On Tuesday, word began circulating that the American film adaptation of Death Note, a wildly popular Japanese manga and anime series, has found the actor it wants to play Light Yagami, the deranged teenage antihero who finds a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone he desires, as long as he know the victim’s name and face. That actor is Nat Wolff, the talented and magnetic star of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. This should have been wonderful news.
Instead, fans of the series—and of anime in general—emitted a now well-rehearsed, weary sigh of disappointment (and a couple of groan-worthy “White Kagami” jokes on Twitter). It’s the same thing that happened when news broke that America’s big-screen adaptation of Akira, Japan’s landmark 1988 post-apocalyptic movie, would star Garret Hedlund and Kristen Stewart (it has since been shelved). It happened again when Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie.
It happens every time a beloved Japanese or East Asian-influenced animated work filters its way through Hollywood studios, producing a live-action American version where “American” is taken to mean “white.”
This is nothing new, of course—rewriting Asian stories to fit an American narrative has yielded film treasures like The Magnificent Seven, an Old West cowboy retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai. (The 1960 classic is now due for its own retelling next year, this time including Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.) Even Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning gangster saga The Departed was a remake of the excellent 2002 Hong Kong crime-thriller Infernal Affairs.
But more often than not, the story is taken cut-and-paste style, keeping its fantasy setting and context, and substituting white faces for Asian ones. The results have mostly been stinkers like Dragonball Evolution, which tried passing Justin Chatwin off as Goku, and Speed Racer, which starred Emile Hirsch as the titular character. Even Avatar: The Last Airbender, an American-produced Nickelodeon cartoon series that happened to star Inuit and East Asian-influenced characters, gave all but one of its main roles to white actors in M. Knight Shyamalan’s critically maligned 2010 live-action version. Casting missteps was just one of many issues plaguing these movies, but the extra inauthenticity sure didn’t help.
But they’re just cartoons, right? What’s the harm?
The simple answer is that all-white castings of Asian remakes subtract that many roles from the already scant number available to Asian actors. While incremental progress has been made over the past few years, minorities still accounted for fewer than 16.7 percent of leading roles in 174 American films released in 2013, according to a comprehensive report by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. By contrast, minorities now make up close to 40 percent of the U.S. population—and Asians in particular will make up 14 percent of America as soon as 2055, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
In 1965, five years after The Magnificent Seven’s release, Asians were just 1 percent of the population. Turning a cast of Japanese-speaking samurai into gun-toting, white cowboys wasn’t just an exciting creative move, it was a savvy business decision. But now here we are, 50 years later with a very different-looking America—making Hollywood’s perennial reluctance to have Asian actors lead films based on Asian stories seem woefully short-sighted.
The global market for major studio films like Death Note, which is being made by Warner Bros., would also seem to testify in favor of minority actors. Movie ticket revenue in the U.S. and Canada went down 5 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone; but internationally, it increased 4 percent in the same time period, according to a report on theatrical market statistics by the MPAA.
China and Japan, unsurprisingly, were the top two international box office markets in 2014, grossing a combined $6.8 billion—so no one can say they had the global market in mind while casting a non-Asian Light Yagami, either.
So the conundrum remains: America changes, yet Hollywood stays stagnant—especially when compared to the small screen, where minority-led, critically acclaimed TV shows (including one led by Asian-Americans, Fresh Off the Boat) are on the rise. No surprise then that it was the Emmys where this year’s greatest rallying cry for onscreen diversity took place, in Viola Davis’s rousing, tear-inducing speech, when she reminded viewers that actors can’t win awards for roles that are simply not there.