Middle Eastern Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner were hired to play Moses and Ramses II.

Am I asking for a solution to whitewashing? Well, I and the rest of the world can suggest to hire actors whose ethnicities match the characters, but that’s beyond moot at this point. Directors will always hire who they believe to be the best actor for the role, all issues of race aside. But ultimately, from the innocent changing of Japanese characters to white ones, to the egregious censorship of the adaptation, each offense in this article stems from a lack of respect to the source material by the people bringing the adaptation. There is a reason why the original was beloved enough to warrant the market for adaptation, and changing any of that for cosmetic or marketing reasons is, at best, unforgivable.

I doubt this article will reach the ears of the Hollywood executives who need to hear it, so I will instead charge us, the future of the creative market - show respect to an original work. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And maybe one day, we might see adaptations that actually hold up to the bar set by their predecessors.